The power of repeated listening

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When I first listened to the album Funeral by Arcade Fire, shortly after it came out in the fall of 2004, I was disconcerted by what I thought I heard. I didn't know what to make of a band with what sounded to me like maniacal and/or out-of-tune singers singing disjointed songs that could not seem to settle on either a style or an intent. After one listen, the only thing I thought I knew for sure was that I didn't much like it. 

Which was discouraging since I had been reading great things about the record, from trusted sources. Such great things, in fact, that I had actually gone and bought it without having heard it at all (what we used to call, jokingly, "sight unheard"). This was 2004; still kind of the old days when it came to easy opportunities to listen to albums before you bought them. All that was soon to change. But the upshot was, I had paid good money for the Funeral CD. I didn't feel as if I could just toss it aside. So I listened to it again, and then again. Something in a few of the songs began to make sense to me. By the third or fourth listen, I realised something strange: I actually liked the album. A lot. By December, I would place Funeral at the top of the list of my favourite albums of the year. At decade's end, I would put it likewise on my list of favourite albums of the '00s.

This was a particularly notable example of a relatively common phenomenon for me. The way music works inside my head and heart and soul, songs don't always penetrate coherently after just one listen, or two, albums even less so. Sometimes I need to listen repeatedly.

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This is a tricky thing to manage in our digital age, when music accumulates without effort, and when the acts of shuffling and skipping and tweeting and "liking" aid and abet snap judgments rather than the kind of purposeful and patient open-mindedness required to know one wants to listen a few more times. Thumbs up or thumbs down is all we're encouraged to say, as quickly as possible, because there are so many more things requiring our immediate assessment. 

Here then, in 2013, is the truly revolutionary statement: "I don't like this, but I would like to listen again." Or, "I'm not sure what I think about this, but I'd like to spend more time listening." I haven't seen a button for either of these things on Facebook yet.

It's not like we don't have a "repeat" function available; most of our devices and/or music listening services are happy to provide one. But it seems that today's listeners are generally inclined to use the repeat button more as glutton than epicure---we gorge ourselves on immediately desirable objects (typically, individual songs) rather than seeking and exploring larger works with curiosity and discernment. I'm all for the abundant consumption of music, don't get me wrong. I just feel for myself that the rewards of mindful exploration are worth noting and pursuing, all the more so in an era characterized by endless choice and sensory overload.

(Note that by repeated listening I am not referring to listening over and over in one sitting. Not at all. I just mean taking the time to listen to the whole thing, any number of different times.)

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Some of the power of repeated listening no doubt relates to the straightforward pleasure familiar music can bring. Studies done in recent years have demonstrated that the brain releases dopamine in anticipation of favourite moments in a familiar song. And I think most music fans would agree that it's easier to enjoy a song one already knows than a song heard for the first time, as concert experiences have long illustrated.

Obviously, the only way music can become familiar is to be listened to a certain number of times.

But even if it makes sense that listening to an album repeatedly will increase the chance that we will like it, this does not guarantee that everything we hear repeatedly is going to become a favourite. Neither, on the flip side, does it mean that we can't like music that we're hearing for the first time---obviously this is also possible. So there's still an element of mystery about the process.

To begin with, there's the mystery of being quiet and present with something. When arriving simply to listen, the mind is almost magically emptied of its distorting tendency to make lightning-quick moment-to-moment judgments. It's not often in this world that one can successfully suspend judgment and just be present, but the act of listening to a full album three or more times can rather nudge you without resistance into that state of grace.

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Likewise, the noisy, conventional-wisdom assertions of the online hive mind become irrelevant if you yourself are investing time and energy in actual discovery. In this circumstance, you don't need to know what "everyone else" thinks. You yourself now seek to get to know this new music in a direct and meaningful way.

At which point a paradox now emerges, which is that repeated listening means getting more familiar with a particular piece of music on the one hand and yet, on the other hand, encountering things as you continue to listen that you simply did not hear the first couple of times---guitar solos overlooked, melodic interrelations that become clear, vocal phrasing initially unnoticed, and so forth. So that even as we are gaining familiarity we are encountering the new.

And doesn't listening repeatedly, with intent, to an entire album, actually make some odd kind of sense when facing a world of maximal choice, of continual digital onslaught?

We have yet, I think, to come to terms as a culture with the effectual infinity of the digital realm. We see all these options---all these links and pages and files and torrents---and get fooled into thinking there is something finite here that we can manage rather than something infinite that we have to surrender to. When you had a record collection of 300 vinyl albums, you could slow down and pay repeated attention; the boundaries were clear. When you can effectively access almost every song ever recorded, it's easy to get a little crazed. There's always more, and more. It takes quite the conscious effort to discover in this environment the beauty of spending a bit more time with some of the things we are in fact listening to, regardless of how much else there yet is.

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And I may be old-fashioned, but I find that spending actual money on music helps motivate repeated listening. I recently picked up a copy of the new Iron and Wine album, Ghost on Ghost---not merely a CD but an actual vinyl record. This was the first vinyl record I've purchased since the late '80s. It wasn't cheap. I bought it because I suddenly decided I wanted to buy a vinyl record again. I have previously enjoyed Iron and Wine albums, I heard one song from the new one that I liked, so I thought, what the heck, I'd just go and buy it.

Upon first listen, I liked the first track or two, felt it lagged a bit after that, picking up when the previously heard single came around, and then kind of fading into sounding-the-same-ness for a lot of the rest of it. But I'm not concerned. I've got a lot of listening yet to do.

4 Comments

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This is brilliant. I would add that even really knowing 300 albums is a challenge. Just because everything is available and therefore the urge that we should acquire everything says a lot about our consumer passion, but actual listening takes time and to really know and to have experienced, 25 jazz albums, for example, is far more important than a 6000 track playlist. It takes time to listen, hours in fact.

Also agree that purchasing the music enhances the listening experience or the "focus".

Great post, Jeremy, and exactly how I've been feeling about music lately. Some of the ideas you're expressing about the infinite "always on" experience of the net are explored in Douglas Rushkoff's book "Present Shock", which I'd highly recommend a sit down with.

I think there's a tendency to think that we need to consume quickly in order to just keep up, which is too bad, because as you say, there are great rewards in just being present with something - anything, really. Thanks for the post!

Well said. It's difficult to become a fluent listener to any style of music without really immersing yourself in it. I believe, however, that with the giant smorgasbord of music available on the internet, one can still get a lot of good of what's available if one grazes mindfully, perhaps listening to a single track a couple of times in a sitting. Than you can try something else and eventually circle back as you browse day by day.
When I look back at so many of my favorite recordings, they are the ones that I didn't get or didn't like at all on first listen. Would I have fallen in love with these artists had I grown up in the 2010s? I'd like to hope so. I see a challenge, but also an opportunity in the wide variety of sounds at our fingertips.

This is absolutely great post to read . I am really a passionate about music and today from i have fallen in love again with 2011's albums..

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