How to Listen to Music

Escaping algorithms and musical ruts

Harry Campbell

Last June, the record mogul Jimmy Iovine, legendary for helping launch the careers of artists ranging from Tom Petty to Eminem, appeared on a San Francisco stage to announce that his latest employer, Apple, had a bold new product that would change the future of music. He called that product an “ecosystem.” Drake, then the biggest rapper on the planet, was on hand to testify about Apple’s foresight. The industry press mostly yawned. Beneath the hype was one basic proposition—hear almost anything, anytime, anywhere!—that the likes of Spotify already offered to millions of users. Around the turn of the millennium, people referred to the still-theoretical notion of on-demand digital listening with the appropriately awestruck coinage the celestial jukebox. A decade and a half later, it has simply, drably become streaming, the heir to MP3s, CDs, and records.

But one part of Iovine’s presentation did feel new. Apple was poised to launch an online radio station meant to embody the ideals of an era when $9.99 a month buys you unlimited access to a huge amount of history’s recorded music. The DJs for the station, called Beats 1, would play music “not based on [market] research, not based on genre, not based on drumbeats,” Iovine said. They would play “only music that is great.


After Beats 1 had been under way for a month, Nikhil Sonnad at Quartz analyzed the station’s song data to find out what Iovine meant by great. “Just edgy enough to not be called mainstream” is how he summed up the sensibility of the enterprise. He also took note of repetition on Beats 1. The top 18 songs broadcast had each been played more than 50 times. Some listeners had started to complain about the frequency with which they were subjected to a mediocre song Pharrell had given exclusively to Apple. Often when I tuned in, I would hear DJs shouting out Wikipedia-style facts about the artists they were about to play, the same artists I’d heard the last time I tuned in.

It wasn’t all a disappointment, though. During a morning commute last summer, I found myself entranced by a Beats 1 show hosted by Joshua Homme, the founder of the rock band Queens of the Stone Age. He cued up Eddy Grant’s 1982 reggae-rock single “Electric Avenue” and then described its synthesizer as sounding “dental … but in a good way.” Before that, I’d written off the song as period kitsch, something I would absentmindedly hum along to at chain restaurants. Suddenly, though, it sounded stranger, darker, more interesting. Grant sings the word violence in the first line. Whenever the song comes on now, I can’t help but listen closely.

At least since the advent of Napster, in 1999, the Internet’s potential effect on listeners (if not on industry coffers and artists) has often been portrayed as radical and utopian. Music bloggers, the iPod’s massive storage capabilities, and, most recently, the virtually unlimited browsing potential afforded by streaming—the convergence would surely pave the way for a generation to whom eclecticism was normal. Human curiosity could finally triumph over genre tribalism and lowest-common-denominator marketing. The super-listener would rise.

Little in the modern music landscape suggests that this has come to pass. Quite the contrary, which is an important premise of the New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever: 20 Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty. In the past decade or so, traditional radio stations have cut down the number of songs in rotation and ratcheted up the frequency of repetition, because listeners are less likely to switch away from tunes they recognize. Successful online playlist makers such as Pandora continually fine-tune algorithms to figure out what individual users want to hear based on what they’ve liked before. Pop is dominated by a few huge record companies that use data on past successes to replicate them again and again, as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson described in “The Shazam Effect” (2014). And music journalists working online have come to understand that championing little-known artists commands far less traffic—and therefore less job security—than does exegesis of the latest Taylor Swift video or Beatles anniversary.

Ratliff astutely diagnoses the psychology underlying this state of affairs. “In many cases, having rapidly acquired a new kind of listening brain—a brain with unlimited access—we dig very deeply and very narrowly, creating bottomless comfort zones in what we have decided we like and trust,” he writes. “Or we shut down, threatened by the endless choice. The riches remain dumb unless we have an engaged relationship with them.”

An “engaged relationship”—what’s that? Well, you know: Active listening. Open listening. The kind of listening that happened more often when switching from an unfamiliar song back to an old favorite wasn’t so frictionless—when the unfamiliar song had cost you $16.99 and a trip to Tower Records to acquire, and the old CD was gathering dust somewhere under your bed. Ratliff has 20 suggestions, mostly good ones, for how to achieve this level of engagement in a world overflowing with new and strange, and instantaneously available, sounds. He reminds us, as he proceeds, of how urgently we need adventurous critics like him at a time when the notion of musical discovery has been appropriated by tech companies and sidelined in the chase for clicks.

In concept, Every Song Ever can’t help but evoke the stereotype of the High Fidelity record-store clerk enamored with the obscure yet conversant in the popular, and prone to over-the-top displays of his expertise. Each chapter comes with a playlist, many of which might seem like parodies of eclecticism. One hopscotches from Beethoven to Miles Davis to the rap duo Outkast to the ’80s punk band Big Black to the salsa troupe Sonora Ponceña. Yet Ratliff plumbs his mental library not to show off but to show how you, too, can be this omnivorous. He wants to offer all readers a way to appreciate, even love, songs that no right-functioning recommendation engine would ever put in their earbuds.

