Here is a question that may or may not be greeted by a roll of eyes from a few of you but is a question worth asking: When was the last time you listened to an album? By this I don’t mean when did you last put an album on and proceed to have it play in the background while you performed other tasks. I mean when was the last time you put music on for the sole purpose of sitting down and giving it your undivided attention? For some readers, that will be very recently but for others this is process alien to the means by which they usually consume music.
Now, in the grand scheme of things that ail the world, this is hardly the most serious issue going, but it does mean that you are missing out on one of the most joyous experiences there is. To actively engage with a piece of music is to experience one of the best mind altering substances available and one that-- provided you don’t get too ambitious with the volume-- isn’t going to land you in trouble with the law. As an unusual bonus, if you can get into the habit of focussed and critical listening, it can help you everywhere from your work to your personal relationships.
There is a little more to this than stopping doing whatever you’re doing and turning your head in the right direction though. The good news is that this isn’t about equipment-- I’m not going to tell you to buy an arsenal of expensive things or the like-- but instead about how you use it. It is more important to be familiar with the hardware you are using than it is for it to hit a notional level of quality. Given the choice to listen to an eagerly awaited new arrival on my own equipment or some colossally expensive dream team, I will go for the former every time.
First up, where are you relative to your system and specifically to you speakers? We have talked in the past about how best to place a pair of speakers and this holds true. What is even more relevant is that you should then be in front of these speakers and roughly equidistant between them. This means that if you are listening to a stereo record (or even a mono one through two speakers), you are going to be on the receiving end of a realistic image. If the speakers are at a height that roughly pertains to your ear level and the like, that’s a welcome bonus but really you just need to be in front of them. If this isn’t possible, you might want to look at headphones- which will achieve this regardless of where you and your speakers happen to be.
Next, are you comfortable? This isn’t something I’m asking on an existential level, more simply that you can maintain your listening position for the length of the record without discomfort. It isn’t for me to tell you what you should be sitting on to achieve this- I know that the preferred choices of my friends range from a sofa that is capable of swallowing a full size adult whole to a single cushion on a hardwood floor (the latter example is someone big into yoga however so has a well-developed streak of masochism). As long as you are comfortable, it doesn’t really matter. All you are seeking to do is remove a major distraction from your listening.
Unfortunately, distractions are everywhere in this day and age. I am as guilty as the next soul of tinkering with my phone or looking over a TV planner or simply realising that my son has wedged a talking car under the sofa and that I need to extract it before I’m going to listen to anything other than a small robotised voice. It is the nature of modern life that we find ourselves constantly trying to do more than one thing at once but if you are the proud owner of a device that only does one thing, get into the idea of revelling in that sole function. What might sound counterintuitive is that this process is often best employed when you are stressed and distracted. An LP is not that long-- rarely more than 40 minutes-- and taking your mind off whatever happens to be vexing you at the time for that period can give you a fresh and healthier take on the issue when you return to it. I don’t advocate ignoring issues and hoping that they go away but there is much to be said for putting them aside for a little time.
With this in place, you can sit and listen. There’s no magic to this, simply give the performance your undivided attention. Listen through your equipment not to your equipment and get a sense of the space that the music happens in. Dial out the world around you and try and transport yourself to the performance. This effectively entails the suspension of disbelief and if you are not being distracted from the music by other things, it is surprisingly easy to do. We often spend so much time using music as filler, as a mood enhancer or even something to fill an awkward silence that when it becomes our primary focus, it is a vastly different experience.
The dynamic you would want to make comparisons to is the level of attention that you would give the artist live. Some people find that without the visual emphasis of the live performance, it is harder to be drawn in and quite understandably so. In this regard though, a turntable has an advantage in that if it is in your line of sight, it has a visual emphasis of its own that the digital equivalent doesn’t and can give you something to ‘watch.’ Equally, some people find that the opposite it the case and shun all visual stimuli either by closing eyes or having the equipment out of eyeline.
Once you give music your undivided attention, you can start to pull information out of recordings that you might have previously missed. The step up from having music happen to you and actively engaging with it is one that varies with the material involved but can fundamentally change your relationship with some artists. For me, this was never more pronounced than with Laughing Stock, the final album from Talk Talk. I’m a huge fan of their earlier work but this last, highly regarded effort never sat correctly. It seemed too discordant to be left in the background but too intangible to be the main focus of my attention. Once I actually sat and listened to it properly though, it snapped into focus for what it is- an incredibly vivid and compelling experience but one that needs you to participate rather than idly spectate.
With this participation comes some other benefits too. Being able to clear your mind and apply your full concentration to listening to anything has some additional advantages. Being able to focus on a single person speaking- often by dialling out other conversations or extraneous noise- is a very useful thing to be able to do in both your working and your private life. With a little work this can be developed further too. If you take the material you are focussing on to be the ‘primary’ source, with a little practise you can start to pick up things in the ‘secondary’ sounds you are mainly dialling out like next door’s cat popping in to help itself to my cat’s dinner.
Of course, I don’t do this all the time and I imagine most of you won’t either. Some music exists to be the mood setter for other events and there are just as many times that you will have other priorities beyond just listening to music. Taking the time out to listen properly though is one of life’s little joys and one you should try and do as often as you can.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.