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Critical Listening

Image 11This past week, I enjoyed thoughtful conversations with two music educators. Both are Believers teaching at Christian universities. Both are accomplished musicians and arrangers. Both are preparing students to enter the Church Music world as worship leaders. And both are concerned with their students’ lack of critical listening skills, particularly as they pertain to contemporary Praise & Worship music.

The problem is this: The students are not always so discerning of what makes a song popular versus what makes a song well-written.

Now, let’s stipulate up front: These are college students. If they in any way resemble me and/or the kids I attended school with decades ago, I can safely assert these students don’t know much about anything. But that is normal. Who among us was fully informed when we were twenty years-old? Not me, for sure. That didn’t prevent Twenty Year-Old College Me from being supremely confident in my opinions. But in fact, College Me was wrong about all sorts of things. Ironically, the more I learned the better I came to understand just how little I really knew.

Back to critical listening: As I chatted with one of my professor-friends, it dawned on me that one cannot listen critically unless one can think critically. And one cannot think critically unless one understands deeply the subject at hand. Deep understanding of music comes from study of form and history, mastery of craft and style, and after much practice and application. All those things take time. Years, in fact. So, I suppose my generation could cut the kids today a little slack. Yes, they are clueless. But so were we all at that age.

Allow me, if you will, to offer a few insights to you students in the hot pursuit of music. If you want to become a better critical listener, here are seven things to ponder:

1. You don’t know as much as you think you know. (And your parents are smarter than you think.)

2. Without solid craftsmanship and sound theology, worship music is chaff in the wind.

3. Don’t assume that because a song is popular that it is a well-written song. (Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.)

4. Study the great hymns of the church. There is good reason those words have lasted 200+ years.

5. Learn more songs that don’t rely so heavily on the word “I” and its variants – me, my, mine.

6. Expand your harmonic universe. (There is a world of harmony beyond the I, IV, V and vi minor chords.)

7. Spend more time in the practice room. (There is nothing inauthentic about being really good at what you do.)

Becoming a better critical listener goes hand-in-hand with becoming a better musician.  The better you play, sing, or write, the more clearly you will hear. But becoming a better critical listener comes with a price. You will start to see flaws in songs you previously thought were perfect. And it also comes with a reward: As a better critical listener, you will appreciate a well-crafted and deeply meaningful song more than ever before.

In the meantime – You kids get off my lawn!

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