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Thread: Do musicians listen to music differently than non musicians?

  1. #1
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    Do musicians listen to music differently than non musicians?

    Iíve always felt as though musicians dissect music more than non musicians do while listening.

  2. #2
    Estimated Prophet notallwhowander's Avatar
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    Well, many musicians have a technical vocabulary that many non-musicians don't. This, in itself, allows for a more precise analysis.
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    I think this topic has come up here before. Hard to say I guess. I have a musical background (played French Horn all through my school years and a few years of piano lessons, but am not a musician any more). When I hear someone play a horn or a keyboard I have somewhat of a background on what they are doing so I probably listen a bit differently than with other instruments. Then again, maybe not. I will say that it gives me an appreciation as to how difficult it is to do what some musicians do.

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by Fracktured View Post
    Iíve always felt as though musicians dissect music more than non musicians do while listening.
    On average, I think that's probably right. If you play an instrument, particularly one that is used prominently in the music you listen to a lot, you inevitably hear something that to you would be "easy," "tricky," "unique," typical," or whatever. Similarly if you compose music, you start to hear the tropes, or you hear stuff that surprises you with its creativity, or just its "completeness" in whatever style it is attempting.

    But I think it's important not to lump all musicians together, just as you wouldn't lump all listeners together. Some are more attuned to these things, others are not. Some care, some don't. I think proficiency on an instrument will make you tend to listen differently, but it's not inevitable, nor would all musicians who listen as musicians make the same judgments about the same music, or dissect the same things.

    Additionally, I'm a musician, but I'm regularly surprised by other PE members' takes on certain songs or parts of songs. Many are not musicians, but their insights are often just as deep and illuminating. So on average, I think this is right, but there's all kinds of interesting exceptions and other elements that make this question a bit more complex.

    Bill

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    Insect Overlord Progatron's Avatar
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    Yes. Non-musicians listen with their ears. Musicians listen using special receptors on the ends of each of their hairs... kind of like those old 70s lamps with the long, sprouting threads where the dots would change colour.

    Bald musicians do not listen to music at all.
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  6. #6
    I think it varies. I thikn some musicians (also engineers, producers, etc) have a difficult time listening to things without noticing things "aren't right" that most people would never notice.

    Case in point: I used to work at a restaurant, where one of the servers was a classically trained pianist. One day, we were sitting around a table at work, having a drink, and Somebody To Love comes on the jukebox. Now, you know the false ending where Freddie sings that real high "Somebody tooooooooo". And Marc says, "Oh, I hate that part of the song! He's singing sharp!". It never in a million years dawned on me that Freddie hit that note sharp. I say, "I think he did that on purpose" and Marc say, "Oh, I know he did it on purpose! It still sounds wrong to me!".

    Now, Marc, as I said was classically trained. I consider myself a musician (well, some people dispute that), but I'm self taught, gleaming whatever I could from the pages of Guitar Player and books, on my own. So maybe that made a difference. Maybe the fact that I'm not in any way a professional musician has something to do with it.

    Another example is Kenny G. Most people probably don't realize he can't actually play the sax very well. I mean, besides one's overall opinion of music, apparently he's got bad intonation and is incapable of playing fast runs without playing a bunch of clams. Or at least that's what Pat Metheny said in his "I hate Kenny G" essay.

    I remember John Entwistle saying he couldn't listen to rock music at home, because he'd just sit there and pick it apart, thinking about the arrangements and the lyrics and the playing and everything. He said only listened to rock music in the car, and even then, he didn't listen to any "heavy" stuff. I think he said, for instance, he didn't own any Led Zeppelin stuff.

    I know someone who took a college engineering course, and he said the first thing the professor told them is the class would "ruin your ability to listen to music", and he said that's exactly what happened. He couldn't listen to anything without wondering how they got a given drum sound, or what kind of effects were used on the guitar or whatever. I remember we were listening to a Hawkwind thing, I think it was Reefer Madness, and I remember his comment about the instrumental bit in the middle, before Calvert's spoken word thing was "The sax is too mixed too loud". He did, though, finally explain to me how backwards reverb works. I never knew how that worked until he explained it to me.

