When was the last time you listened to music? We don’t mean turning on the radio for some passive background noise whilst you were driving or doing housework. We mean paying such close attention that you are oblivious to anything else going on besides the music you hear.
Ideally, you will have a pair of good quality noise cancelling headphones and be sitting comfortably in a darkened room, with nothing more to focus on than the melody, harmony, and rhythm as they flow through your ears and into your soul.
Active listening brings you into the music unlike anything else. It gives you a whole new sense of a song or piece and your appreciation of it. For this reason, active listening is an essential skill for any musician – one that will bring you closer to the music you hear, play, and write. It also helps you develop your skills as an amateur music critic – someone who can dissect a piece, pick out what was and wasn’t well-executed, and apply the good parts to your own craft.
Let’s look at the different facets of active listening. We’ll look at the methodology of actively listening, then explore the benefits it brings to your understanding and appreciation of music.
How to Actively Listen to Music
Though practice is an undoubtedly important part of improving your skill, taking the time to put down your instrument and listen is equally valuable. When you are actively listening, your brain is absorbing the details and subtleties of the music, and internalizing it on a deeper level than with casual listening.
So grab those noise-cancelling headphones, go to a calm place, and put on your favourite track.
Concentrate on the depth of sounds and try to dissect the music. What instruments can you hear? Listen out for the timbre, melody, and rhythm. It is important that you resist the urge to start humming along, regardless of how catchy the tune is, as you will soon slip in to passive listening. Instead, listen to each piece with a critical mindset.
If there is a particular piece of music that you are looking to recreate, it’s a good idea to go into the listening exercise knowing exactly what you want to find out, and break it down into several listens, each focusing on a different aspect of the music. Listen to the song repeatedly, each time focusing on a different instrument. How does the song build in tempo and drama? What are the chord changes? How do the lyrics fit into the song? Is there repetition, and if so, what’s the structure? What’s the catchy part that makes you think, “I love this piece!”?
Looking to appreciate the song through another lens? Try slowing it down to better hear the individual instrumental parts.
Now that we know the basics of active listening, let’s look at the benefits it brings you as a musician…
Appreciate Musicians’ Efforts
Sometimes, it isn’t until you sit down and actively listen to a song that you really notice how much work went into creating it. Whether it’s a symphony, a pop tune, a ballad, or a heavy metal track, active listening lets you appreciate how much thought a songwriter or composer put into the music.
You may have heard artists say they wrote a song in 20 minutes on a restaurant napkin and think, “Wow! What a great payout for 20 minutes’ work!”, but the intricacies of bringing such words to life is where the hard work comes in – and that artist has likely spent years honing the skills required to write that tune in 20 minutes.
By listening a little more intently, you can better understand how every piece was developed gradually. Deciphering exactly what goes into a piece of music can be like peeling an onion layer by layer. Yes, the vocals, bass guitar, and drums may stand out, but listen closely for more delicate sounds – a harp, the triangle, some atmospheric sounds – these can really be instrumental (no pun intended!) when tying the piece together.
Gain Confidence in Your Opinions
You don’t have to be a music critic to have valuable opinions on music. Anyone who listens to music has the right to comment on it! However, it can occasionally be a challenge to articulate your thoughts. You might know if you like or dislike a song, but you might have trouble expressing exactly why. When you actively listen to music, you can break things down more easily and pinpoint exactly what draws you in.
For instance, you might really like a song because of the drumbeat. When active listening, you can zero in on the drumbeat, taking note of the kick, snare, and hi-hat patterns on certain beats, the feeling they create, and why you like it. On the contrary, you can use active listening to discern why you don’t like part or all of a song.
This kind of song dissection is a great exercise for your ears, and remember – you can still appreciate a song and all the work a composer put in while also having valid criticisms!
Practice Away From Your Instrument
Just because you don’t have your instrument handy doesn’t mean you can’t get some practice in. Active listening actually does just as much for your musicality as playing your own instrument for an hour – it strengthens your relationship with your craft in a different way. Try counting the rhythms or noting the intervals of the melody as you listen to a song. It’s also worthwhile taking notes about the general theory of the song.
Track Your Progress
Active listening gives you something to aspire to. When you pay close attention to the technique, songwriting, and singing of other musicians, their prowess inspires you to challenge your own capabilities.
If you feel bored with what you’re currently learning, it could be because you’re coasting on easy songs and techniques. Actively listening to some more challenging and intricate pieces is an excellent way to motivate yourself to step out of your comfort zone!
Active listening can help bring you into a zone of tranquillity. When you are letting every note and rhythm fall into your ears, you can achieve a zen-like state of total concentration and immersion in the music.
This is a form of mindfulness practice. You might have other thoughts and concerns come up, but you can put them aside and bring your attention back to the music. A song is more than a song when you’re actively listening. It becomes a world that you enter. You can also create a special relationship between yourself and the song that can’t be changed by anyone else.
Expand Your Playlist
Whilst you don’t have to know everything about each genre of music to be a great musician, actively listening to a variety of different styles helps hone your musicality.
Each musical genre places a different emphasis on different aspects of the music. Classical music is perfect for exploring how different instruments interact in a piece. Hip hop and rap music are excellent listening material for honing in on the flow and rhythm of lyrics, and how they complement the instrumental section. Listening to rock and pop music makes for a great lesson in musical harmony.
Becoming a Master Listener and a Casual Music Critic
Looking at each song as a piece of artwork, listening, and critiquing it accordingly based on certain benchmarks such as production, lyrics, technical aspects, originality, and musicianship is an exercise that will help you improvise, play, perform, and songwrite better.
After an active listening session, ask yourself: How did the music make you feel? Would you listen to the song again? Would others? Keep in mind, when critiquing another artist’s music, you do need to maintain a degree of objectivity, not just your own personal taste – this will enable you to see the technical skill and musicianship in each piece, even if it isn’t exactly your cup of tea. You can find inspiration in a single note or key change that you may end up applying to your own practice.
Besides the practical benefits of active listening, there is a component of joy to the practice – listening to music free of distractions and with as much attention as possible lets us find a unique and priceless kind of pleasure.
It’s never too late for anyone to learn active listening. Simply put on a piece of music and listen to it with your eyes closed. Pay attention to how it develops, what instruments and effects are involved, how they’re arranged, and what was and wasn’t executed well. Finally, think about how you can use its influence to direct your own playing and songwriting.