Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand.

Stevie Wonder

As Jazz Appreciation Month comes to an end, we want to give a big shout-out to you, our audience. We’re so grateful for your continuous support and engagement, and we can’t wait to be together, in-person, again!

This week’s newsletter starts a new series that will focus on LISTENING to music. What better way to appreciate jazz? Our Executive Director, Dr. Scott Garlock, will be taking the reins for this series and sharing his thoughts.

Music is one of the strangest and most difficult human activities to quantify. Unlike many art forms, music is transient – one can visit the Art Institute of Chicago and see Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” over a period of decades, and the experience will be relatively unchanging, and relatively easily to describe.


“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” 

This rather famous quote attributed to numerous individuals accurately depicts this issue. How can language accurately describe sound? It can’t – even the best metaphors used in music don’t adequately address what we hear. Perhaps the best musical metaphor was by the composer Robert Schumann, who described Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony as a “slender Greek maiden between two Nordic giants.” While effective in that it lets us know that we’re not in for the bombast/emotional upheavals of Beethoven’s Third and Fifth Symphonies, it still doesn’t describe what we hear.

When I was an undergraduate, every other Friday on payday, my three closest friends and I would go and spend $10 each on used records. We’d get beer and listen, and after each side was completed we’d share our thoughts. It was always striking to me how we heard differently and how different our passions were for what we listened to.

People will go to the mat in defending or slaying some music, yet when asked to describe why they might have these staunch opinions, they will find it next to impossible to go beyond phrases like “I like it” or “It’s got a good beat, I’ll give it a 96.”

I have taught undergraduate music history, jazz history, and world music for thirty years. A great deal of the concentration in these courses is to try to get people to listen more deeply, and to then try to help them become coherent in describing this unique activity.

How do we listen?

Thanks to electronics, we can enjoy music much more easily than our ancestors. In the time of Haydn and Mozart, one needed to either create sound or travel to a place where the music was being created. Today, we can have several weeks worth of continuous sounds in our palm; moreover, where can one go and not hear music? It’s in our medical offices, shopping venues, and it is used as a backdrop for most of our activities. In some ways, music is at an all time “cheap”.

That having been said, for me, there are few activities that I do that bring me as much joy as listening to music. While the majority of music consumed by an American listener is fairly “low fi,” there have been marvelous innovations and improvements to audio gear that can render the 1960’s sound of McCoy Tyner’s piano, or a field recording of a Balinese gamelan, with incredible fidelity and warmth.

Thoughts & recommendations

So, we’re going to take some time in some of our upcoming newsletters to share some thoughts on listening and our listening choices. Items like digital vs analog, best streaming services, audio gear, auditorium acoustics, helpful vendors, and listening rooms will all get some time.

I have always fashioned myself as a closet audiophile without the budget. Thankfully, I’ve lived long enough to acquire some nice gear (and a hearty thank you to my indulgent wife!). In making decisions about almost anything relating to the listening experience is a rabbit hole much unlike anything one might want to research online. In audio labs, we can measure music with great precision, but describing what we hear and, moreover, what we prefer and recommend does not always align with these metrics. One can find opinions that resemble the vitriol and distance in thought we see demonstrated on Facebook and Twitter. So, while the thoughts I’ll share are my own and aren’t readily quantifiable, I hope that some of these upcoming musings will be informative and useful. We, of course, welcome feedback and suggestions as we go.

Are there any topics you’d like for us to describe?

Drop us a note, and, until then, happy listening!

“Tribute to Chick Corea”

Mark your calendars for Saturday, May 8th at 8 p.m.

The CJO Little Big Band returns to the Bop Stop for another great livestream show, this time honoring the late Chick Corea.

Learn more