on jazz drumming

Two Ways To Listen

Listen Wide and Listen Deep


two ways to listen - headphones

In Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools” he mentions that as a writer there are two types of reading: reading for content and reading for analysis. By reading for content he means just the usual type of reading to learn about something or just for enjoyment, by reading with X-Ray vision, as he calls it, you read to understand the what the writer is doing and how. Of course, these two levels of reading for writers are applicable as two levels of listening for musicians. There is a fairly direct parallel. Unfortunately, I think there is a tendency among drummers especially, not to listen nearly enough. Or perhaps it’s just me.

As musicians we can echo the first part of Clark’s advice to writers; listen widely, listen to everything you can, listen to music that is outside what you usually listen to. This is listening for content, listening for building musical knowledge and awareness.

Clark mentions that when he has a specific writing project on, then of course he will read things related to the subject of that project. Again the same is true for us musicians. If you are going to play a gig in a specific style then it’s going to help to listen to music in that style for a while beforehand. You can absorb a lot through osmosis and become familiar with the general sounds, shapes and patterns that mark the style.

An example for me is that when I have a gig backing a singer, I will often spend some time listening to and playing along with singers, because it is a bit different to the more open expressive style I might play a trio. The same is true if you want to absorb a certain drummers style, it will help a lot to just listen to lots of records with that drummer.

For me a weak point was not knowing my jazz history. For a long time I was only interested in listening to the stuff that I thought was hip. However, in order to building a real depth in your playing it is important to know your history, the roots of the music and how it developed. Keith Jarrett has commented how even free jazz can’t escape the blues. So, going back and becoming familiar with New Orleans jazz, big band, be-bop and the associated drummers, will yield rewards.


But the advice is wider than that. It involves going out and discovering music outside the jazz world - although jazz encompasses a lot! Hip hop and R’n’B have asserted an influence on jazz in recent years for instance, and the influence of Indian music on Coltrane and others is well documented, but for me it’s been listening to more classical music or flamenco. Modern jazz music is particularly informed by and absorbs other styles, but no music style exists in a vacuum. There are worlds of great music out there.

On the other hand, listening with "X-Ray” ears is about analysing the music to understand how and why it works. You zoom in on a phrase, comping pattern or chord sequence, and work out exactly what’s going on. This could involve transcription, but it doesn’t have to. Although, it probably involves trying to apply what you are analysing to your own playing.

As drummers analysing solos is great, but we shouldn’t be restricted to that - cymbals patterns, comping phrases, fills are all good material; in fact for me these are often more interesting and useful. And of course it all helps to get inside and learn from your favourite drummers.

As another example of analysing and X-Ray listening, my old drum tutor at Guildhall had us transcribe the comping patterns of pianists and guitarists. It is important for drummers to not only understand how drummers back a soloist, but also to listen closely to what the piano or guitar is doing, because one danger is that each comping instrument gets in the way of the other. Not to mention there’s a lot you can learn from the rhythmic choices that people like Bill Evans or Chick Corea making in there comping.

Another form of X-Ray listening might actually be listening to different versions of the same tune to see how different musicians arrange and interpret that tune. This is an especially good idea when you are building your tune base and repertoire. It amazes me how many people try to play a well-known tune, even in classical music, without having heard a version of it beforehand. Don’t do that.

So here are some recommendations of things to try to widen your listening:

  • Dig into some jazz history, start with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and go from there.
  • Listen to some classical music especially Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, but then on to Chopin, Debussy, Ravel. 
  • If there’s a record store near you - they are getting rarer - get to those listening pods and listen to the selections. I have found some great music this way.
  • Flip through the CDs in your local library and borrow anything that looks interesting outside your normal preferences.
  • Listen to the radio - BBC Radio 6 music, for example, is pretty eclectic, and BBC Radio 3 is good for classical as well as jazz; KCRW Eclectic 24 is another good source, as is NPR Music.
  • On the iTunes store, or Apple Music/Spotify, look through the different categories and sample what comes up.
  • Get recommendations from other people, not just musicians, in your network. Also, try to get recommendations from musicians who primarily play other styles of music.

If you want to write, read. If you want to play music, listen.

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