Just listening

vinyl record playing on a turntable

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Aside from formal and structured learning there are ways in which musicians learn which are less obvious, self directed and subtle. This can include intense periods of listening to recordings and live performances. When she interviewed a dozen musicians for her book 'How Popular Musicians Learn', Lucy Green was intrigued by how many of them described a process she called 'just listening'. Terry Ollis, a former drummer with 1970s rock band Hawkwind, described how he learned to play using such phrases as "I'd be listening to the record anyway", "it was obviously one [song] I'd liked, and so I'd know it", "just by taking it [a drum pattern on a record] in and keeping it there for use, you know, to plunder it if I wanted to" (Green, 2001:66).

Green suggests that there are three distinct types of listening: purposive listening, attentive listening and distracted listening or simple 'hearing'. The aim of purposive listening is to learn "something in order to put it to use in some way after the listening experience is over". Green gives as examples of this, learning to play an exact copy of a song, or making a mental or written note of the harmonies. Attentive listening has many similarities to purposive listening, "but without any specific aim of learning something in order to be able to play, remember, compare or describe it afterwards". However distracted listening, or mere hearing, occurs when "the music is being attended to on and off without any aim other than enjoyment or entertainment" (Green, 2001:23-4).

Purposive and attentive listening - to records, live performances, radio and television broadcasts and film musicals - has a long history in popular music. Such activities have been crucial for almost all musicians in the early stages of their development. For many listening to recordings has been the most pervasive. In his autobiography Donovan, the British folk-rock star of the 1960s, described an important early influence on his music:

"I couldn't afford albums so I bought Buddy Holly EPs. I collected Buddy in groups of four songs and played them on a Dansette turntable in mono. I learned to be simple from him and to breathe the words. The tracks 'Listen To Me' and 'Rave On', with their clear clean production, are as fresh now as they were when they first rolled onto tape way back then." (Donovan, 2005: 18)

Donovan is writing about the late 1950s, but an earlier generation did not always have records to learn from. In the mid-1950s many US records were not issued in Britain and even the records that were released were expensive to buy for teenagers. In this situation, as many of his biographers have mentioned, John Lennon would tune in to the Radio Luxembourg radio station and try to write down the lyrics of songs as they were played by the disc-jockey. The fact that he might often mis-hear the words was probably an unintended spur to his own development as a songwriter.

Movies and television shows have also provided an avenue for musicians to learn from their role models. For example Mike Maxfield, later the lead guitarist of 1960s group Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, got an important piece of information from the late 1950s rock 'n' roll film 'The Girl Can't Help It' that he saw at a Manchester cinema. He recalled;

"I noticed the tremolo arm on Eddie Cochran's guitar and I wanted one. I realised that it was roughly the same shape as the pair of nutcrackers we had at home, so I took them apart and somehow managed to attach one half to my guitar and make it work!" (Lawson, 1998: 15)

One of Lucy Green's interviewees explained how attentive or distracted listening proved to be vital to his professional activity. Bernie Holland was a guitarist who "got asked to do several concerts with... Leo Sayer. He dressed up as a clown and went on stage. It was a pop performance. So I'd heard him, he'd had some hits and I knew what he did, I was familiar with it. So it was easier to do the gigs" (Green, 2001:31-32). In this instance, distracted listening had given Holland a familiarity with Sayer's work as well as an understanding of the mode of performance he needed to work within.