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Learning to Listen - the beat and empty space

You don’t have to be a music major or understand minor keys in order to notice how a song “feels.” Because of the different instruments, some songs you’ll hear sound like Halloween, using weird keyboard effects that mimic ghost sounds from the movies. And you’ll hear songs that sound like Christmas, using jingle bells in the percussion section.


But think about the mood of a song. Is it happy? Or does it encourage you to deal with your sadness and loss? What makes it sound like that way, even if you didn’t hear the lyrics? Most of time, the difference is the drumbeat.

Typically, a happy song has a quick tempo that parallels your heartbeat when you’re excited. Think about those old disco songs that make you feel like dancing, or the music used in your spin class – if drummers analyzed the beat, they’d say it matches your pulse when you’re working out and breathing hard.

And typically, a song that deals with grief doesn’t emphasis the drumbeat, and it tends to have instruments holding out long notes. The piano and guitar will tend to leave gaps between the notes, as well, giving the listener space to reflect and turn inward without having the music being so obvious. Listen to Vince singing “Go Rest High” to see what I mean about the empty space in the music.

Not all empty space is for grieving. Sometimes love songs use empty space to express intimacy and emotions. Listen to Elvis singing “Love Me Tender” or Tim and Faith singing “It’s Your Love”. There are lots of silent moments encouraging the listener to pause, reflect, and fall in love. These type of songs may not use drums at all, or they may feature a fiddle or steel guitar holding long notes, echoing the way your heart deals with emotions.

So next time a song makes you happy, or a song makes you want to slow down and think about your feelings, see if you can figure out why. Is it the drumbeat?


Learning to listen will make you a better music fan, or maybe just make you a fan of better music.

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