Roger Blows His Horn – The Jazz Listening Spectrum

Jazz Listening Spectrum


Early in the semester of my Music Appreciation classes at Pensacola State College I would present what could be called a Passive-Active Music Listening Spectrum—ranging from very passive to very active. The spectrum depicted below describes the participation or engagement level of the listener with regard to the music/performers. Passive is detached; active is engaged or involved in the process. Since the concept applies to music in general, it also applies to jazz listening. Therefore, lets examine this listening spectrum with jazz in mind.


Passive-Active Music Listening Spectrum

Oblivious   —   Somewhat Aware   —   Attention Engaged   —   Highly Attentive   —   Analytical


Oblivious—On the far left passive side we find the listener unaware or maybe even asleep. Believe me this can happen even when listening to very nice jazz, as I have proven on some past occasions when perhaps the grove was a bit too smooth and restful. Although one could suggest that some listening is still going on, subconscious musical influences are beyond the scope of this article.


Somewhat Aware—Moving right on the spectrum we soon arrive at background music jazz. Whether in the elevator or at a cocktail party having conversation with friends, we recognized that some jazz is going on but don’t really pay close attention. This is also a typical car radio mode, or listening to some recordings while we do some activity around the house. TV or movie incidental music and dinner music with conversation are other examples.


Attention Engaged—Next comes the situation where the music has our attention. It can be by choice, or it can be because the music has compelled attention. This is the typical concert situation. We may sing along or dance with that significant other. We may notice elements of the form of the piece. We may make note of a nice melody, solo or other quality of the music. Volume is higher. This is where jazz can really be an enjoyable musical experience.


Highly Attentive—Now we are really paying attention. Envision being part of the band—the stakes and motivation to listen are higher when we are part of the music. When the band intends to restate the melody at the end of the drum solo, one has to really follow that drum solo. The audience can also attain this level, but it demands more than just paying attention. Knowledge of the music and performance practices is very important at this level. In the case of live jazz, the listener can in essence become a partner in the jazz process, engaging in the conversation with the performers. This is where live jazz is at its best.


Analytical—This is where you are transcribing a Charlie Parker solo note for note. Or maybe you are transcribing / “lifting” an entire big-band arrangement from a favorite jazz recording so you can make music for a learning situation or the Joe Occhipinti Big Band to play. This level requires deep concentration and lots of time and seems a lot like work. This is also where one really gets to know the music. A music teacher I knew said that transcribing a jazz solo was like getting a private lesson with the artist—and it’s all available in the recordings if one has sufficient skills and is willing to make the effort.


So there you have it—the listening attentiveness spectrum all the way from nocturnal bliss to head pounding concentration. Notice I didn’t apply labels of good or bad to the various listening levels. Each has its time and place. For recorded music, the decision is totally up to the listener. For live music, the performance environment, be it Phineas Phogg or Carnegie Hall, set’s the playing field wherein the listeners and performers then share responsibility for how much listening goes on. I encourage all jazz fans to resolve to “kick it up a notch” on the listening spectrum because this is where the best jazz fun takes place. See you at Jazz Gumbo.

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