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Listening: identifying instruments

This week we are going to peel away the layers of a song and start to listen for and identify different instruments.

If you’re listening to a lot of techno pop or rave music of the nineties, that might be very difficult. If it’s been overproduced, there’s going to be a lot of electrical sounds in there essentially that are going to be difficult for you to pull apart.

Pulling the music apart

If you’re struggling, go back to a good, old fashioned soft rock or good old fashioned 1980s pop song.

What you’ll often find is that it will start with just a little bit of guitar and a voice, and then the bass will join in.The bass will be a lot lower in pitch than the guitar. The guitars bring the chords, giving the bulk of the sound behind the singing. And the bass will be really underpinning that and scribbling and underlining under those words of the notes.

Alternatively, the bass might be doing a little run. In which case you won’t hear it that much. It will be more single notes. You might hear the drums in there and you might also hear keyboards or piano. Typically with modern rock or pop, you’ll hear guitars, bass, drums, possibly keyboards.

If you are listening to classical music, depending on the size of the the band, whether it’s chamber music or a full orchestra, there will be a lot of different instruments. But if you want to start listening to that and working out what some of those solo instruments are, thinking about how they sound. Do they sound reedy? Do they sound very cutting? Do they sound more like a trumpet? These sounds will give you a hint about what you’re listening to.

But this is not so much about needing to identify the instruments unless you’re really keen to do that. This is more an exercise in you starting to listen for things and pulling out different layers of music.

Key changes

Let’s talk about key changes.

Quite often a key change is used in popular music and it’s certainly used a lot in the big ballads and in the big musical theatre numbers. A key change is quite subtle if you don’t know what you’re listening to.

Watch the video to see me singing a piece of music with a key change. It’s almost like everything is picked up and moved up a little bit or moved down a little bit.

Start listening for some of the subtleties of key change. Even if you don’t know what they are, the fact that you’re starting to listen for changes and hear them actively is the beginning of listening to the music.