Thursday, August 28, 2014

Is Being Both a Music Fan and a Musician a Blessing or a Curse?



It will be obvious to anyone who regularly reads this blog, let alone my family and friends, that music is a HUGE part of my life.  It's been a running joke for as long as I can remember that, whenever I can, I have to be listening to music. Whether it's at home, in the car, or at my desk at work with earphones, I like to listen to music as often and as much as possible. Besides being a massive music fan, which entails listening to it, collecting it, going to concerts, and reading and writing about it (hence this very blog), I'm also a musician myself. It's this duality of creator and consumer of music that has shaped who I am and planted the seed in my mind for the following article.

I'd always had an interest in playing music, and when I was ten years old I began playing both guitar and trumpet. The trumpet had been my dad's from when he was in high school and I started playing in the school band and taking lessons. At the same time, I had been mucking about with an old Yamaha classical guitar my mum had and I took a handful of lessons at the local music store. However, while I learned to read music and took serious and structured lessons on the trumpet, I stopped guitar lessons after a few months and instead bought a chord book and started teaching myself how to play by listening to my favorite records, learning by playing along to them. These were great years because I was able to play trumpet from the age of ten until I was in my early twenties, playing in the school concert and jazz bands all the way to the end of high school; I also auditioned for and was accepted into the local university symphonic band, which I played in for my last two years of high school.  I played a bit more until my college studies became too time consuming for me to continue, although I still have my trumpet and pull it out of its case every now and then to play a tune.  As for guitar, I literally could not put it down once I started progressing in my playing.  I saved up money to buy a cheap electric guitar and amp, and eventually managed to buy a better guitar (Gibson SG) and legitimate amp (Marshall). By the time I finished college, I had amassed several guitars (the SG, a Fender USA Stratocaster, a Fender 1952 Reissue Telecaster, a Gibson Les Paul Standard, an Epiphone Sheraton), and a gorgeous sounding Marshall 1962 Bluesbreaker tube amp. I also had a huge array of effects pedals, from my prized Vox wah-wah to an Ibanez tube screamer and various flangers, phasers, compressors, chorus, and Uni-Vibe boxes. I started to write songs and played in a few bands, my most serious one being the final line-up (with my brother Alex on bass guitar and our friend Theo on drums). We recorded a bunch of stuff in our makeshift basement studio and played a bunch of gigs until we had to stop due to lack of free time (college again!) around 2001.  Since then, I've pared down my gear due to lack of space (although I do regret parting with all that gear now!) and I've focused solely on writing and recording albums of my songs by myself, playing all of the instruments and doing all of the production myself. It's been very fun, although I haven't had a chance to make an album since 2011, but I hope to rectify that soon. Eventually, as my kids get older and some time frees up in my life, I hope to get into a band again and play with other musicians and even get back on stage as I always loved playing in front of an audience.

I realize that was a long lead-in! The whole point of it all was to set the stage for the crux of this article which follows.  As you can see, music is probably, other than my faith and my family, the biggest thing in my life, even bigger than my beloved Boston sports teams.  Taking all of this into account, I was inspired by a recent thread conversation on the Steve Hoffman Music Forums that I frequent.  I was involved in a discussion about how being a musician affects how you listen to music as a fan. Someone had posed the question "do you listen to music differently if you're also a musician?" and there were responses by both musicians and non-musicians. It stuck in my head for weeks after and got me thinking enough about it that I decided to write about it and make it the focal point of the article you're now reading; instead of telling you how I answered this question in the thread, I've expanded upon it below.

