We often think of the intelligent quotient, I.Q., as a fixed measurement of one’s innate capacity for intelligence, something that cannot be improved significantly, even with effort. Perhaps I.Q. refers to a peak potential that one may or may not realize. It certainly doesn’t account for other types of intelligence, such as “street smarts”, practical know-how or emotional intelligence.
Listening I.Q. seems to be a skill that can definitely evolve and expand with conscious effort, although it often grows with unintentional effort. Although there are no well-defined tiers of Listening I.Q. currently in place, it can be seen somewhat as a a linear progression of appreciation for different styles of music, and/or complexities within a certain style.
As one listens to more music, more variety, more genres, the Listening I.Q. naturally expands. As an example, when I was 16, although I had been exposed to some classical standards and movie soundtrack derivatives of classical music, I didn’t actually ever sit down to listen to it with the intention of understanding and appreciating it. I listened to two pieces multiple times: Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony #9 and Debussy’s La Mer. At the time, both works were new and exciting to me in relation to my 16-year-old Listening I.Q., which at that time had been defined by commercial pop, corporate rock and prog-rock of the 60’s and 70’s, as well as many different styles and eras of jazz.
Since that time, over the course of 30 some years, I have been exposed to so much more music. In terms of only classical music, my Listening I.Q. has evolved to the point where if I listen to the Dvorak symphony, it is comparable to listening to a children’s song. There isn’t as much complexity to it as compared to when I first heard it, based again, on the Listening I.Q. of my younger self. Interestingly, La Mer retains its interest for me due to its more adventurous and complex nature.
This isn’t to disparage the Dvorak piece in anyway, or to boast about my current Listening I.Q., which is still in a developmental stage, especially with classical music. But I think it is a good example of how Listening I.Q. evolves, and as a result, how tastes change. First, we listen to simpler music, and then as our appreciation for more complex music evolves, due to exposure and/or effort, the simpler music is simply less interesting to us. But the simpler music is a very important stepping stone for us as we advance to more complex music.
As another example, as I write this essay, it is December, and everywhere you go, you hear Christmas music in the background. I don’t have to go far since one of my co-workers has been playing it frequently on Pandora. It is interesting to observe my negative feelings about this music, contrary to the positive feelings it tends to evoke in most people who grew up with it. What about it agitates me so? It could be partially due to over-familiarity, having sung many of these songs in a professional caroling group for several years, over and over again. It could also be due to my dislike for the commercialization of the holiday season this music has come to represent. But ultimately, I believe it is because the music is just bad.
Now “bad” is a judgement, and I used that word to be humorous. What is really happening is that my current Listening I.Q. has evolved to the point where simpler music is just not interesting to me. For someone with a lower Listening I.Q., Christmas music might seem incredibly rich and intricate.
So Listening I.Q. is often associated with tastes and preferences. If someone “likes” a certain music, it is because they can relate to it based on its similarity to past music that has come to define that individual’s current Listening I.Q. If someone doesn’t “like” a piece of music, it simply means they haven’t bothered to develop their Listening I.Q. or they are jumping too far ahead in the natural progression of music appreciation development. If a child has only listened to children’s music their entire life, and you force them to listen to Berg’s Lulu, chances are quite high that they will not “like” it.
What seems to happen with many people, is that they develop their Listening I.Q. up to a certain point, usually unconsciously, and then they settle there and do not pursue further development. They now know what they like and anything they don’t like is simply because it doesn’t conform to the limitations placed on their preferences. There is also a natural tendency, as people get older, to lose interest in developing currently defined tastes and preferences further.
All of this brings up some interesting questions, especially in regards to the potential benefits of improving Listening I.Q. We all know people who are stubborn and set in their ways. They are happy the way they are, with their adopted belief system, their political opinions, their favorite sports teams, TV shows, and music.
Then there are those who are more open-minded, constantly growing and evolving, not afraid to discover new things, explore new ideas, listen to Ornette Coleman. The open-minded people don’t quite understand the closed-minded people, and often we try to help open them up a little because we care about them, and their closed-mindedness seems so unhealthy and unnatural. Meanwhile, the closed-minded folk seem quite distrustful of the open-minded folk’s freewheeling ways. But really what seems to happen is that the open-minded people are pushing the boundaries and making it gradually more comfortable for the closed-minded people to take a peek outside of their self-restricting box.
I don’t want to place judgement here, as I truly feel society needs all types of people. But there is, in my opinion, a societal disadvantage for those individuals who are naturally inclined to be open-minded. The structures of our current society actually encourage, more than discourage, conformity, closed-mindedness, anti-intellectualism, and listening to really bad music.
By really bad music, again trying to add some humor, I refer to music that actually promotes closed-mindedness and conformity. In this sense, it is bad because of its negative effect on the listener’s ability to be more of an open-minded individual. One of the characteristics of this type of music is a steady beat. When there is a predictable pulse to music, it lulls the listener into a comfort zone of expectations being met. Most people are naturally more comfortable when we have our expectations met. When we become accustomed to this with the music we listen to, then we become unsettled when something unusual or abrupt happens, and we don’t “like” this music as it has thwarted our expectations. Predictable music that relies on a steady rhythm is a big component of the conditioning that happens which ultimately informs peoples’ tastes, or what they perceive as their own taste. This type of conditioning may not be as nefarious as brainwashing. But it may be just as damaging on some level.
