Herb Reichert – Learning to Listen Page 2

Lesson One

Before we begin practicing, you must complete your first homework assignment. Late tonight, when you are tired from the day, sit, relax, and listen to a single short piece of recorded music in any format. Try as hard as you can to pay attention all the way through to the end. I doubt you can do that; but make note of the longest time you stay locked on to the music. A full minute of complete focus earns a gold star.

Then try to ‘watch’ your mind operating while you choose which recording to play. Note if you can, the reasons for your selection. When the music begins, you must, with strict detachment, ‘watch’ your thoughts going in and out of focus while you are struggling to follow the music. Try to objectively observe yourself struggle: do not judge the music, the sound, or your thoughts.

As the music plays, try to visualize the force and temporal nature of vibratory energy pumping from the speakers. This type of visualization is both abstract and difficult. If you struggle to picture energy – don’t worry – it is the ritual of trying that counts. These focusing exercises are absolutely necessary in order to establish the mental discipline for the lessons to follow.

As we proceed, you will be continually tested on your ability to hold your attention on music’s four-dimensional space-time continuum; and your ability to examine the nature of its vibrating energy. (For the record, I have been practicing this focused listening for a long time and I doubt I ever exceeded two minutes of perfect concentration.)

Lesson Two

Some may remember a TV show called American Bandstand where they played newly-released, pop-music singles and then asked teens what they thought of them. Teen couples all said the same thing: “We like it. Its got a good beat and you can dance to it!”

I define intelligence as any creature’s ability to recognize patterns. Our ability to recognize patterns in sound as they happen in both space and time is essential towards evaluating how well our system is reproducing music.

Music’s most fundamental pattern is ‘beat’ which we can define as a repeatable pattern that typically starts with a strong “downbeat” and usually ends with a weak beat. Orchestra conductors and bandleaders devote most of their energy towards making musicians aware of downbeats.

Lesson two’s homework consists of three parts: first is playing a piece of music with a strong recognizable beat. While you are listening, try to spot the downbeat (a.k.a. the “bar” line). Count time while saying silently 1-2-3-4, etc. This is not as easy as it sounds, nor as silly, but this is an essential skill if you want to understand music and the quality of its reproduction.

Tones are the stones that form the castle of sound.

Next I want you to notice single notes which we will call “tones.” Tones are the stones that form the castle of sound around you. Are the tones you spot heavy or light? Are they arranged in unique attention-grabbing patterns? Are some single sounds accentuated more than others? Are these various accented tone-intervals arranged into repeating patterns? If so, you have just recognized rhythm. If you can assign a mood or poetic value to these rhythm patterns, you have recognized melody and are now ready to move on to studying the spectacle of s-t-e-r-e-o sound.

Lesson Three

This exercise works best if you can find a simple two-microphone solo piano recording by David Chesky (HDtracks) or Todd Garfinkle (M-A Recordings), or Kavichandran Alexander (Water Lily Acoustics). Recordings by these masters let their dual microphones become your surrogate eyes and ears. This is so because recordings on the above labels are issued with no mixing, editing, or dynamic range compression. All three of these producers arrange performers in front of microphones; moving them closer or further from the microphones until a proper balance is reached. Then each composition is played all the way through without stopping. Unlike studio recordings, were everything is sliced, processed and overdubbed, the space and time of every Chesky, Garfinkle, or Alexander recording is accurately preserved and easy to recreate. Each track reflects a single event – not a mash-up of diverse happenings.

The total lack of processing makes recordings on these labels more vivid and direct than any multi-track studio recording. The most vivid, direct and instructive of all piano recordings that I know of is Todd Garfinkle’s 1989 production of Bulgarian pianist Milcho Leviev playing a Boesendofer Imperial 290 piano in front of a pair of B&K 4006 microphones. This M-A Recordings album is entitled Man From Plovdiv and its performances took place in Harmony Hall, Matsumoto, Japan (M018A.).

If you can’t access this recording, any solo piano recording will suffice; but be aware, the number of microphones, and their proximity to the piano’s soundboard will dominate the recorded sound. If the microphone(s) are placed under the piano’s top-board and close to the strings, the recording will be unnaturally bright percussive and limited in harmonic spectrum. On Man From Plovdiv Garfinkle placed his microphones very carefully; so the listener can hear the piano as a powerful sound-emitting instrument from a near seat in a vast reverberant hall (Photo of The Harmony Hall, Matsumoto, Japan). You can hear the undiminished power of the Boesendofer and its interaction with this important historical venue.

Anton's picture

This = awesome: "I think in words and pictures and the more images and word meanings I have stored in my scull, the more I am able to distinguish if the art I am making is any good."

Other page one things: I think we can appreciate something as "good" without prior experience of similar things.

Another. Don't forget, what we call 'classical' was the pop music of its day. Think about how commonly we see bits of Haydn in kid's music. "Pop music" is an artificial way, and arbitrary term used to separate music from music. I don't favor that.

Page two: Agreed, music indeed induces "wandery" or exultation. I have discussed this with fellow audiophiles, and many tell me they can concentrate solely on the song and sound for an entire song. I am dubious regarding the veracity of such claims! Put me in your category. They don't call it a musical journey for nothing!