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    I guess everyone on PE is a musician because they dissect the crap out of everything.

  8. #8
    I certainly hear things now that I never noticed before I became a musician/composer/studio guy. Some great posts already, I don't have too much to add, except that I've learned to keep my mouth shut around the "average listener", lest I come across as a know-it-all music snob...

  9. #9
    One can "dissect" music and simply enjoy it at the same time, double the pleasure! When listening to music one part of me is examining every detail of the sound - wondering about the instruments and mics and the way each person is playing/singing, what the room might have been like, noticing what the engineer was doing, is it well-composed or just bits stuck together, etc. Another part simply experiences and reacts emotionally to the overall thing and doesn't pay any attention to technical details. Neither way of listening detracts from the other, I can enjoy both at once or not pay any attention to one or the other. I know other musicians and engineers who do that too, I'm not sure about those who aren't musicans as, unsurprisingly, I don't generally have technical discussions about music or recording except with musicans. So how about it you people who aren't musicans? Do you "dissect" as well as "simply experience"?

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  10. #10
    What interests me is if musicians playing live hear the song in its totality (as a listener would) or whether they are so focused on their parts that they hear only what they need to. Does a drummer lock on to what the bassist is playing and a bass player lock on to the lead guitar etc, with everyone listening out for cues as to when the song ends or the tempo changes and not hearing the song as a whole or individual contributions within it? Is a drummer able to discern an amazing lead guitar part while it is being played, or can a lead guitarist hear a skilful drum fill while he/she (the guitarist) is 'in the moment'?

  11. #11
    Member Vic2012's Avatar
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    Not an active musician but have a good foundation, similar to Stevesly. I played brass in school, read charts, etc. I usually focus on the rhythm section. Vocals can be sharp, flat, etc. but that doesn't bother me that much, and usually don't pay attention to lyrics. I'm mostly listening to the bass, drums, and time sig.

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    Musicians have the tools and experience to listen to music differently and in more detail than non-musicians, but whether they do or not is a matter of choice. I can listen with different focus depending on whether or not the music is familiar to me, or whether or not I'm studying the music for a particular reason or simply listening to it for the sake of enjoyment. I can even relegate music to background noise if it's innocuous enough. One problem I have, though, is in trying to carry on or pay attention to a conversation when music is at or above a certain volume level. Then, my brain has real trouble focusing on one or the other. I've often wondered if non-musicians have this issue.
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  13. #13
    Occipital Provocatee Plasmatopia's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Munster View Post
    What interests me is if musicians playing live hear the song in its totality (as a listener would) or whether they are so focused on their parts that they hear only what they need to. Does a drummer lock on to what the bassist is playing and a bass player lock on to the lead guitar etc, with everyone listening out for cues as to when the song ends or the tempo changes and not hearing the song as a whole or individual contributions within it? Is a drummer able to discern an amazing lead guitar part while it is being played, or can a lead guitarist hear a skilful drum fill while he/she (the guitarist) is 'in the moment'?
    I think this is highly variable depending on the individual musician. I am (marginally, lol) a musician, but I've had many experiences where I was almost totally focused on playing my own part and/or locking in with the drummer (since I was playing bass). The bands I've played in were not doing any improvising so the songs were played the same way every time. As long as I knew where I was in the song I wasn't too worried about what everyone else was doing (within reason). Sometimes the guitar player would complain that he messed up a part of his solo or that the singer was particularly pitchy and usually I had not noticed. We had a keyboard player that would make tons of mistakes, but luckily he was on the other side of the stage and I made sure he wasn't in my monitor, lol.

