Musicians: Do you deconstruct songs you listen to? Is that a good thing?

I really love listening to music. It takes me to different places in my head, it changes my mood, it creates a soundtrack for my life. I have always wanted to learn an instrument… piano, guitar, trumpet, something. However, my problem is this:

I often find myself dissecting things to their smallest constituents. While I find that this provides me with a greater understanding of parts of the world, I also find that it takes away some of the “magic”. I end up looking at the individual pieces of something and making judgments about the whole based on that. [cliche] I have trouble “seeing the forest for the trees”; the “devil is in the details”. [/cliche]

So, musicians… having an understanding of the composition of music, when you listen to a song in the car, do you find that it takes away from some of the magic? If I listen to a song that has, say, a great guitar solo… It really affects me, but I wonder if it would affect me the same way if I knew how that solo was created from a technical level.

Is this an irrational problem? Does anybody else have this fear? Do you find that an understanding of musical composition adds or subtracts to your enjoyment of music? If you are like me and have an excessive attention to detail, do you find that you “dig too deep” into the structure of a song? Can you ever just let it take over you as a whole piece?

Not a musician, but I already analyze the way songs are written and it doesn’t really matter to me except perhaps in marginal cases. If a song touches my heart it touches my heart.

OTOH, by my limited experience playing Rock Band, if I were a musician learning a song it could make me appreciate it less if I spent hours rehearsing it. I wouldn’t want to learn how to play my favorite songs.

Decently good songs, on the third hand, make me appreciate them more by “playing” them since it taps into the primal desire to make music (hardwired into the brain, researchers have found.)

Nah - it’s no big deal.

Music starts with “do you like it - first impression?” so there is always an element of magic.

For me, I go through phases of:

  • Simplicity - do I like it?
  • Complexity - break it down into all the components and their interrelationship including songcraft, arrangement, production, musicianship, etc.
  • Enlightened Simplicity - wow, cool - and understanding all that, do I like it?

There are some songs that don’t stand up to a bit if hard scrutiny, but for me, breaking down a song is more about figuring out what I do like about it, not convincing me not to like something…

I used to. I found it made most music I liked sound the same to me, so I stopped.

I do some home recording, and it’s a buttload of fun. I don’t really care how I get the sounds down, once I get more than a couple of tracks going, it gets difficult to actually choose how to mix them, what effects to add, additional tracks, etc. The possibilities are just endless. But that’s just one way of composing. Others might hear it all in their head and know exactly how to arrange it, record it, mix it, master it, etc. I’d say analyze if you must, that can have its own rewards, but let yourself just listen if you can.

There’s a book called Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks that explores the different ways people perceive and react to music. Might answer some questions for you.

On preview, Ludovic, I play in a band that does a lot of covers, and while we don’t always pick the tunes apart with a fine toothed comb, we sure play them alot, and for the most part, they don’t get boring. There’s something to be said for getting a really good vibe with the ensemble that transcends the mechanics of it all.

You don’t know what you’re missing - you kinda replace the magic of the unknown with the magic of figuring out the “essence” of the song. Cracking the code on a particular player - say, Andy Summers of the Police who had a different tone and chord approach vs. what was common at the time, or Keith Richards who plays a lot in Open G tuning on guitar - is incredibly cool.

and per Simmerdown, playing a cool song can be fun every time if the chemistry is right…

I don’t compose and have little knowledge of music theory, but I do play bass for fun. I almost always find myself listening to the bass track of a song. Instead of this taking anything away from the musical experience, I find it broadens my horizons. There’s music I wouldn’t find interesting or enjoyable at all if not for killer bass work.

Good music always pushes through, though and I will enjoy it as a complete experience despite my ears tuning in for the bass.

Also, learning to play a good, inventive bass line doesn’t diminish the magic of the original performance at all.

Like WordMan, I go through phases when getting to know a song. A lot of it I do without thinking about it anymore since my relative pitch is good enough that I can at least tell you the intervals of the chord changes in many rock songs after just a listen or two. And really, for rock and roll, that and the rythme are really the keys to the kingdom.

Some songs I sit down to teach myself how to play as well. I really love playing other people’s music. This might be because I spend so much of my time playing original material, but there is something that is just fun about playing a cover and having it sound just right. Also seeing how other people think about solos and rythms and how it all fits together is always fascinating for me, even with really simple stuff.

And my favorite stuff to cover isn’t always my favorite music. I am a big Bowie fan, but really don’t find a lot of his songs to be all that fun to play. Sufrogette City, for example, is kind of dull. On the other hand, Ziggy Stardust is a blast to play every time. It’s the same thing with the Violent Femmes. Blister in the Sun isn’t even a song I like much, but it is without a doubt their most fun to play.

