It seems we can't move an inch these days without being bombarded by the latest studio upgrades. Brand new or new-retro, they promise the world, either filling you with a lusty desire to purchase and think, "Wow, that looks amazing, if only I had it. Then I really would be making the music I want to make".
Or, just as often if not more, these sirens of temptation sing their songs of promise, filling you with despair that you just don't have the funds for that shiny new piece of gear, this month, or maybe ever.
But does it need to be that way? Let's take a moment to broaden our definition of what music equipment is. Oxford has the definition as:
Equipment or apparatus that is used for a particular purpose"
Our particular purpose is making great sounding music. So if we think outside the box a little, what is the one piece of apparatus we couldn't do without?
Of course, we'd all love to hang on to that vintage Fender or that Soviet valve compressor (they say it used to belong to Lenin himself), but there's one thing without which we wouldn't get very far at all. For a hint. It's actually in the word 'gear'.
We have two of them and they're the most important part of the signal chain. (I'm discounting the brain. Hmmm, maybe a good topic for another blog post.)
Can we upgrade our hearing?
The answer is yes.
We can do it instantly. Entirely for free.
Close your eyes.
It's that simple. It makes intuitive sense that by cutting off visual distractions we can improve our ability to resolve sounds and focus on the music we're interacting with.
Perhaps a lot of us know this already, but how many of us actually act upon it? It's such a simple thing but we can alter our perception and view a piece of music we're working on in a new light by simply closing our eyes.
But don't take my word for it.
As far back as 1964 Gerald Newmark and Edward Diller did some interesting and presumably cutting edge research at the time, on the use of audio tapes in language learning.
"...having eyes closed helps eliminate distractions, increases listening concentration..."
They describe tactics such as playback at increased speed, or hearing the same material recorded with different voices, all with eyes closed, increased comprehension and learning rates.
What were they getting at?
Apart from increased hearing sensitivity, closing our eyes gives us a new perspective on a piece of music that we've heard many times over. As we work on our own music, while we can never replicate the experience of listening to a song for the first time, we are constantly seeking ways in which we can simulate listening afresh. Think of the car stereo test, taking a walk with headphones or listening on your friend's system. These are all ways that we can get a new perspective on our work, helping us identify strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully allowing us to assess whether or not the music is genuinely, well, good.
More recently in 2009, Lerner et al. performed a neurological study where they scanned the brain with fMRI. Their hypothosis was that having closed eyes increases the emotional impact of music. Makes sense.
They decided to focus on negative music which they cut from horror film soundtracks and used commercial and non-horror film music as a neutral control. Indeed the subjective results came in as they hoped and the fMRI scans backed up the theory:
"As expected, behavioral results showed that closing the eyes while listening to emotional music resulted in enhanced rating of emotionality, specifically of negative music. In correspondence, fMRI results showed greater activation in the amygdala when subjects listened to the emotional music with eyes closed relative to eyes open."
It's a fascinating study and is freely available online to read in the link above if you have time.
So closing our eyes not only improves our hearing but also gives us a fresh perspective and increases our emotional engagement with the music. But it can be hard to remember to do this, so here are some strategies to help turn idea into habit.
First up, as much as possible:
Now I will agree, that work has to get done and it can be a bit forced to always fully close your eyes. Not to mention it has ramifications with not being able to see your instruments and equipment! But, I do encourage you to try and fully close your eyes as often as possible. Sit back from the controls and review. Listen closely and deeply.
In the cases when fully closing your eyes is not possible, we can take the idea down a notch by reducing the amount of visual distraction in our enviroment. Here are some starter ideas:
Of course there are many more!
So do yourself a favour, close those eyes and listen. Truly listen. You'll make better decisions and better music.