    At the other extreme, the leader of the last band I was with (he was an excellent drummer who was transforming himself into a guitar player and singer) would seemingly hear what everyone else was doing. He would constantly stop the rehearsal and suggest different bass parts, different drum parts, etc. He was also a tempo Nazi....to the point where we were playing a gig once and apparently the drummer (a last minute replacement) was playing too slowly (so I felt I had no choice but to follow the drummer) and our fearless leader just kept singing and playing his guitar at the "correct" tempo. This sounded weird as you can probably imagine, lol. We discussed this during the break and he insisted he was right. Okay, no one is going to dispute that, but....shouldn't you make an effort to play along with everyone else and try to make it work? Majority rules!
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  14. #14
    Quote Originally Posted by Munster View Post
    What interests me is if musicians playing live hear the song in its totality (as a listener would) or whether they are so focused on their parts that they hear only what they need to. Does a drummer lock on to what the bassist is playing and a bass player lock on to the lead guitar etc, with everyone listening out for cues as to when the song ends or the tempo changes and not hearing the song as a whole or individual contributions within it? Is a drummer able to discern an amazing lead guitar part while it is being played, or can a lead guitarist hear a skilful drum fill while he/she (the guitarist) is 'in the moment'?
    With the advent of in-ear monitors, engineers have started realizing that each band member wants themselves prominently in the mix above everything else. I've never used in-ear monitors, but this makes sense to me, as the better I can hear myself, the better my performance. When playing, what others are doing is certainly important, but your focus as a player is on what you are doing.

    Well rehearsed musicians know when the song ends or when tempo changes happen, they don't need to listen for aural cues. Sure, you need to hear enough to be responsive, but it's your own knowledge of the arrangement that will really guide you. Likewise, responsiveness to improv sections like solos will largely be developed in rehearsal where certain patterns are developed. On a good night, the energy is there and those patterns line up, so there's certainly something to musicians feeding off one another. But I still think the focus remains largely with one's own parts, and rather than getting granular about what other players are doing, you catch the overall energy level of a particular performance in terms of what everyone is doing and respond to that.

    Bill

  15. #15
    Member Zeuhlmate's Avatar
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    If you know how to play an instrument, if you have experience playing with others in a band, if yuo have tried to compose a tune, a riff, anything, you cant avoid noticing how others are doing, and usually you get an opinion based on that.

    But music is more than the elements, and sometimes much more, so perhaps as Bob Drake says, I can enjoy music that isnt well played, well composed, well produced, etc. because it has something else that speaks to me.
    I can also enjoy music I find trivial and predictable, just because its SO well done, and I'm impressed by the musicians.

  16. #16
    Member No Pride's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sputnik View Post
    On average, I think that's probably right. If you play an instrument, particularly one that is used prominently in the music you listen to a lot, you inevitably hear something that to you would be "easy," "tricky," "unique," typical," or whatever. Similarly if you compose music, you start to hear the tropes, or you hear stuff that surprises you with its creativity, or just its "completeness" in whatever style it is attempting.

    But I think it's important not to lump all musicians together, just as you wouldn't lump all listeners together. Some are more attuned to these things, others are not. Some care, some don't. I think proficiency on an instrument will make you tend to listen differently, but it's not inevitable, nor would all musicians who listen as musicians make the same judgments about the same music, or dissect the same things.

    Additionally, I'm a musician, but I'm regularly surprised by other PE members' takes on certain songs or parts of songs. Many are not musicians, but their insights are often just as deep and illuminating. So on average, I think this is right, but there's all kinds of interesting exceptions and other elements that make this question a bit more complex.
    Nice post, Bill; covers some of the things I had to say on the topic. I've been a professional musician for over 40 years and a large majority of my friends are musicians, so I know more about how they hear music than I do about how non-musicians hear it. Being a musician is a blessing and a curse at the same time, because after years of striving to perfect the various elements involved in making music, we have a tendency to notice others' imperfections as well as our own. There's music that I enjoyed when I was a novice that hasn't aged well for me since developing my own skills. An example would be ELP; specifically Palmer's tendency to rush tempos, then pull back, then rush again. I still love a lot of their music, but I loved it more before I noticed things like that. When you've worked hard at being competent with things like time, pitch, phrasing, locking in with other players, etc. you can't help but be aware of the competency level of your fellow musicians. You know, like, "I put the time in to get this thing together, why didn't they?" It works the other way too; "why is this so easy for them when it's so hard for me?" Of course, that can end up being a good thing, depending on how motivated you are. Then there are musical things that sound like they'd be difficult to play but actually aren't... and the opposite can also be true. I'd guess that musicians are generally more aware of those things and consequentially aren't as easily impressed by the former.

