Any audio expert will tell you that the best way to train your ears and brain to recognize fine audio components is to attend live music events. More specifically, live events with no amplification. You could go to the orchestra or a jazz club or a piano bar, whatever. Just get your ear in front of percussion, brass, strings and woods to develop a sense memory of these live events. For me this hasn't been very easy, I don't have the time or resources (or taste) to seek out these events.
Instead I stumble across live music that is unnecessarily amplified. If anything, these music sessions are ruining my ears instead of improving. Some examples:
- The Potbelly's sandwich shop by my work employs a dude with an acoustic guitar and a voice. His instruments are amplified over the restaurant's crappy PA system (or whatever Bose or JBL wall mount speakers you can order from a restaurant supply house), flooding my ears with mellow Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel tunes. The musician's presence is all encompassing, the Potbelly's offers no quiet pocket of space (they even pipe him into the men's room. In the summer we eat outside, still no relief from another shrill, pitiful "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
- Another lunch spot, Chicago Flat Sammies, shares a space with a Chicago Tourist Info Center Pamphletville (not sure what it's really called). The few times we've eaten there some really old lounge singer is playing a piano and impressing old ladies with Frank Sinatra hits or whatever other songs from that era make me feel dead inside. The space has a very high vaulted ceiling which probably amplifies the piano and singer just fine but again he is amplified so loud I can't enjoy my $10 Nachos.
- A few months ago we took our daughter to a Thomas the Tank Engine Festival. By the end of the day we found a tent with Dan-The One Man Band. Dan rocked an acoustic guitar, bass drum, high hat, kazoo and a train whistle while singing. All amplified, but not too loud and we sat and danced with the kids near the back. So, it was pleasant, but not an opportunity for ear training. Dan sang a Johnny Cash song, which is rare at a kids' show.
- Earlier this month we went to a local horse show. After watching a miniature horse pull an old fat guy around in a cart we decided to check out other activities. A folk music trio was playing to the side of the barbecue pit with two picnic tables in front of their fold-out trailer stage. Though their audience was only ten feet away they were blasting their fiddle, guitar, banjo and mountain harmonies over large speakers. Even though I got choked up from the music's genuine beauty, we had to leave after a song and a half because it was just too loud.
The last real music I heard was a few years ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art's summer jazz series. I just started actively training my ears and the shows were right across the street from my condo. Though the performances were in the open air I remember the signature sounds of an upright bass and the cymbals and snare in the drum kit. I've never heard a hi-fi set up come close.
It's hard to break out of your synthesized analogy of music you settle for in your listening room. Even harder is the prospect of finding live music that will deliver a true signature of an instrument without interference from a PA system. Most days we're all stuck with just our iPod and headphones.
How hard is it for you to experience raw, unamplified and live music?