Reading lists

Ten ways to listen to music better

Every Song Ever is the definitive field guide to listening in an age of glorious overwhelming abundance. By revealing the essential similarities between wildly different kinds of music, Ben Ratliff shows how we listen to music now, and suggests how we can listen better

Better ways to listen to music

We are listening in the time of the cloud. First there was a person making up a song, as ritual or warning or memorial. Then there was a person singing an old song that someone had made up.   Then there was music in the church and the concert hall and bar and bordello; then the wax cylinder, gramophone, radio, cassette, CD player, downloadable digital file. And then there was the cloud. Now we can hear nearly everything, almost whenever, almost wherever, basically for free: most of the history of western music and a lot of the rest.

We know all that music is there. Some of us know, roughly, how to encounter a lot of it. But once we hear it, how can we allow ourselves to make sense of it? We can use new reasons to feel points of intersection with all that inventory. We can use new features to listen for and new filters to listen through. And perhaps those features and filters should come from the act of listening itself, rather than from the vocabulary and grammar of the composer.

Can we really hear nearly everything? No. There is much more to the history of music than what has been copyrighted, recorded, and negotiated for by media companies. And you should keep that in mind as you read this book. But it is true enough for us to feel its truth. The amount is hard to quantify—a lot of music, in relation to what?—but its force is real.  So much out there, nearly all free. Even the most knowledgeable don’t know it all, or even the full extent of it. We have reached the point that the Tao Te Ching describes: “the more you know, the less you understand.”

Listen along to our playlist as Ratliff guides you through each section below:


‘The best of what we call repetition in music is really the opposite of repetition: subtle difference, slowly shifting backgrounds, a change moving against a constant.’

Ke$ha, James Brown, Benny Goodman


‘Slowness in music invites reciprocity: it makes the listener want to fill the spaces with his own content’

Marvin Gaye, Jackson 5, The Isley Brothers


‘They’re hanging on. Can you hang on? The experience of hearing music like this involves questioning whether it’s worth it, or whether you’re up to the task. What do you want out of music? Why are you here?’

Outkast, Jerry Lee Lewis, Domenico Scarlatti


‘There's a thing some singers do: they go transparent in their voices. When they sing it's as if they're ventriloquists, with some clear distinction between themselves and their forces. They minimize themselves. They seems released from anxiety.’

The Beatles, Maze, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan


‘You realise the power of a short silence when you hear it in the middle of Metallica's All Night Long, at the end of the Beatles’ A Day in the Life, after the strings finish rising and before the final chord; and all through Aaliyah's Are You That Somebody, where the silences seem to swing because they last a fraction of a second too long. John Cage's 4’33’, of course, is actual silence. It is about music, but it isn't music.’

Modern Jazz Quartet, Nat King Cole, Aaliyah

Stubbornness and the single note

‘The repeated note is often the tonic note, the home address of the melody. Solos bearing down on the tonic have the honest charm of a person who never shook off the speech and manners of where he was born…’

Joao Gilberto, The Ramones, Drake


‘What do we really mean when we say music is sad?’

Nick Drake, Etta Jones, Black Sabbath

Audio Space

‘Think of your ears as eyes ... Most of the advances in production and audio technology have had to do with making elements of music sound like they’re in your face or down the hall or next door, around you or evenly before you, flat or tired…’

The Who. Miley Cyrus, Pink Floyd


‘And now we get into one of the most mysterious properties of music, a crowdedness that we can’t see, a proximity that we can’t feel... A quality of space: a heavy atmosphere, a force…’

Chaka Khan, Miles Davis, Public Enemy


‘An improvisation will always fall short of autobiography. But it can get part of the way there: it is an unusually transparent work of the imagination…’

Jimi Hendrix, Coleman Hawkins, Iannis Xenakis

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