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June 2024

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Words? Music? Both? Neither? What Do You Listen For?
How various people listen to music.
Article By Roger Skoff


Words? Music? Both? Neither? What Do You Listen For? How various people listen to music.



  I recently saw something on Facebook that caused me to do some serious thinking not on the subject of music, but that, as I hope you'll agree, is still perfectly applicable to our music listening. It's just one simple sentence: "I never said she stole my money"   but, as the person who posted it pointed out, it can have seven entirely different meanings, depending on which one of the seven words making it up you choose to put the emphasis on:

For example, "I never said she stole my money" means something different from "I never said she stole my money", which means something different from "I never said she stole my money", which means something different from "I never said she stole my money", and so on, through the entire sentence, with each new emphasis creating a whole new meaning.



Isn't it exactly the same with music? Even with classical music, where every note to be played by every individual instrument is written down and unchanging, isn't every different performance by every orchestra or every conductor still different? I have eleven performances of the Shostakovich Symphony #15, and they're all different sometimes even radically so. (Listen to the symphony's last movement as performed by Bernard Haitink, by Maxim Shostakovich, and by Neeme Jarvi, just to choose a few, and you'll hear what I mean) It's also the same with my nearly twenty performances of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons"  all with something to love about them, but all conspicuously different.

And it's the same with other music, too. For an example that, by now, I think nearly everybody must have heard, consider "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" by Judy Garland and the very same song sung by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. Both are delightful; both are the same words and the same tune; and they couldn't possibly be more different.



It's not just different performances, though, that are different. Even the same performance can be completely different when "heard" by different people. The reason for this is not that the music is different, but that different people listen for different things.

To illustrate this, have you noticed that high-fidelity / high-performance audio is certainly with some notable exceptions an almost exclusively male hobby?  This is not just conjecture, but documented truth: When another publication hired a professional research group to study its readership some years ago, they found that almost all of their subscribers and pass-along readers were men, and that only the tiniest percentage were women.



Shortly after the results of that study were released, I and several major magazine audio reviewers, (including two PhD. psychologists), discussed them, trying to figure out what they meant and why that should be the case. What we finally came up with was that women simply don't listen to music in the same way as men do. When women listen to a song, unlike men, what they're more likely to give their attention to is the words, and the music or the sound seems usually to take second place.

Haven't you noticed this same thing with the women in your life? Aren't they always more likely to know the words of a song than you are?



Here's an example that comes to mind: Once, when I and my daughter (then about sixteen or seventeen) were driving to Palm Springs (about an hour and a half away) I put a CD of The Coasters' Greatest Hits on the car radio, and just let it play. She loved it, (I do, too) and, by the second time the disc played through, she was singing along with it, knowing most of the words, even though she'd never heard it before. I've been listening to those same songs ever since they first came out in the late 1950s, and I still don't know all the words.



Women do that all the time, and most men don't. We're more likely to be turned on by the music, the sound, the rhythm, the bass, or some other aspect of the music that women often don't even notice.

I, personally, never listened to the words of songs not even folk music or the blues until I discovered Leonard Cohen, long after everybody else did. To me, most vocal music has always been like opera  not only do I not usually understand the language they're sung in, but because of the operatic style of singing, I can't even tell what the words that I don't understand are!

Instead of conveying meaning to me, most song lyrics of any kind simply come off as "the part of the music where voices are the instruments" and what I hear is the music and the sound, but hardly ever except with Leonard Cohen any kind of verbal meaning.

My personal turn-ons are imaging and an immersive soundscaping plus, instead of the (probably more popular) desire to have the music sound as if the musicians are "right there in my listening room". I desire my system, and the recording it's playing, to transport me to where they (the performers) are to the club, the concert hall, or the recording venue where the performance actually occurred.

There are many other things about music that people listen for: Among them are (in no particular order) clarity, detail, "warmth", the "richness of the harmonic envelope", transient attack and decay, the depth, power, and "punch" of the bass, simply the LOUDNESS of it (as anyone who has ever heard a tricked-out car stereo coming long before it arrived will testify), the ability to make out what they're saying in the background on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, the real cannons and bells on the Telarc recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812, and on, and on, and, on. And all of those things can make a real difference to your listening enjoyment. And for every one of them, there are fans and there are others who couldn't care less.



The important thing for each of us is to figure out what we like and to build our system and our record collection accordingly. For example, if having your head blown off by Telarc's cannons would have you grinning from ear to ear, you're going to need a system with real power, terrific dynamics, and truly deep bass. That probably means solid-state electronics, horn speakers with added subwoofers (Unless the full-range horn speakers are HUGE, they're not going to produce the very deepest bass notes), and a big room, which is well-treated acoustically or headphones and a good otolaryngologist. If string quartets are your thing, though, tubes and a pair of tiny Harbeth speakers might do the trick just fine.



It's the same for everybody and every musical preference years ago we even had one high-performance audio dealer who said he didn't like music at all but was a serious gearhead. He truly loved to own, play with,  and enjoy the equipment.  Think about what you like to listen to when you plan your system and build it accordingly.

After all, regardless of what you may like or want to listen to, and regardless of any other considerations, the most important thing of all will always be that you...


Enjoy the music!


  Roger Skoff














































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