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How many listens does it take to grok an album?


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A neologism coined by American writer Robert A. Heinlein for his 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1961), "grok" is summarized in the Oxford English Dictionary as "to understand intuitively or by empathy, to establish rapport with" and "to empathize or communicate sympathetically (with)"; "also, to experience enjoyment."

As a freelance writer devoted to music, the greatest of all art forms, I have the privilege of not only listening to a lot of music, but also listening in a variety of ways. The fundamental premises of my hearings are analytical and pure pleasure, but, either way, I find it fascinating to note how I comprehend, aka grok, the music and I am curious about the experience(s) of others, writers or not.

Certainly listening to an album with an eye toward reviewing demands at least (and usually more than) one close listening, to the exclusion of other stimuli and activities. It's a setting similar to the way most of us watch a movie and while taking notes isn't necessarily compulsory, I invariably find myself doing so anyway, if only for the sake of precluding any loss(es) of prime phraseology in the moment(s) it comes to mind.

There are other means of hearing and processing music though and I find each offers a viable perspective by which to grok it. Whether playing the tunes while driving or as background to cooking, housecleaning, etc., there's valuable and no less worthwhile insight to be gleaned from these indirect means: it's Archimedes' incubation process in a musical context.

More often than not, a minimum of five or six sessions, in a variety of combinations, is optimum for composing a piece of prose devoted to the piece of music in question. But there have been those rare cases I have encountered in the past, wherein I become convinced I have fully-comprehended an album on the very first listen; in such instances, I have stood by my observations for the short term and, in more cases than not, I end up doing so for the long term too. Such resonance only lends further credence to that initial response.

There are exceptions to the latter scenario, of course, just as there are those (in)frequent instances where a return to a well-known album (or artist), after a protracted period removed, has resulted in a wholly different perception than the original (no longer a fan of latter-day Gov't Mule). Deliberate and purposeful concentration on a given artist (most recently Australia's great Paul Kelly) has also more fully revealed the nuanced virtues of their work.

It all makes me wonder exactly what goes into any given reaction to music live or recorded, but that's an even bigger question, is it not?

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