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  • Writer's pictureAdam Chan

What is the difference between like and listening?

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

It is all too common to hear this statement within the context of guitar playing; "I still like the XXX sound."

XXX represents any brands in the guitar market. In an other words, someone has revealed his or her preference in taking a liking to a certain guitar brand.

Is that listening?

Firstly there is no wrongdoing to like something and by all means do so. It is also true that our likings have significant influences on the kind of music we would listen to. When people sometimes mixed up their likings with listening, things become interesting.

So what is the difference between like and listening?

In a typical guitar gathering, a room with 4 to 5 guitar enthusiasts, each armed with his or her own favourite acoustic guitar. Singing, comping and improvising away.

Someone suggested a blind listening session to determine which guitar gets the most vote of like for its tonal quality.

In a knock-out fashion, each guitar was played with everyone faced away. The guitar that gets the most vote would be the one with the most liked tone.

Eventually one guitar emerged with the most votes. Are the rest inferior in tone then? Not quite.

Such blind listening simply reveal in an authentic manner, minus brand influences, the guitar tone that was most liked. Nothing was said about it being the best guitar in the room.

Suffice to say that the owners of the others "not voted" guitars would not ditch their guitars because of the outcome of the blind listening session.

When visual stimuli are restricted, listeners can hear in greater details from a sound sample. Bass notes, mid-range or high notes can be heard and evaluated with greater level of accuracy and objectivity.

Singing competitions like "The Voice" and “中国好声” have demonstrated the benefits in restricting visual stimuli of the judges.

What if the judges were allowed to look at the contestants?

What if the guitars were played in the open for all the see before voting?

Being a guitar maker, I voiced my guitars as I make them. It is very humbling to be able to make guitars that are responsive and accepted as having good tone by my customers.

From my experiences with string-instruments, I have identified 4 attributes related to tonal quality as benchmarks. I have set these 4 for my acoustic guitars.

They are

1) Bass; bass notes should be felt, not only heard. Deep, thick and rolling.

2) Separation; multiple notes coming from various strings should be clear and identifiable.

3) Balance; every string should be audible but not necessary of the same volume projection.

4) Sustain; above all, sustain must be enduring thereby giving players adequate time to hear various tones, notes and frequencies.

So what is listening?

To hear what is present or absent. To give weight to our ears instead of using the eyeballs to look. Evaluate sound samples using a set of relevant benchmarks. Identify what are the strengths and weaknesses against the benchmarks. Stay out of brands comparison.

For example, a guitar was played and its tone exhibited strong presence of the 4 attributes. Everyone heard it. Each listener made his or her own conclusion.

If everyone likes it, all is well. If someone doesn't like it and remarked that the tone was not of quality standard, then it may be a problem. If we didn't like being disciplined when we were young, it doesn't mean disciplining is wrong. Making such conclusion would inevitably be challenged.

So what is the point? In short; You can don't like it but you can't say it is lousy.

After giving a guitar a proper listening, the listener can still not like that guitar. However the listener would be indefensible to say that guitar has a lousy tone.

Going back to the opening paragraph, "I still like the XXX sound." That was someone revealing his or her preference. Like does not indicate high quality just as dislike doesn't mean low quality.

Some guitars can exhibit weak presence of the 4 attributes. However you can still find individuals who would favour such guitars. They simply like.

It is preference. It is not to be confused with listening.

So the next time when you are going sample a guitar for its tonal quality, consider giving the guitar a fair shot at the target. Listen, listen and listen. DON'T just look at the brand name on its headstock.

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