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'Ear-cheology' - Unearthing the Past For Musical Growth

Steve Levy

June 3, 2016

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When folks talk about the importance of musical education, they almost always mean some form of instrumental instruction. But this often ignores the most important element...LISTENING!  

Are You 'Well Heard?'

My old friend and bandmate, Peter, coined a great term for this. In the way that educated people are said to be “well read," musicians (and hopefully everybody) need to be “well heard." I had two experiences with my students that really hammered this home. A very sharp student came in and had heard the Stevie Wonder song “Sir Duke” in her high school class that had the word “jazz” in the course description. She loved the song, but was puzzled by the title. When I explained that it was a homage to Duke Ellington, she had no idea who I was talking about. Not long after that, I was explaining the I-IV-V chord progression to a young man, pointing out that it was the basis of the blues. “What’s ‘the blues?" he asked.

30XCZL3PAB.jpgAdvances in Audio Technology Have Changed Expecations 

One of the problems younger listeners have with old recordings is the way they actually sound. Like special effects in movies and video games, the possibilities of sound in audio production has exploded in recent years. And, if that kind of sound quality becomes your default, the timeless genius of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Robert Johnson and countless others may never seep into the esthetic water table of young musicians or fans.


In the way that an archeologist can see the outlines of a foundation and imagine a house filled with living people, we need to train ourselves in ear-cheology to hear past the limitations of old recordings and styles gone by and recognize the many broad shoulders all of us stand on. To learn to reach across time and hear these giants come back to life is at least as important as the first steps in pedagogy.  It involved effort, but is profoundly rewarding.

7 Documentaries to Jump Start Your 'Ear-chelogy'Duke_Ellington_.jpg

I think the best way to start on this journey is to start watching documentaries. They explain history, context, and expose you to amazing but unfamiliar musical styles in small increments that you can explore more fully later. Watching documentaries is something you can do with friends and family as you expand your musical sensibilities. I will recommend some that can be found with a little digging on Netflix, Youtube, or Amazon.

  1. Jazz, A Film By Ken Burns
  2. Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues, A Musical Journey
  3. This Ain’t No Mouse Music! (The Story Of Chris Strachwitz And Arhoolie Records)
  4. Lost Highway: The History Of American Country (BBC)
  5. Folk America (BBC)
  6. Folk Britannia (BBC)
  7. Folk Hibernia (BBC...on the Irish Folk Music revival)

Eat Your Veggies!

I deeply hope you will explore some of these treasures. I’m not trying to talk anyone out of liking what they like, but I am telling you that you need to eat your vegetables. The music in these films is the stuff that has inspired unimaginable achievement, given people hope in times of desperation, and helped build bridges between cultures marred by hostilities.

If you play, just having heard this music will make you better. No lie. If you don’t, you will have a deeper well of appreciation of everything you hear and will become the kind of listener that any musician feels honored to play for.

What are some of your favorite musical documentaries? Share your thoughts below!