    Often when I'm listening to music, I'm subconsciously figuring out what the chord progression and time signature(s) are. Though that can be beneficial to sharpening your ears, I'd prefer it if I didn't do that... I'm just powerless over it. I'd be happier if I could just connect on a purely emotional level. I am to varying degrees, but there's that other stuff going on simultaneously.

    Quote Originally Posted by Munster View Post
    What interests me is if musicians playing live hear the song in its totality (as a listener would) or whether they are so focused on their parts that they hear only what they need to. Does a drummer lock on to what the bassist is playing and a bass player lock on to the lead guitar etc, with everyone listening out for cues as to when the song ends or the tempo changes and not hearing the song as a whole or individual contributions within it? Is a drummer able to discern an amazing lead guitar part while it is being played, or can a lead guitarist hear a skilful drum fill while he/she (the guitarist) is 'in the moment'?
    Ideally, each musician should be completely aware of what everybody else in the band is doing and trying to adapt and contribute to what's going on. A band is a team and should function as such. With jazz and other improvisation based music, you're doing this on a higher level because little is planned out; everybody's throwing spontaneous ideas around and interacting with each other's ideas. Playing and simultaneously listening to everything else that's going on can be deceptively difficult, especially during the time when you're the featured soloist. You're leading the charge, but the others are feeding you suggestions as they're accompanying you... and the more you listen, the more your soloing will go someplace that you never would've gone if you weren't paying attention. I'm still trying to get better at listening while I'm the soloist; sometimes you simply forget to.

    All of this said, I'm very grateful that there are non-musician folks like we have here that are as passionate about listening to music as we are about playing it. We're nothing without you guys and gals!
    Last edited by No Pride; 1 Week Ago at 12:10 PM.

  17. #17
    Man of repute progmatist's Avatar
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    A musician would listen to prog and be able to identify every meter change. A non-musician would ask, "What the heck is a meter?"
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  18. #18
    Member StarThrower's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by progmatist View Post
    A non-musician would ask, "What the heck is a meter?"
    See Rick Beato's Dance On A Volcano video. That section in 7 that he kept playing air drums to should have been obvious, but I never thought about it.

  19. #19
    Quote Originally Posted by Munster View Post
    What interests me is if musicians playing live hear the song in its totality (as a listener would) or whether they are so focused on their parts that they hear only what they need to. Does a drummer lock on to what the bassist is playing and a bass player lock on to the lead guitar etc, with everyone listening out for cues as to when the song ends or the tempo changes and not hearing the song as a whole or individual contributions within it? Is a drummer able to discern an amazing lead guitar part while it is being played, or can a lead guitarist hear a skilful drum fill while he/she (the guitarist) is 'in the moment'?
    It probably depends on the musician and the genre. With something like jazz music, if you listen closely, you can often times tell that musicians are often times are listening to and reacting to what the others are doing. In particular, a good rhythm section is listening to the solo and reacting to it, doing their best to providing the right backing. I remember Scott Henderson once talking about overdubbing a solo on one of his records, and he said something like that's real easy to make the other musicians "look stupid" because what they played on the original take based off what the soloist played. So even if you re-do a solo, it still has to have some bearing on what you played in the first place.

