We hear music every day, but do we ever really listen? Colleen Murphy of Classic Album Sundays shares her tips on the best ways to listen to a record.
From her days as a DJ on a 10-watt radio station in New York to being the audio guru behind an international chain of listening sessions, Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy has honed her sense of listening to a T. What began as a post-Sunday lunch gathering of friends eager to hear “classic” albums on Colleen’s state of the art stereo system has developed, with the help of friend and DJ Greg Wilson, into an institution among hipsters and housewives alike.
Colleen has put the popularity of the monthly listening sessions at Islington’s Hanbury Arms pub down to the fact that people have “forgotten what it is like to stop doing things and just experience music and to turn their phones off, to stop talking and to stop multitasking”. Building up the album with two hours of musical zeitgeist and a presentation on the story of the album, Classic Album Sundays has become an oasis of calm, described by the event’s New York outpost as “audio yoga”.
Throwing up a series of questions about the nature of listening to albums – are albums meant to be listened to from beginning to end? Are they works of art? Does having a great hi-fi make a difference? Should we listen alone or together? – we asked Colleen to provide a step by step guide to listening to records in your own home. (See Gil Scott-Heron’s advice on the inner-sleeve of his final release I’m New Here)
By way of an introduction, Colleen stressed that this was a matter of opinion over fact and that these steps could be followed by everyone from your average iPod shuffler to the amateur audiophile. The name of the game: “Use what you have properly and you will notice the difference.”
Step 1: Prepare your record
The first thing to do is to make sure the record is clean. You can clean it with a nice little brush, or if you are ridiculously involved in vinyl culture like I am you might even have a record cleaning machine at home, because there is mould between the grooves, even from the factories. Just because itʼs new and sealed doesnʼt mean itʼs necessarily clean.
Step 2: Prepare your Hi-fi
You have to make sure that your stylus is not blunted and that you have a good cartridge. Cartridges vary in price and Iʼm not going to endorse any particular one, but just make sure itʼs not blunt. Make sure itʼs a nice good cartridge and your turntable is set up properly, which means using the correct tracking force for the cartridge – all cartridges will tell you in the directions how many grams to track at – hi-fi’s generally around 1.8, DJ cartridges generally around 3 and up.
Then, make sure your anti-skate is actually set up correctly so that your tonearm isnʼt pulling too far into the middle or too far out to the side. You want to make sure your stylus is in the middle of that groove. If it isnʼt and itʼs not tracking properly in the groove, itʼs not reading the signal properly.
As for different genres, using a nice analogue valve tube amp set-up works great for vocal music and jazz, but maybe not as great for dance music.
Step 3: Prepare your environment
Thereʼs a sweet spot in every room, with any system. Speaker positioning is a big thing and different speakers should be positioned in different ways. A lot of it is just a case of moving it around the room until it sounds right, because all rooms are different acoustic spaces and environments. Of course, itʼs not just how you can set up your speakers, itʼs how you can live properly around that set up; you have be realistic with these situations.
Then, make sure that youʼre comfortable – by yourself or with friends. I like to turn the lights down and if youʼre listening to psychedelic music stick the old oil lamp and incense on. You can create your world, so if you want those things to enhance the experience you can do that. Turn your phone off and make sure you have 45 minutes free and available.
Step 4: Prepare yourself
Do what ever you would like on a personal level to enhance the sound. Some people smoke a joint, some people have a glass of wine, some people do meditations, some people do pilates, some people go out for a run – just do what ever it is that calms you down. Sometimes maybe the first song is what you need just to get you to that space as well, because you get deeper and deeper as you get in to it.
I think that listening with your eyes closed or with very little visual distraction is the best way to listen to music, because we all depend upon our sight as our primary sense and we forget about our sense of hearing. In some ways our sense of hearing is more important because we can hear things that we canʼt see.
Step 5: Listen
The most important thing is to listen to the album from beginning to end, without interruption. I think you have to give the music a chance, because itʼs not just aural wallpaper. Of course, thereʼs a difference between hearing and listening. We hear a lot of music everywhere but are we listening? True listening takes a bit of time and like everything you get better at it the more you do it. In a way, it’s like meditation. You have to put your ego to the side, sit down and shut up.
While you’re listening, itʼs a case of zoning out in some ways, but zoning in in others. Of course we all have music playing when weʼre working or at dinner parties, or itʼs playing in the car and itʼs like a music video in front of your eyes. Thatʼs ambience and soundtracking. The Classic Album Sundays experience and what you can do at home is listen and focus intently on the music and not really do much else.
Step 6: Reflect
First you have to lift the needle up. That is really important. After you do that, I like a little bit of quiet and if I’m alone I probably just wouldnʼt say anything and wouldnʼt do much for a little bit.
I tend not to put the same album on again straight away, but you can try one by the same artist. If you can do it in chronological order thatʼs really interesting. I don’t think thereʼs any real rule, but a few moments of savouring is good.
Overal, the effect is less intellectual and more emotional and experiential, so it might not be “well I sat and I learned this today”, but more an emotionally overwhelming feeling in whichever direction the artist has helped you in. I think instrumental music can really do this quite well, because in a sense youʼre not being told what to think about. Something like Manuel Göttsching’s E2E4 can be so meditative. Maybe something like that empties you of thought, if you really want to get Zen about it.
Following last month’s Massive Attack session, Classic Album Sundays will be listening to Air’s Moon Safari on Sunday July 7th. The following week they’ll be celebrating the 40th anniversary of Tubular Bells at a charity event in The House of St. Barnabas and with Stevie Wonder, Cocteau Twins and A Tribe Called Quest in the CAS jukebox for the coming months, get yourself over to their website to find out more.