So is being a music fan and a musician both good and bad? Is it a blessing or a curse?  I think it's both, and I'll try to explain why I think so...first, why might it be blessing?  I think that any serious fan of music who listens to it and appreciates will develop a deep understanding of why they enjoy it and what makes it good, both in terms of the structure and the musicianship. This will happen regardless of whether they have the talent and ability to play a musical instrument.  And clearly just about everyone who is a musician has a deep love of music...otherwise, there would be no reason for them to dedicate long hours to the mastery of their talent!  However, it is my belief, based on personal experience as well as discussions with others who are in the same situation, that being a musician enables one to have a deeper and more fundamental understanding of the music, leading to a greater understanding and appreciation of it. It's certainly not meant to imply that one cannot have a deep understanding or appreciation if they don't play music themselves, but rather that it's more difficult to do so.  Beyond the pure enjoyment derived from listening to good music, I find that I'm able to understand and appreciate it on a more profound level because within it I can hear what went into creating it, from the songwriting and arranging, to the musicianship (including the skill and different techniques involved), the equipment used (guitars, drums, amps, effects, etc) and production.  Having many years of experience in all of these areas myself, I liken it to an painter standing in front of an artwork and mentally dissecting all of the different techniques, shades, colors, and materials that went into its painting it.  In this way, and at the risk of sounding overly pretentious or haughty, I find that I appreciate it not only on a technical level in terms of how it was created, but also the layers underneath what is actually heard upon first listen. Things like the chord changes, harmonies, interesting variations in timing and time signature, and more are all examples of things that my brain processes as I'm listening to a song (unless I have it on merely as background music). There are many things like this that are completely obvious to me, yet when I listen to and discuss music with someone who isn't a musician, even if they've listened to it as much as I have, they usually tell me that they have no idea of what I'm describing; usually, they say that until I pointed it out, they never noticed it, which shows me that the training of being a musician really does make a difference in how one listens to and processes music in the brain.

That all sounds well and good, so you may be asking why could it also be considered a curse? On balance, and this is only speaking from personal experience, I find it to be a blessing for all of the reasons I listed above. Still, there are times when music could be approached with an open mind, open ears, and nothing else. No preconceived notions, no inclination to dissect everything I listen to and strip away the parts, and no need to always focus on the production or other minutiae...basically a cessation of how much I tend to overthink it.  There are many times when I wish I could just LISTEN to music and take it just for what it is.  Before I get too carried away here, I should say that there are many times where I do simply "turn off my mind, relax, and float downstream" as a great man once sang...



...but these tend to be during times when music is either on in the background or I'm doing something else at the same time. It does depend on what I'm doing when listening to music...if I'm writing and listening (such as this very moment), my engagement with the music is still high, but if I'm exercising while listening, then it's not.  When I truly pay attention and listen to music, I find it impossible to just approach it as a tune and nothing more. The vast majority of the time, it's fine and, as stated above, it honestly makes me appreciate the ability to mentally process it from that perspective. However, there are times when it can be a hindrance; this is usually when I'm listening to or discussing music with friends or family members who aren't musically inclined. I tend to be quite snobby and judgmental anyway when it comes to music, and while I'll acknowledge that a large part of the reason why has more to do with how important it all is to me, I do also know that a lot of it is due to my background as a musician. I don't always have to listen to technically complicated or extremely sophisticated music (for instance, I'm a huge fan of Husker Du and the Pixies, noisy and lo-fi bands who still wrote catchy songs swathed in layers of noise), but I do like there to be some discernible talent and melody underneath everything.  Anything that sounds too cliched, specifically commercial, or flat-out derivative and boring will bear the brunt of my scorn. Usually, I'm fine with this, but I do have a hard time just enjoying a piece of harmless fluff for what it is (with exceptions, of course).

None of this takes any of the joy out of music for me, and on the contrary it's one of the reasons why I feel that I have a pretty eclectic aural palette of tastes. I enjoy old school blues and jazz (mainly big band and bebop jazz, but also some more modern jazz).  Of course, I'm a massive rock music fan, with tastes from the Beatles, Who, Hendrix, etc to Frank Zappa, R.E.M., the Smiths, Blur, and everything in between. I enjoy classical music, some bits of rap and hip-hop (mainly from the 1980s and early 1990s), and there are many guilty pleasure one-hit wonder singles (that I'm embarrassed to admit I like!) from every decade.  While I'm not as heavily into folk, country, the massively popular country-pop music of today, or electronic/trance music, I can appreciate elements of them all, and it's quite enjoyable to listen to all of these different types of music, hear the commonalities between them all, and pick out elements of each when they're woven into something new and different by the countless artists that I enjoy listening to. On balance, being a musician and having a deep understanding of music, being able to read, write, and play music, has enhanced my appreciation and enjoyment of this incredible art form.  While there may be some minor drawbacks to it, overall I wouldn't change any of it.  So, in answering the question "is being both a music fan and a musician a blessing or a curse?" my answer is that, overwhelmingly, it's a blessing!

