The Listening Ladder

The Listening Ladder

While I have long held the view that no genre of music is inherently superior to any other, I still contend that you get much more from the music you hear (whatever it may be) if you completely submit to it. But could there be a sliding scale of discernment for music which ultimately affects everything we listen to, and why certain music ultimately becomes more popular as a result?

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

“It does not matter what we originally heard or thought we heard or wanted to hear way back when—it only matters what everyone else can hear.”
—Rob Deemer, “What is Real” (NewMusicBox, March 9, 2012).

“There is, no doubt, a strong sensual element in the musician’s enjoyment of music; but he is not content with this alone: his finely strung nature protests against yielding completely to the influence of music which he suspects of having a merely ephemeral hold on his emotions. He tastes it, as it were, and enjoys its flavour, but is careful to stop short when there is danger of intoxication, for that brings on headache and other undesirable discomforts. […] The simile between music and wine is an old one, and there is more truth in it than some recent theorists would have us believe. […] There is an enjoyment of wine that is not entirely sensual, for it calls into play the powers of comparison and judgment. The connoisseur and the boor enjoy it in quite different ways[.…] The connoisseur delights in the wine itself, in its flavour and bouquet, the boor revels in its effect; and the latter enjoyment to a certain extent precludes the possibility of the former. Substituting music for wine, we have a good example of the relative points of view of the musician and the musical layman. The difference between them lies not so much in the class of music they respectively enjoy as in the way they enjoy it.”
—William Foster Apthorp, “Musicians and Music-Lovers” (Atlantic Monthly, February 1879; later collected in Apthorp, Musicians and Music-Lovers, New York: Scribners, 1908)

“China has become the world’s fifth-largest consumer of wine, ahead of Britain, according to an International Wine and Spirit Research study. A particularly popular label in China, Chateau Lafite Rothschild […] can retail anywhere from $1,000 to $100,000 per bottle, depending on the vintage. [P]eople are willing to pay so much over and above the market prices for what they consider to be perfect stock.”
“China’s faux Bordeaux stirs wine market” (Reuters, March 12, 2012)

Staying focused on one activity at a time yields better results than partially engaging in several activities at once most of the time, at least for me. And the most important of the activities I engage in is listening to music. Indeed, it is the fuel behind pretty much everything else I do: from my daily work to the essay you’re reading now to whatever precious little of my own music I get to create when I have the luxury of a small chunk of time to actually engage in creative processes.

Yet in our current society there is an overwhelming propensity for multitasking. One of the practices that has suffered the most, and seems largely taken for granted by many people, is the very act of focused listening. While I have long held the view that no genre of music is inherently superior to any other, and I have found music in just about every genre that I deeply believe is of intrinsic value and will enrich the lives of anyone who hears it, I still contend that you get much more from the music you hear (whatever it may be) if you completely submit to it.

Everyone realizes that if you are not reading a novel carefully enough, you might miss an important detail of the plot—in a novel by, say, a Henry James or a James Joyce, it is very easy to get lost if you’re not paying the requisite attention. But few, other than musicians and composers, would hold the same to be true for music, which has always struck me as somewhat odd. Admittedly as someone who composes music, I hold something of an insider’s view of it. But I still remember my first several encounters with live orchestra concerts and not really understanding what I was hearing because I was too distracted. Over time, the more I learned to focus, the more I got from what I heard, and that proved to be true no matter what I was listening to—whether a jazz group, a rock band, traditional Hindustani music, etc.

Beaucastel 2007

On December 31, 2010, I sampled the 2007 red and white vintages of Beaucastel’s legendary Chateauneuf du Pape with a group of friends; Beaucastel’s prices make their top wines prohibitive to experience on a regular basis. Before I got serious about studying wine, the quality of these classic Rhones would have been lost on me. And although we all thought both were wonderful, I’m still a beginner and I’m sure I wasn’t completely aware of what I was drinking. Might the same disparity between experience and perception also be true for most people listening to music?

The seeming polemic by 19th-century American music critic William Foster Apthorp which I quoted at the onset of this current essay (and which I discovered thanks to Daniel Cavicchi’s Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum ) might raise a few eyebrows in its attempt to distinguish between how musicians and ordinary people listen to music. I totally think it is possible for anyone to get completely absorbed in a listening experience, even someone who has never composed or performed music. In fact, I found Apthorp’s comparisons between musicians’ astute listening habits and the connoisseurship of discerning wine drinkers somewhat specious since he never claims that you’d be a better oenophile if you actually made your own wine. That said, winemakers probably taste more details than I ever could in a Chateau Lafite Rothschild, if I could ever afford to drink one. So then might I infer that there could be a very real sliding scale of discernment, one that would apply to music just as much as anything else, and one which ultimately affects everything we listen to, and why certain music ultimately becomes more popular as a result?

1. Step one would be that you will get more information from music if you are listening attentively to it. (I’m curious to hear dissenting views on this one, though it does crumble the rest of the ladder below, and please note, I’m not saying that you get absolutely nothing from music if you’re not completely focused on it; music can and does operate on a variety of levels, not all of them conscious.)

2. Step two would be that you can get even more from what you are hearing if you have had prior experience listening to music that is similar to it. Just as someone who has had numerous bottles of Bordeaux wine over the years will have a palette attuned to that style of winemaking, folks who for years have regularly attended a chamber music series or a jazz club—if they’re not the folks chatting all through the gig—are probably capable of getting more from the listening experience than a first-time concert attendee.

3. Step three would be that you’ve actually heard the particular piece of music in question previously and therefore have a deeper understanding of the work based on your prior encounters with it. The wine aficionado whose has sampled every vintage of Chateau Lafite Rothschild for the past 20 years will probably get more from, say, the 2007 bottling than I ever could hope to, just as someone who has listened to pieces in the standard classical music repertoire or in heavy rotation on golden oldies radio programs knows that music on a deeper level than someone hearing a Mozart symphony or an Elvis Presley song for the very first time. Unfortunately, of course, new music is by its nature always at a disadvantage in such an experiential paradigm.

4. Step four, would be to engage in the experience of either performing or composing music that is similar to what you listen to, which allows you to speak the language so that even if you’ve never had a particular conversation before—e.g. experienced a new piece in the basic style of the music you perform or compose—you can still understand it. Of course this is again a double-edged sword with new music, especially music that attempts to forge new paths. Often the most vociferous opponents of a new style (whether Schoenberg’s music of the early 20th century, Ornette Coleman’s free jazz of the 1950s, or the punk rock and post-punk of someone like John Lydon) are experienced musicians for whom adding any new words to the vocabulary is tantamount to destroying the language.

5+. Step five then would be to have performed the music you are hearing, and ultimately step six would have been to actually have composed said piece. I’ve always found it to be a tremendous insult to the academic new music community when people say that the only people in the audience for concerts of their music are their composer and performer colleagues. Yet it is undeniably true that certain kinds of music have a broader appeal to people who never even climb on to that very first step of the listening ladder I have just outlined (attentive listeners with, albeit, no additional relationship to the music). However, the curious thing about music (and art in general) is that it is possible to not completely understand or appreciate something you are deeply immersed in; whereas others with fewer degrees of relation to it, sometimes even folks who haven’t begun climbing that listening ladder, might instantly connect to it.