Hearing into the music

July 15, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

One of the smartest and most experienced HiFi fanatics I know is my good friend, John Hunter of REL subs.

In response to one of my recent posts about musicians, John wrote to me what I consider a beautifully crafted lesson in the art of listening. It bears repeating.

"Hi Paul,

I once dated, briefly, a French horn player for the San Francisco Symphony.
She had great ears and quickly grew to love high end audio. She brought some of her fellow musicians over to our store in Berkeley (DB Audio) a couple of times trying to expose them to what she had fallen in love with. It never took. Watching them and their reactions, I quickly understood why. For them, the performance (musical, not audio quality) was all that mattered. They were listening carefully for their part being played and if they could follow it through the system what else mattered?
I did this myself early in my guitar playing  career, playing along endlessly to tons of rock records, memorizing great solos. etc. But it was my older brother who sat me down one night when I was 12 and asked me "How many guitars are playing right now?” I didn’t understand the question; I was a lead guitar player, it was easy to hear “my” part. That night he put on recording after recording and it gradually emerged out of the murk of a mid-‘70s low Rez system (a Sansui all-tube receiver feeding Wharfedale sand-filled speakers and a Dual 1015 turntable if I remember correctly). Slowly I picked out the rhythm guitar, wait, no 3 rhythm guitar tracks. One was tuned differently and I later learned from my friend Joel Bernstein who was an all-everything to many of rock’s greatest acts that I was hearing a high tone guitar--a regular guitar tuned with the high strings a 5th higher that gave a wonderful, jangly, sparkly effect.
What I started to learn that night helped me learn to hear into the mix, dissect what I was hearing and without realizing it, put me onto the path of listening acuity that has defined my career in audio. If your readers don’t already know how to do so, pick out a particular instrument they love and start listening, first for their favorite and then for those instruments that seem to play off that instrument. Then gradually expand your listening focus around that core group until you begin to hear it all. It’s brought me so much joy and insight over the years, I hope this helps those in our hobby as a tip."
Well said, John. And thank you.
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24 comments on “Hearing into the music”

  1. I really wonder if a composer imagines a 3-D soundstage with strategically placed instruments when he is in the process of composing. And why should a musician then have a 3-D sound image in mind when he is playing? In contrast stereo is a concept of phantom 3-D sound images (analogous to stereoscopy) requiring a lot of “data-processing” from our ear-brain system. And even the Fab Four didn’t like the early stereo mixes of their songs mainly characterized by simple and strange ping-pong effects. And even today it seems that sound engineers haven’t a common agreement if stereo should create the “they are here” or an “I am there (in the concert hall)” perception. Not to mention the strange and inherent comb-filter effects being generated by ordinary stereo reproduction.

  2. Very interesting. As someone who doesn't play even a triangle I too get so much enjoyment listening to an engaging performance on the best system I can. I will hear something from XM radio while driving, like it, then go home to really hear it via Tidal.
    Perhaps, because I don't listen for my particular part? But I heard live music in my house via my Dad. He played piano, organ, acoustic guitar, banjo, and Ukulele. My brothers play but neither have become audiophiles. Mr. Hunter obviously does the full monty.

  3. Yesssssss.
    To explain it to the uninitiated guest I like comparing the audio experience to watching a movie a second time, you see extra bits you don't see initially... The more you re-watch the movie, the more you realise what you have missed.
    An so it is when listening to an audio track... More instruments (and voices even) are discovered in the depths, not heard on the first pass - or third pass even....
    I like to suggest they look in the direction of each new voice or instrument as they begin to play, and really getting a kick out of watching their heads swiveling back and forth, and the smile of comprehension as the seed of critical listening takes hold and grows.
    My system is modest, but thanks to the audiophiles guide and not a small amount of time moving things around, I have a sound stage that can raise the hairs on the back of the neck. Great fun for the unsuspecting guest

  4. Interesting. I mentioned yesterday about training our ears and now we have a suggested teaching method on how to listen. It could prove a useful lesson.

    It occurred to me this morning that my day really wouldn’t be complete without reading about the phantom centre image and comb filtering effects at least once during the day. 😉
    No offence to any contributors. 🙂

    Friday funny.
    Survivors of the 1976 UK heatwave are to be offered counselling and an apology from the Met Office for them not issuing a warning that the sun can be hot.

    Have a good listening weekend.

    1. Survivors of the 2022 UK heatwave are advised to keep wearing their
      masks, as CoViD Omicron B4 & B5 strains are running rampant.

      'That which does not kill us makes us weak & nauseous'

  5. The comments by John Hunter bring to mind what I sometimes ponder. Why is it that I enjoy music from virtually any source, but I enjoy the sound of music from a quality high fidelity system? And the higher the "quality" of the system, the more I enjoy the sound. Anyhow, something that I sometimes ponder when listening to music.

  6. I've had this discussion before with others in the home-audio industry & I get it.
    I get it from the standpoint of critical listening for the purpose of audio design &
    'aural measurement' (as opposed to measuring gear with electrical or mechanical
    devices) that is required to get the best result from an initial design or topology.
    However, personally, I'm not a fan of picking things apart; I like to experience the
    whole as a whole.
    If you have a home-audio rig that can image & soundstage the three guitarist all
    separately, say two next to each other but still separated & the other guitar on the
    other side of the stage, well that's a different matter...you don't need to work hard
    to analyse what's going on.
    Listening to music should be relaxing; not work...in my not so humble opinion.