I know there are many more hardcore music fans who are also musicians...what do you think? What are the positives and negatives of it in your own appreciation and enjoyment of music?   

6 comments:

  1. Well, music is a blessing regardless or any way you look at it. I've never really considered myself much of a musician, although play guitar & used to have an Arp Odyssey (but have fallen out of the practice), played with other musicians, and recorded a small bits of original music. I got rid of my Odyssey when I move, wish I never had even though, it didn't work and needed work on it to get it playable again. I'd like to have another synth, but I digress.

    Playing original music may be the curse part. When trying to play with others is a unique thing. On one hand it is fun for the most part, but can be also frustrating. For one, you sort have to have a meeting of the minds on what you want to play, and the goals (if any), etc., and that varies a lot. If you are just sitting around drinking a few beers and jamming that's one thing, and that can be fun. But if you try to put together a song, that gets a bit more serious, and can exclude some musicians. Some players just want to play cover songs, which can be fun, and a great warm up. But I never wanted to just be a jukebox and mimic other bands. I wanted to play original stuff. What's a bit worse, is my taste in music or what I really love is a bit more complex and complicated than the average joe, so that just adds to the problem (even for me, as I'm not that great a musician).

    I love progressive music a lot, and a lot of that requires a lot more musical prowess than I have, but also on the part of the musicians you play with. Plus each musician has a different way they perceive putting a song together. Some just want to jam until something forms, others actually write down lyrics beforehand, some add lyrics later, some may have a song fully formed in there heads, or have a song already worked out so the other musicians just have to add their parts or enhance the song being played. It's sort of a crap shoot, you never know. That's why I'm so amazed at times at how great some bands are. They walk out on stage and it just all fits and it's amazing! Either way, I still say music is a blessing, even if I don't play much these days, just listening to it makes my day.

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  2. Good point about original music...maybe THAT'S the bit that causes me (mostly) additional enjoyment but also occasional consternation when critiquing new music I listen to. Although, it could also just be a case of getting older and being in the "I like what I like" trap...who knows?

    You know, now that you've reminded me of how it is when you're in a band, maybe I *don't* want to get back in one again! (just kidding!)

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  3. I haven't seen the downside myself: I'm in a good position as I play and understand music well enough to enjoy it for myself and to appreciate the skill of a great composition or performance by someone else, and even to think like a musician which has helped me when collaborating on music videos to "get" what the musicians are trying to achieve, while I don't have any illusions about being a great musician myself.

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    1. Cool, Gene! I'm with you, 99% of the time I think it's great and very beneficial. It's only those times when I feel like I'm over-analyzing something that I wish I could "turn it off" and just enjoy it for what it is. Luckily, those moments tend to be few and far between.

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  4. I appreciated your article, excellently written. We also live by music and you are right, it is both a blessing and a curse. Some of my family members are professionals, but in the classical ‘purist’ sense. The upside is that I have been exposed to an array of styles. On the other hand music that I thoroughly enjoy is sometimes heavily criticized. Try comparing Vivaldi with Queen and you get the picture. Sometimes music should just be absorbed. Regardless it has taught me an appreciation for the talent and intricacies that go into the art. Perhaps music, food and writing have this in common – sometimes the simple is filling and at other times we need the complicated.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words about the articles! And what you said...perfect. You took the words right out of my brain. I'm with you, too, the appreciation you get for understanding what went into the creation of the art is not only really enjoyable, but really does allow for "getting it" on a deeper level.

      What do you play? And for how long?

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