A recent discussion appeared on the Delcamp guitar forum asking how to improve interpretation. The one overlooked aspect about playing music is that a great musician listens to it. In fact, they listen to a lot of it.
Guitarists get really caught up listening to our own instrument, which is depressing because many other singers or instrumentalists are very expressive and worth a listen. Listen to a lot of different types of music. I’m a huge fan of the string quartet and symphony; I also enjoy piano music quite a bit.
However, this doesn’t mean putting on some classical music in the background (Listening to Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony” as I type this) and doing something else. Real active listening is necessary. Observe the characteristics of the melody, how does it ebb and flow? Or what is the harmony doing? Is it transparent or is it thick and juicy sounding? How about rhythm? Do large elements of the form repeat? Does stuff repeat (the most important thing to listen for!)? If you’ve had some aural skills or theory training, listen for events you recognize, such as cadences or specific scales or chords. If you’re new to the whole music thing, try singing along with the melody and singing later after the piece is done. Or even better, try to transcribe it on the guitar!
A great book on really the “basics” of listening is Aaron Copland’s What to Listen for in Music. He outlines some musical concepts such as melody, form etc in an easy to understand way and give suggestions on how to listen.
The biggest part of listening is following your curiosity. It’s easy to not know where to start, so work on finding a composer you really enjoy. Listen to many things by that composer and learn about them. Learn who they studied with or who’s music they were interested in and listen to that. For instance, I fell in love with the composer Leo Brouwer who did a lot of studying on Stravinsky while at Julliard. So I listened to Stravinsky, who is now one of my favorite composers.
Listening can be a huge task in itself, but don’t be afraid to step beyond the typical guitar music.