From the perspective of an open-minded person, the benefits of unraveling this type of conditioning, or any type really, are enormous, and maybe even essential for true happiness. It is a path to discovering one’s true freedom, creative power and self-awareness. To attempt to find ways of unraveling the conditioning by which others may be bound, is like trying to free slaves. Well, maybe not quite since slaves at least understand that they are indeed slaves.
So how does improving Listening I.Q. relate to this variation of the Matrix movie script? Do we strap someone down à la Clockwork Orange, and force them to listen to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire as we righteously declaim, “Free yourself brother! Open your mind!”? Probably not.
I think one of the main points a true artist is trying to make, is that life is much greater than the world as we know it, and our limiting belief systems. People who have adopted limiting belief systems are not likely to want to give them up for even a glimpse of the scary unknown. That is what good art forces people to do, and that is why good art remains on the fringes of popular culture. As evolutionary beings, it is not practical to assume we can suddenly transition from holding on to a belief, to being able to navigate a state of freedom from any beliefs or conditioning. And those who are able to navigate that state aren’t going to find much of a following to join them.
We all are capable of making such an evolutionary transition, but we require baby steps, patience, hand-holding, and a compassionate guide. The evolution of our Listening I.Q. can be a reflection of our evolution as conscious beings. It can support this greater evolution in a gentle, subtle way, if done correctly and compassionately. For example, you could invite a friend or relative who has never listened to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in its entirety to sit down with you and listen to it without distractions, with the goal or really listening intently. And then you could talk about it and listen to it again. And again.
Or you could find a piece of music that disrupts the listener’s expectations of the downbeat, and explore with them new ways of listening to rhythmically unpredictable music. These are some things we can do to help others experience the incredible personal benefits to improving Listener I.Q. and appreciation for more complex music.
Improving our own Listener I.Q. or helping others improve theirs, does require conscious effort. It is not easy. Listening intently to music is a bit like meditation in that we get the most out of it when we are able to stop the chatter of our mind, and observe the entire process of listening which includes simultaneously observing the effects the music is having on us. It doesn’t work if there are outside distractions, or if the music is being played as background ambience. The further you go, the more complex the music becomes, and you have to work even harder, listening to the same work multiple times in order to even begin to grasp it.
I remember when I was 14, I became a huge fan of the rock band Rush. This was in 1980. One of their albums is called Hemispheres, and the opening track, what was the first side of the vinyl record, was a 20 minute through-composed composition. At that stage in my Listener I.Q.’s development, this work was monumental, and I listened to it over and over again, absorbing the intricate rhythms and unusual harmonic changes. Fortunately, I had time as a youngster to do this, and I finally reached the point where I could sing, air-guitar, and air-drum to the entire track.
As my Listener I.Q. evolved, I was able to more quickly absorb and appreciate more complex music. But, as you know, much of the contemporary classical music repertoire is incredibly complex, requiring up to fifty listens, reading along with the score and even in-depth score analysis. This is a huge time commitment, especially for most adults, tired from working long hours and raising the kids.
For those who decide to make the time for, and see the value of this activity, one strategy is to keep a listening log. You can decide with which works you want to familiarize yourself, then date each time you listen to a work, keeping track in a spreadsheet. For my listening log, I have chosen seven listens for each piece, which gives me a fairly strong superficial appreciation for the music. The depth of this appreciation is often dependent on the complexity or simplicity of the piece. More complex pieces could be listened to more than seven times, while less complex pieces can be more easily appreciated with fewer listens.
I also have four categories that the works fall into, although some pieces fit into more than one category:
Category 1: important contemporary works from the last 30-50 years,
Category 2: 20th century masterpieces,
Category 3: pre-20th century masterpieces
Category 4: string quartet repertoire
I don’t listen to one piece seven time before listening to the next one. I break it up and stagger them since I believe it helps if there is a time lapse between listens.
Also, as implied earlier, this is not background music. In my opinion, putting music on as ambience actually dulls our ability to listen to music. One of the reasons Listening I.Q. is so low in our society is due to the over-saturation and accessibility of background music (TV commercials and shows, movies, radio, stores we shop at – it’s everywhere) and it highly contributes to lower Listening I.Q. So when you listen to more complex music, give it your full attention – headphones on, eyes closed, or read along with the score if possible.
One final way to improve Listening I.Q. is to learn a new musical instrument. Even if you play an instrument already, try taking up another one that is very different. If you play guitar, learn piano for example. If you play piano, learn cello. It is never too late in life to learn a new instrument, although some of the wind instruments may be more challenging due to the facial muscles that need to be developed.
In conclusion, it is possible for anybody to consciously improve their Listening I.Q. The benefits of doing this may be more than providing mere personal entertainment; they may actually include helping us in our evolution as conscious beings. And finally, I would like to encourage those with very high Listening I.Q.s to refrain from being music snobs as we all need time and effort to attain that rarified state.