There have only been a handfull of times when I have walked away liking a song less because I gave it carefull scrutiny. But there have been many times that breaking down the pieces of a song has helped me to appreciate something that I didn’t get right away

Does having an intricate understanding of the structure and elements of the music detract from its impact? No, not if it’s good music. This is not as trivial a qualifier as it perhaps may seem at first. I know Beethoven symphonies inside out, but they still have the power to thrill as a listener, and also to catch one unawares as a player! The combination of pain and innocence in Mahler, the weight of emotion in Janis Joplin’s voice, the large-scale pacing of some Orbital tracks, all are things I will literally listen over and over, with an increased feel of a connection with what was being created while never reaching the point of familiarity. There’s simple little pieces I use with pupils which are nonetheless of such exquisite balance that they can have the same effect, despite on mere formal levels containing nothing beyond the basic compositional techniques expected of a half-decent high school student.

One of the crucial steps to a real awareness of any music is the follow-on question of ‘Why do I like (or not like) this?’. Rarely an easy question to answer, especially if it’s ‘like’, because of the honesty this can demand of an awareness to emotional responses.

As for the devil in the details, he’s most certainly there. As a string player I’m all too aware of how difficult it can be to take that step beyond a concern for mere details and to embrace a larger musical picture. It’s not one that everybody manages to make. It’s further complicated by this not replacing technical concerns, but needing to coexist, almost in two parallel universes, and to rehearse and perform effectively means being able to switch between the two at will. Not easy.

I analyze my music constantly; it has only served to increase my fascination.

It’s a question only a modern western person could ask; before Edison, music lovers had two choices - learn to play or pay someone else to do it for you. Even some of the richest people on the planet learned to play. In traditional cultures throughout the world, there’s no separation between who plays and who listens; everyone plays, sings, claps or dances.

I can’t not try to hear everything that’s in a piece of music I hear - to me, that’d be like trying to pretend my colour TV is showing things in black and white. However, all it has done is heightened my respect for all the great composers and performers I’ve heard. It is a great privilege to live in a constant state of learning.

Catherine Drinker Bowen said in “Fiddlers and Friends” - “Your listener, though he feed on symphony as a lamb on milk, is no true lover (of music) if he does not play. Your true lover does not merely admire the muse - he sweats a little in her service.” (Quoted from memory, and probably paraphrased in the process)

In other words, get a piano or a guitar and get to it! Beat it on out! You think Earl Hines sounds impressive now, wait til you try to do some of it yourself! Wait til the day you figure out on your own that this simple little two-part invention by Bach is the same figure played two bars apart. That’s right, he was thinking about how 32 notes from now, this is going to work when it plays against itself. What does that tell you about the mind of the man that wrote it? How did Zappa come up with those notes in that rhythm, and how did the band stay with him?

The wonder, the awe, the just astonishing depth of human genius is all there, and exploring it is like dividing infinity - you never reach the end.

But the journey is entirely worthwhile.

It doesn’t really have much effect on me. I’m an amateur guitar player, I’ve been playing about 19 years but I’m still not very good, done a little home recording and composing on the computer, and I don’t think it effects my appreciation of music. A lot of times I’ll not realize a song I like is complicated or difficult to play until I actually try to learn part of it, and a lot of songs I really like are very simple. I’ve never been impressed by solos that are difficult to play, just by ones that invoke feeling.

I find that anlysis improves my appreciation of good music. There’s a question of what sort of anlaysis you do, of course. If you plan to analyze AC/DC songs for chord changes, you’re going to be disappointed. <more later>

IANA musician, but I am an editor.

I can no longer read for pleasure anymore. I don’t find it pleasurable. Instead, I find all the errors the editor missed. I’m fine with message boards, but anything printed I find difficult to enjoy unless it’s really, really good, in which case, I will deconstruct it and that tends to enhance my appreciation for the piece. As a writer (also), I understand how difficult building characters is and keeping suspense going so if an author can make me forget to proofread on the fly and just enjoy the story, it’s probably a damn fine author. If I’m bored enough to catch the mistooks (:D), I probably won’t finish the book.

In regard to music – I’m a huge audiophile – I notice that I tend to deconstruct the lyrics and leave the analysis of the music to the musicians. Trent Reznor is a bad lyrics writer (aWith a Teetha?).

Maynard James Keenan is a good lyrics writer. He used “cozened indigo” in lyrics. I had to go look up “cozened” and now I really love that song (The Pot). I give extra love to lyricists who come up with difficult rhymes or use really obscure vocabulary (like “cozened”) and make it work with the context of the song without trying to sound like a pretentious asshole. (I’m looking at you, Sting.)