    In amplified music, it becomes more complex. When you're onstage, apart from what you're getting in your monitors, it's often times just a dull roar. That's why you sometimes see musicians get upset when the monitors aren't just exactly so, because there's some aspect of the music that they need to hear, that they can't. It may be the drums, or their own instrument (or vocal...it's hard to sing in tune if you can't hear yourself), or some instrument that they have to hear for a given cue. I remember the year Flash played at ProgDay, I was on the stage crew, and I remember one of the band members, I forget which one, turning to me and asking for more keyboards in his monitor. He said most of the time it didn't matter, but there was one particular song where he needed to hear what the keyboardist was playing to get his cue for where he was supposed to come in or whatever.

    So one imagines a lot of musicians playing electric music can't hear things like drum fills or other sort of embroidery. A lot of musicians have just what they need in their monitors, and that varies from musician to musician. Some players will have just the drums, their own instrument/voice, plus anything else they need to hear for cues or whatever.

    I think the exception might be music that has any kind of improvisation. I would imagine, in Frank Zappa's band, for instance, the entire band probably had to have Frank in their monitors so they could hear what he was playing in a solo, so they were playing the right parts to back up what he was doing. Maybe that's one of the reasons why Frank had trouble finding drummers and bassists who could back him up: they couldn't always hear him well enough to know what they should be playing (that and the fact that Frank's concept of playing went all over the place melodically and rhythmically, so it was hard to get a fix on what Frank would need at any given time, in terms of backing).

    On the other hand, when the Grateful Dead went to using wireless earbud monitors in the early 90's, people figured out they could record the monitor feeds by using a police scanner. And they were "stunned" to find out that most of the time, each band member had just himself in his respective monitor mix, with the rest of the band nearly inaudible. I've heard the mixes described as "selfish". There were some people who insisted that this was why the band "lost the ability" to segue smoothly from one song to the next, but I also read where one of their road crew disputed that, suggesting that there were bigger things at work than monitor feeds on that front. But it makes sense to me you'd want yourself to be louder than the other musicians, because you need to be able to hear yourself to make sure your instrument and your voice are in tune (especially since this was also the era where the band had no speakers onstage at all).

  20. #20
    Quote Originally Posted by progmatist View Post
    A musician would listen to prog and be able to identify every meter change. A non-musician would ask, "What the heck is a meter?"
    Not necessarily. I know a few musicians who are clueless about things like meter. I have one friend who used to play drums, and I remember hanging out in a dressing room with another band, and she asked the drummer about time signatures. I mean, as in "What's the difference between 3/4 and 4/4".

    Gregg Allman once said that when he played Whipping Post for the rest of the band back in 1969 or whenever it was, Duane expressed amazement that it was in 11. Gregg said he didn't understand what Duane was talking about, so Duane had to count out the rhythm to demonstrate what he was talking about. Gregg said he had just thought of it as 3 bars of 3, with a bar of 2 to get back to the first chord.

  21. #21
    Studmuffin Scott Bails's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by GuitarGeek View Post
    I know someone who took a college engineering course, and he said the first thing the professor told them is the class would "ruin your ability to listen to music", and he said that's exactly what happened. He couldn't listen to anything without wondering how they got a given drum sound, or what kind of effects were used on the guitar or whatever. I remember we were listening to a Hawkwind thing, I think it was Reefer Madness, and I remember his comment about the instrumental bit in the middle, before Calvert's spoken word thing was "The sax is too mixed too loud". He did, though, finally explain to me how backwards reverb works. I never knew how that worked until he explained it to me.
    I can just imagine how painful it must be for someone like Alan Parsons or Trevor Horn to listen to today's popular music.

    Quote Originally Posted by Zeuhlmate View Post
    If you know how to play an instrument, if you have experience playing with others in a band, if yuo have tried to compose a tune, a riff, anything, you cant avoid noticing how others are doing, and usually you get an opinion based on that.
    As a former wannabe "musician," I totally agree.

    My daughter has talked about how, in English class, they'll do a "close reading" of a poem or passage in a book. She loves it. Loves the analysis, and learning about what the author was trying to accomplish. Since she's a musician (a trumpeter who is much better than I ever was at guitar), we apply it to the music we're listening to in the car, as well. We'll discuss whatever is on the radio, or we'll take turns with songs we each enjoy. It's fun. Like we have our own language, sometimes.