The 20 ways to listen promised in the book’s subtitle are more like 20 elements to listen for, and in a sign of Ratliff’s democratic aspirations, they are not terms from music theory. Rather than obsessing over time signatures or chord progressions, he suggests paying attention to “general associative qualities that have to do with the actual experience of listening.” A few of those qualities are easily understood and derived from nonmusical life: repetition, density, speed, slowness, sadness, closeness. Ratliff creates terms for others, including transmission, wasteful authority, and memory and historical truth.

Many of these phrases are concretely defined, brilliantly analyzed, and widely applicable. In one of his best chapters, Ratliff makes “stubbornness and the single note” his theme, probing the musical phenomenon of playing the same tone over and over. Think about the guitar solo in the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”: one tone stabbed out 64 times, evoking a malfunctioning electrical line or a phonograph needle stuck in a groove—something you have no choice but to pay attention to. Ratliff argues that whether it’s Johnny Ramone or Neil Young or Thelonious Monk or Drake, a musician uses such moments as “a form of resistance or play—or resistance as play.” Or, more plainly, as “warnings, or challenges, or alarms.” This is a true insight that’s useful: a starting point for decoding songs across all sorts of genres, like a word that’s common to multiple languages. Ratliff sharpens the point by drawing a contrast with his definition of repetition, discussed in an earlier chapter that explores how James Brown and Kesha and Steve Reich all bewitch listeners using the same, steady method. “Repetition puts a spell on you,” Ratliff says. “The stubborn note takes a spell off you.”

Elsewhere, he works in the impressionistic mode that’s long been rock criticism’s default. But when Ratliff goes linguistically pyrotechnic, he does so with proportionality, deference to the reader, and very dry humor (his mode in his journalism and his contributions to The Times’ shockingly entertaining music podcast, too). He cautions that some of his concepts require “a little more squinting and imagining on the part of the reader,” and sure enough, I have squinted through the chapter on “transmission” a few times and still am not certain that I’ve got it. “We’re talking about when a musician makes herself very small in relation to a force that guides her, and then directly transmits the force of that trust to the listener,” Ratliff writes. One example is the Beatles’ “Julia,” when John Lennon sings his mother’s name in a clear, straightforward tone that stands out from the ache suffusing other parts of the song. Ratliff also rhapsodizes about a 1983 live recording by the Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. On YouTube, I think I found the Khan clip Ratliff is talking about; as in “Julia,” the vocals are intense and notionally spiritual. Is that all transmission is? Maybe. Regardless, the quest to understand got me listening to a musician I otherwise wouldn’t have given a chance, and provided an entry point to a style I otherwise would have tuned out.

So keen is Ratliff to whet appetites that he sometimes borrows from food writing when tackling the famously impossible task of putting the experience of sound into words. Of Morton Feldman’s hour-and-a-half-long contemplative piano piece For Bunita Marcus, Ratliff writes that the pianist Hildegard Kleeb “plays the notes as an eater, holding a fork, breaks the surface of a buttery cake—with the understanding of it as a luxury.” Writing about the metal band Eyehategod, he says they play “rock as a kind of sauce that has been reduced and left to burn in the pan. What’s left is thick, bitter, and uneven.” These are two very different genres of music, both impenetrable to a lot of people. But who wouldn’t want to follow Ratliff into them to find the flavors and textures he talks about?

Still, Every Song Ever acknowledges that even when only a few finger motions are required to sample new sounds, breaking out of the familiarity trap entails an act of will—by which Ratliff doesn’t at all mean an act of willful elitism. He deftly transcends the hottest debate of the past decade in music-critic circles, about so-called poptimism. Poptimists balk at the notion that, say, Miley Cyrus’s chipper take on psychedelia is too transparently commercial to merit consideration as serious art, while the meanderings of rockers like Pink Floyd make the cut. Such hierarchies, they argue, reflect hidebound views of race and gender. Yet this poptimist position, however laudably egalitarian in theory, often turns out to be less than welcoming in practice. When the content of the Top 40 sets the terms of critical discourse, Internet-traffic-conscious writers—and their readers—have a diminished incentive to listen carefully to anything more challenging.

Rising above the fray, Ratliff takes the bracing view that distinctions between pop and not-pop—in fact, between any commonly used labels for music—are mere distractions. “Genre,” he writes, “is a construct for the purpose of commerce.” And so of Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.,” he observes, “It is a song about listening: one of the greatest ever made.” As for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, “It had some things in common with ‘Party in the U.S.A.’ ” Can you hear it, the connection? Wouldn’t you like to try?

Trying, really, is all that Ratliff asks for. He never presents his 20 ways of listening as the only ones out there, nor even the best ones. They’re simply ways to start sorting through the ever-growing sonic surfeit. There is nothing new about what he’s doing, but the spirit that drives Ratliff is stubbornly unfashionable. While algorithms and corporate playlists and clickbait thrive on confirming one’s loves and hates, the best critics—or curators, or store clerks, or DJs, or friends—peddle not only their own insights but also ways to arrive at new insights about new things. Ratliff celebrates the virtues of play and resistance, and knows that just as stabbing at a single note can fend off easy enchantment, so can seeking out lots of different sounds. It’s a quest that just might expand your definitions of “great music” in directions and at a rate you never thought possible.

By Ben Ratliff

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