ETA: Oh and my nomination for the worst possible lyrics ever written? Def Leppard. “Are you gettin it? Armageddon it.” W. T. F. Def Leppard fills me with grrrr. I once saw Joe Elliot interviewed on MTV. He said, with his trashy Sheffield accent, that he didn’t care if the lyrics don’t make sense because for him, it’s all about how the words sound with the music. Joe Elliot is a moron. IMHO.

I don’t deconstruct music when I’m listening to it but I do get utterly sick of a song when I’m learning to play it so that by the time I can play it well, I don’t want to play it at all. This effect is not as strong if I can learn a song relatively quickly.

I sort of agree with him. I think it’s ok for a song’s meaning to be unclear and often that happens when words are chosen for what they sound like rather than what they mean, but I think thats different from bad/corny lines like “armageddon it.”

I analyze music all the time because I like knowing how it works. Why does this chord progression make me feel the way it does? How can I bring that same feeling into a song I write? I find that analysis actually makes me a much more omnivorous music listener. I end up liking songs that I may have scoffed at a few years ago, and even some songs I don’t like I can still appreciate certain effective parts of (or at least understand why they are bad songs). Besides, in truly great songs there’s a level of magic that raise them above and beyond the simple technical elements. GorillaMan mentions a few good examples of what I mean in his post up above.

Well, I do know what you mean. I can think of one really excellent example of a band whose lyrics I can only understand about half the time: The Mars Volta. Roughly half the songs are sung in Spanish. I love the way Spanish sounds when sung, but I don’t really understand much Spanish at all. So the words make no sense to me (and even some of their English lyrics don’t make a lot of sense), but again, I give the band props for using words like “tetragrammaton” in a song. Seriously. That’s some genius writing.

Figuring out a song and digging into the details definitely adds to my enjoyment of it. Moreso these days as a bad guitarist on a voyage of discovery than during my years as a drummer learning stuff because I had to. Not that I didn’t enjoy playing drums, it’s just a different thing.

I was watching The Song Remains the Same a while back and they played The Rain Song. Up to this point I never really paid that much attention to it. This time, though, I really got into it and especially Jimmy Page’s guitar work and the bug bit me. I HAVE to learn this song. So to the basement I go, looked up the tablature (true confession time - I didn’t even know the title of this song so I had to figure that out first). I’m familiar with some alternate tunings so the first thing that struck me was that this was sort of an oddball tuning. How did he figure it out? Then I started playing some passages and this is a miracle and I was in heaven and Jimmy Page is God. Then I saw him on the Olympics closing ceremony and thought “well, maybe not, but anyway…”

So in that sense, I’ll probably not listen to the song the same way again. Instead I’ll appreciate the amazing guitar work and remember the time and place in my life when I learned how to play it. I can’t say I’ve really grown tired of the songs I’ve learned to play. I practice so infrequently and don’t perform and only bother to learn songs I’d love to play so I tend not to tire of them too much.

Sometimes I really dig a great pop song. Things that I find interesting are how parts are layered, stuff going on the background, the simplicity of the playing, and so on. Doesn’t really detract from the pleasure.

And there are bands like Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance which largely use made-up language for “lyrics”. The music does not suffer.

I tend to analyze the form of songs more than the individual pieces of technical playing. Don’t get me wrong, when I hear a particularly nifty riff, I piece together in my head how I think it might be played, but overall, it’s the individual parts of a song that I love to see differently each time around.

It’s almost like a visual thing for me. I see the verse as block of the song in my head. I see the chorus as a differently shaped block that’s placed in a certain position. I see a bridge as an oddly shaped block that’s stuck in between other parts. I see solos as transparencies laid over verse blocks (most of the time). I see extemporaneous noodling as an amorphous cloud that seeps out and when it all comes back together … hey, there’s my familiar little verse block.

It’s more pronounced for me lately because I’m jamming with my brother-in-law’s band, and those guys have been writing songs together for a decade or more. So I have to organize them in my head to be able to learn them.

But – song composition is more than notes. It’s how all the parts fit together to present a final product. And the way that the truly creative fit them all together in truly unique ways fascinates me.

I totally understand the OP, and my answer (as a very amateur musician), is that for me, yeah, it does take away a little magic to analyze a song, and the rewards of being able to appreciate it intellectually don’t completely make up for that.
But the fun of being able to play a song more than makes up for the loss of ‘magic’.

Plus, there’s always more songs. You will never be able to analyze all the good music out there, so don’t worry about losing ‘magic’ from a few songs that you learn to play.