    By the same token, my family and co-workers don't understand when I complain about Taylor Swift and Kurt Cobain being like nails on a chalkboard because they refuse to sing in-key.
    Music isn't about chops, or even about talent - it's about sound and the way that sound communicates to people. Mike Keneally

  22. #22
    Orange Tick Squasher Buddhabreath's Avatar
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    IMO it depends on the musician. There are musicians that are walking encyclopedias of music theory who will may be keen to analyze what they are hearing or they may just grove to the tunes and not even think about modes or time changes or anything else but how the music makes them feel.

    Then there are musicians (and non-musicians) that don't know squat about music theory but can hear into the music without having the desire or ability to superimpose keys, scales, modalities, rhythm, chord constructions and progression etc. There are non-musicians that listen voluminously and intently know more music than most musicians (who may not widely listen to a lot of different music) ever will. I've known people who seemingly knew every nuance of every Romantic Era symphony and at the same time never played a note. It actually takes effort enjoyable as it may be to really absorb and know a significant piece of music.

    Also musicians that don't listen intently to the musicians they are playing with are shit musicians.

    <edit> very interesting comment by No Pride regarding Emerson's changing tempo. That doesn't really bother me all that much and this might be a subjective perception of the intentional use of rubato rather than an inability to keep tempo. But it you're going to do that the people you're playing with may need to be cognizant of that. The best musicians IMO display expert use of rubato - Horowitz comes to mind or look at Ana Vidovic's masterful rendition of Recuerdos de la Alhambra on You Tube. The rubato makes it.

    Now, guitar players (including me) usually want to see exactly what's happening on the fret board and analyze that as best they can. I saw John McLaughlin's last tour with my guitar teacher who talked afterward about his analysis of John being almost a pure "position" player, keeping to four frets with very little stretching or vertical playing. That wasn't a criticism, in fact he said he was a astoundingly efficient player and had a complete and thorough internal map of the fret board. I think that changes when he is playing in other contexts such as with Shakti where he does play more vertically which is intrinsic with Indian playing (on strings).

    Pardon my rambling.
    Last edited by Buddhabreath; 1 Week Ago at 02:26 PM.
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  23. #23
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    Quote Originally Posted by No Pride View Post
    Often when I'm listening to music, I'm subconsciously figuring out what the chord progression and time signature(s) are. Though that can be beneficial to sharpening your ears, I'd prefer it if I didn't do that... I'm just powerless over it. I'd be happier if I could just connect on a purely emotional lev
    Well stated Ernie. I think this is where I was trying to lead to but didn't articulate it well enough. To me musicians listen to music more visually than non musicians. It seems like when they hear music they see the notes as well as hear them. Non musicians like myself can understand the structure but we tend to just hear the notes. I guess there's an advantage and disadvantage in some ways on both sides.

    Rick

  24. #24
    Yes, I would say we do. When I listen to other guitarists, I'm listening for chord structure, time sigs, whether the guitar is capoed (in the instance of acoustics), and finger-picking with DADGAD or other exotic tunings. My wife listens altogether differently, even if we like the same bands.
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  25. #25
    Quote Originally Posted by Fracktured View Post
    Do musicians listen to music differently than non musicians?

    I’ve always felt as though musicians dissect music more than non musicians do while listening.
    To the first line, the title of this thread, I would say "yes", but to the second line I'd say "not necessary".

    I think a lot of non musicians (like myself) can dissect a piece of music very well, although probably based on other knowledge/experience.
    There are a lot of non musicians who know perfectly well what different meters are (analyzing a subtitle from Supper's Ready will have inspired many), because they also read articles, interviews etc. about music.

    Personally I think I've started listening different to music since I started writing reviews and like Ernie I sometimes wish I wouldn't. Analizing music can take away some of the joy to listen to a piece with the heart.

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