    If I was in the home-audio manufacturing industry I would train myself to do
    exactly what JH has done & burned into his ROM.
    I spent my time in home-audio selling the gear & all you need to do is to ask the
    customer which 'sound' or which pair of loudspeakers or what amplifier sounds
    best to them for what they are prepared to spend.
    If I would've started going into 'how many guitars can you hear?' I would've lost
    more than half of my sales.
    But also on a personal level I want to enjoy the tune, I don't want to analyse it.
    I'm not excited by the parts; I'm turned on by the sum of said parts.
    Different strokes for different folks ✌

    1. “If I would’ve started going into ‘how many guitars can you hear?’ I would’ve lost more than half of my sales.”

      I’m just picturing it now, the strange sideways looks, the suddenly remembered appointments, hilarious.

      1. Rich,
        Nothing impresses a customer more than me blowing an 8" driver out of it's
        cabinet whilst the real PCM recorded canons of the TELARC - 'Tchaikovsky
        1812 Overture' blasts across the show-room floor because I made the mistake
        of trying to serve two customers at the same time on a very busy Saturday.

        Hilarious now...not so much in December 1995 😀

    2. After a long time away from audio I am putting together an all new system. Still learning how to listen to everything, aren't we all! I do enjoy listening for and hearing each instrument and voice in a recording on wonderful wide soundstage. To clearly hear where each is coming from and separate from each other, to distinguish a trumpet from a soprano sax, etc. But not to the point of listening for the last wavelength of piano decay or how tightly the drummer is holding his sticks. It's the combination of all the clear details together that makes glorious music I want to hear.

  7. There is listening, and then there is knowing and listening.

    There is watching, and then there is knowing and watching.

    Some quick background: My wife can sing, played piano and played a cornet in a band, I can't sing and have no musical talent. I played HS football, my wife did not. I am terribly unmusical, she is terribly unathletic.

    She hears music in a way that I can't, I watch football in way that she can't.
    There is no substitute for knowing.

    PS: I have an REL G1 subwoofer in my video system. Thank you John!

    1. Very well said Tony! And isn’t it interesting that she, and you, can enjoy the other and still enjoy, and maybe not understand as deeply what just happened as the other, but still enjoy nonetheless.

  8. Yes it can be fun to listen for that and we probably all do here and there or when demanded to evaluate recordings/releases. It’s probably the typical audiophile’s or engineer’s way to listen.

    In my perception, when I really enjoy the music itself, I don’t do or avoid it.

  9. John wades into that bizarre problem of why musicians often have a maddening tendency to be disinterested in high-end audio, and he has a useful observation to add to the debate. It's a pity it was such a long time ago. I would have suggested he get his French Horn playing girlfriend to focus her attentions on those members of the orchestra with ambitions of their own to be a conductor. I kind of imagine that a conductor's instincts and sensibilities would be far more in tune with what a high-end audio system delivers.

    1. Yup. He'd need a time machine. As a great philosopher once told us though:
      It's times like this my buddy Timon here says: you got to put your behind in your past." -Pumbaa

  10. Constantly listening in the ‘critical mode’ completely removes the enjoyment of the HiFi experience for me. Yet that seems to be what is pushed and promoted on an almost daily basis. I assume it’s done in an effort to keep the latest and greatest in equipment at the fore front. Listening to the whole presentation is what brings the most happiness and joy. Playing with the room, equipment, tweaks and etc brings almost as much joy.

    Maybe the fundamental difference in listening is the approach. Coming at things from where the perspective is based on actual performing (or at the very least being a witness of the performance) versus listening to some contrived reproduction. What ever the reason(s) is/are home audio is there for one purpose. To entertain. For many that entertainment includes being totally technical in search of the unobtainable. For others it means reaching a plateau of contentment and coasting along.

    @Maggieman may have said it best. Are you listening for sound or to the musical presentation?

  11. I don’t listen like that live and don’t listen like that in my system. If I would listen like that, I would get fatigued almost instantly. I listen to music like I look at a forest landscape. I don’t want to see each tree.

  12. This is precisely why I gave up all my pieces and parts and went much more simpler in my audio system. For me things can become way too detailed. It is easy to fall into the audiophile trap of listening to the equipment as opposed to the music. I am much more interested in hearing the song as a whole, listening to the lyrics and hearing a homogenous gelling of individual performances. For me it’s about the whole not about the pieces.

  13. A close friend was a bass (electric) player in bands in the 80s/90s. He had a rather effective tip: If you want to isolate and better hear the bass line, plug one ear. It works quite well - most effectively in live situations.

    Some nights are critical listening, selected catalyst tracks to attempt to take in the best sound I can achieve. Some nights are songs I love. I enjoy both scenarios equally. And I never know which night it’ll be until I get into it. If I absorb favorite songs that are disappointingly poorly recorded, I tend to need to ‘fix’ my listening session by ending with some Flim or something. It’s like dessert to correct a less than satisfying meal.
    Music is on wherever I am from wake up (alarm: harmony turns on my bedroom stereo) until bedtime. (Minus tv time…)

  14. I think what John described is what what drives us serious audiophiles to keep reaching for the next level in our progression of more revealing gear. To listen into the music in detail requires more and more revealing components in the signal chain. Great comment to ponder though.

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