In spite of the fact that it’s 2020 and we’re in the era of being able to instantly stream almost all of the world’s recorded music from a mobile device, I’m still scouring charity shops and Amazon for second-hand CDs to fill out my collection. Why am I taking the path of most resistance when technology makes it easier to fulfil any and all of my listening desires?

I’ll cut straight to the point: this year, I’m challenging myself to learn 100 albums by ear. When I say ‘learn’, I don’t mean that I’m actually going to sit down and transcribe every single note of those 100 albums; that would be incredible for my musicianship, but it would also take an insane amount of time and effort. I mean that I want to get to the point where every album is in my musical memory and I know each tune inside out from a listening perspective – we all have our ‘go-to’ records where we know exactly which note or lyric comes next.

The Listening Diet for 2020

My new prescription is this: take two contrasting artists at a time and listen through their entire discographies from start to finish. One album a week from each artist, listened to in its entirety every day. Why? Because musicians that I respect including Michael League, Jacob Collier and Bob Reynolds have all been saying things that made me realise that my current listening habits are giving me a broad but shallow understanding of music.

We now live in the age of information, where you can access almost anything within a couple of minutes – the problem is learning how to handle all of that information in a meaningful way. Don’t get me wrong, streaming services are an amazing invention, especially when it comes to making playlists of tunes that I have to learn for gigs or digging up obscure albums, but having access to anything and everything at all times isn’t always such a good thing – I increasingly find that I don’t know what to listen to because there’s too much choice.

Something that Michael League from Snarky Puppy said in an interview on the great Bass Lessons Melbourne YouTube channel really stuck with me:

“We’re kind of incapable of creating sound that isn’t directly related to a sound that we’ve heard before”

He then followed with this absolute gem:

“When we play music, we play our record collection. When we write music, we write our record collection.”

But who still has a record collection any more? The downside of having the musical equivalent of an all-you-can-eat-buffet in your pocket is that it devalues music (in every sense of the word) and makes it easy to have a broad but shallow understanding of things. I went to a Bob Reynolds saxophone masterclass last year, where he was said that as a teenager he would get really into one album at a time – because that was all that he could afford – and that process of quality over quantity helped him to get a deeper understanding of the music that inspired him. This definitely rings true for me; as a teenager, I would listen to certain albums incessantly because they were the only music I had access to and those records have all definitely had a lasting impact on the way that I hear music and play the bass.

Under The Influence

But how does listening to 100 albums a year help you as a bassist? The answer is ear training; not the sort of ‘academic’ ear training of interval recognition, but stylistic ear training – carefully managing your listening habits to help you develop a personal voice on your instrument.

There’s a great book on this called Primacy of the Ear by Ran Blake which is the only place where I’ve come across the idea of targeted listening to develop a personal style. The earlier strategy of taking two contrasting artists and to listen to their recorded output in chronological order comes directly from Blake. Taking in the entire discography in order gives you get a sense how the artists’ playing and writing developed over the arc of their career. It also gives you a historical context for everything that you’re hearing, allowing you to ‘join the dots’ and see where your influences sit within the bigger picture of musical history. This understanding of where things come from is often what’s missing when we take an ADHD approach to streaming and simply put on whatever’s on our mind at that particular moment.

I’m starting out with two of my favourite improvisers: Bill Evans and Pat Metheny. One album from each per week, in chronological order. I’m in my third week and already I’ve learned a ton of stuff that I was ignorant of before.

Ready for the #100albumchallenge?

If you’re up for the challenge then it’s really easy to do without starting a CD collection; you can simply use your preferred streaming service (technology is a wonderful thing when we control it, not the other way round). Pick two artists that you love; it definitely doesn’t have to be jazz, it can be anything at all – I did this with The Beatles last year because I didn’t really ‘get’ them when I was younger and it worked wonders for my appreciation of their music. A brief visit to Wikipedia or will give you access to an artist’s discography so you can map out their career and put albums in order. All you have to do then is make time to listen to each album once a day for a week.

I’m really curious to know what other people choose for this challenge, so if you’re willing to give it a try then leave a comment to let me know who you’re listening to.