Page three: Disagree on this..."the only good reason to spend audiophile money on a stereo is to gift yourself the opportunity of experiencing as much as you can of the art and sound of humans playing handcrafted musical instruments."

I admit to enjoying things like electronic music, John Cage conducting boat horns, etc. What you describe is completely fine, however. I don't mean to undermine your direction!


I agree about doing 'everything' in a state of mindfulness, but then I also approve of sometimes slipping away from that. I had a wonderful art professor in college who would watch us while we worked. Sometimes, he'd come up to a piece and artist and say, "Stop thinking!"

There can be a lot of mindfulness in mindlessness, it turns out! One can start working on something without knowing a final intention or artistic destination and then discover where one's own mind takes one without the artist/creator even 'knowing' it. I admit to having finished some things and only then realizing, "Oh, so that's what that was." I think making art can create a sense of insight 'after the fact' for the creator as well as other times creation being an intentional expression of meaning or intent.


Anyway, thank you for another great piece. I am still synthesizing my own way of thinking about sound in the context of your past descriptions of what a piece of gear is drawing your intention to, and how that can be intertwined with our own natural propensity to drift in and out of objective attentiveness. I guess you could say I am trying to find the whole where the sound gets in and allows my mind its wandering, where it will go.

Thanks again for another beautifully done, insightful, and thoughtful/thought provoking article - we couldn't ask any more of you.

Everclear's picture

The Art of listening? :-) .........

Herb Reichert's picture

I agree completely with every one of your observations. I wish you could have told me these things before I finished I would have written it differently. I really mean that. Especially, the part about mindlessness as a higher form of mindfulness.

I exaggerated the "mindfulness" concept for effect because I wanted to start newcomers on the road to seeing/hearing their music as a whole continuous vibrating event that should not be separated from the the inner and outer vibration of just Being in the world. And of course it is like my favorite Zen poet Yogi said, "I can't think and hit at the same time." Thank you very much for your thoughtful reading.

peace and Mr. MaGoo,

Iholatris18's picture

Your articles, in general, are infused with perspicacity, incisiveness, sensibilities and knowledge - qualities that I admire and have no hesitation in apportioning them to deserving exponents such as yourself.

I would like, however, to make some points in relation to this particular article. Firstly, my wife, who is an amateur artist ( painter ) thoroughly enjoyed and related to your opening thoughts, but ...became progressively "disengaged and disorientated" as you entered into our hard-core hobby!

Secondly, I have recordings of the mentioned labels with a prevalence of M.A recordings ( 15 in total ). I have the particular CD by Milcho Leviev and your points are valid and entirely endorsed by me, although tracks 5 and 6 might have been more appropriate examples ( track 10 with prepared piano is my favourite ). And of course you could have used a number of other M.A recordings, such as "With Space in Mind" and " The Old County".

Thirdly, epicentral to your thesis is, as you state, "mindful and critical listening"....Agreed. However, you avoid the phrase "analytical listening". I am aware that this is often used pejoratively to refer to pedantic and obsessive assessments of the playback components but, in my view, " analytical listening" is not a dirty phrase and can, in this case, be synonymous wit mindful \ conscious listening.

Fourthly, all these fine and discreet points that you are rightly advancing will be much facilitated ( if not entirely dependent upon ) a good....a very good...an excellent system to render and expose them to the astute listener. I am fortunate to have such a revealing, transparent Martin Logan CLX ART based system in an acoustically conducive room, which allows me to hear and appreciate every element of the recording - spatial, temporal, rhythmic, melodic and emotional.

Finally, whist your dictum (as an end in itself): "You can't hear what you are not listening for" is persuasive and aphoristic, it is in my view incomplete because it leaves out the required medium, that of a highly resolving playback system.

Be always in good health and enjoy your chosen music in both sound and silence. May I also urge you to continue living out of curiosity and NOT habit. I apologise for any antithetical views expressed. Your article was brilliant.

I listen, always learning. Cheers, Kostas Papazoglou.

wakulla's picture

He has quite a sense of humor. And I hear he enjoys a nip. Bet he'd be great company down in your Bunker.

wakulla's picture

... are really wonderful, btw ... and why I keep reading Stereophile and its related sites. Not only yours, but any of the really thoughtful philosophical pieces. More, more, more ...

Anton's picture

They have certainly enhanced how I pay attention to how I listen.

wwc's picture

for your fearlessness (in sharing with the world that your favorite film is The Turin Horse)-- and humor (in describing your friend's reaction to The Turin Horse)-- and you willingness to dig deep where most audiophiles dare not go...

I struggle with the discipline needed to experience the most from music. It is, as you say, a conscious meditative experience. Music is often a "soundtrack" for me as I go about getting a variety of work done. I shift in and out of acute awareness-- sometimes for just a few seconds. But those few seconds can be deep and wondrous.

When I make the time to try and give total focus, I get the best results when I abstract the music from narrative or associations and just become aware of pure sound, rhythm and the interplay among musicians at play. This is where I try to go when listening to jazz or modern "classical."

It's the same way I listen to singing birds in nature-- pure, abstract sound. Bird sounds were one of the primary influences on the great French composer Oliver Messiaen, btw.