How to “Hear Like A Musician”

Hello and welcome back for part two of this special on active listening and how to hear like a musician. We’re joined by Andrew Bishko from the Musical U team.

In part one we tackled the “what”: What is active listening? What does it mean to have a musician’s ear? And in this part we’re going to follow that up by talking about the nitty gritty of how to do it. We hope you’re super excited to learn about active listening!

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Christopher: Hello and welcome back for part two of this special two-parter on active listening and how to hear like a musician. I’m joined by Andrew Bishko from the Musical U team and in part one as you may have heard, we geeked out for a lot longer than we intended to on this whole topic of active listening because it’s something we are both very passionate about and I’ll just briefly recap to remind you or to encourage you to go back and listen to that first episode in full if you missed it, but it’s probably already clear, but this is a very informal, laid back type of episode. We haven’t scripted things out. We are kind of winging it and relying on the fact that we have been geeking out on this topic for a few months developing this new product called The Musician’s Ear, which we were originally going to release later this year, but got so absorbed in how relevant it was to Beatles Month, we realized actually that was the perfect time to put it out there.

So as of today, as of a couple of days ago when the first episode came out, you can go to and learn all about this amazing new training we put together for developing the skill of active listening. But in the last episode and in this episode we really wanted to just give you the overview in a very informal, relaxed way, the way we would if you were a musician buddy of ours who had never done active listening and we wanted to get you excited about the prospect and show you a little bit about how to do it.

So, in part one we tackled the “what”: What is active listening? What does it mean to have a musician’s ear? And in this part we’re going to follow that up, assuming you’re already super excited to know about active listening by talking about the nitty gritty of how to do it. So if you want this end result that we talked about in part one where rather than just experiencing music as a bit of a blur that you might feel an affinity to or get an emotion from and have a few words to describe or a few things you’re aware of, transforming that into hearing it the way a professional orchestral musician would or a seriously good composer would or your friend Jeff who always seems to be able to talk for 10 pages about the track he’s just heard, without knowing anything about the band or the kind of facts and trivia behind it, he just seems to hear music in a completely different level of depth and detail and richness than you seem to.

How do you get that kind of ear? That’s what we’re talking about and in this part, as I said, we’re going to go through the kind of process of active listening and how you can do it. Before I ramble any more, I will just give Andrew a chance to introduce himself. Andrew is our product manager and content editor at Musical U. Andrew, say a little bit about yourself, if you would.

Andrew: Well, I’m a musician. I play many different instruments. I’m a world music enthusiast, so I have played in reggae and salsa and Irish and Klezmer and right now I have a Mariachi band, Mexican Mariachi band.

Christopher: Terrific. So if our listeners or viewers aren’t already aware of what active listening is, please do go back either to part one of this two-parter or we also have an episode all about active listing from the archive. We’ll link to both of those in the show notes. We’re going to take for granted now that you know what active listening is, why you should be so enthusiastic about it, and we’re going to pick up where we left off really of how do you actually do it, what does it mean? When we talk about actively listening, what does that look like in practice?

And maybe we can pick up with a point from the last episode that really at the core of it, we’re talking about listening mindfully. We’re talking about being present in the moment and actively bothering to listen, not just hearing music in a passive way, not just having it on in the background and not just hearing that big blur of sound without making any effort to pick it apart. We’re talking about being 100% focused on the music you hear.

And at the end of this episode, we’re going to talk a little bit about the fact that although that might sound like really hard work, in practice it isn’t super hard. So even though I’m talking about 100% attention and paying careful details, don’t worry that this is an arduous process. I think probably in the last episode we talked too much, if anything, about how much fun this is and how enjoyable it actually is. So rest assured, when we’re talking about paying attention, you’re paying attention to the thing you love most in the world. If you’re anything like us.

So Andrew, what are we talking about? If we sit down to do some active listening, what’s the clear and succinct way someone can approach this?

Andrew: We talk about mindfulness and being mindful and being able to be aware of something. There’s something that you need to focus your attention and that thing is to listen with a question in mind. You’re looking for something and so if you have a question, if you actually think, okay, what’s going on here? And we’ll talk in a minute about what this question is could be, but if we have a question in our mind, we’re actively engaging, it’s not hard to pay attention because we’re wanting to know the answer.

Christopher: Absolutely. And this is another case where there is that parallel to mindfulness meditation in sense that with meditation, if you try and just be present, it’s really hard to do. And so a lot of the methods will say, focus on your breath, like pay attention to that thing, whether it’s like the sensations or the sounds around you or your breath. Most meditation teaching for mindfulness meditation will give you a specific thing to focus your attention on. And that’s what we’re talking about here.

And before we go any further, I want to make sure we reiterate something we said in the last episode, which is this is not about getting the answers right. You know, that is one thing that distinguishes it from ear training, I guess, is that we’re not listening with a question in mind because we want the answer to that question right now and we need to get it right or we are a failure.

That’s not the way we’re using the term question here. We’re using it for the broad sense of focus. We’re listening with a curiosity in mind, would be another way of putting it. So we are tuning into a particular thing, but it’s not about “can I get the answer right?” or “can I score a perfect result on this quiz?”

So that being said, Andrew, you said you could give some examples of the kind of questions you might have. And in the previous episode we’ll link, I reeled off a few that you might think about, but what kinds of things are we talking about here? If we listen with a particular question in mind?

Andrew: One of the best places to start I think is with, what are the instruments? Simply picking out, and a lot of times we can start with just general instrumentation. Is this a rock band? Which is, drums, bass, guitar, keyboards. Is this a orchestra? Does it have this or that or the other thing?

And then next, when we have a general sense of what we understand the ensemble to be is picking out the different instruments and saying, okay, here is a guitar, there’s a keyboard sound here. Oh, they put a violin in this part. And that was one, for example, with the Beatles, it was a big deal because they were a rock band, when George Martin added strings to the band. So like hearing, “Oh you know, here’s the strings.” That string sound. You know, how does that come in there? So you’re listening for what the instruments are. So, that’s one really good question.

Then, you can take one of those instruments. For example, you can listen to a song and follow that instrument all the way through. What’s the bass doing in the song? A lot of times, the bass is something we don’t really pay a lot of attention to because we’re listening to the melody, we’re listening to the lyrics. So we start to say, okay, what’s going on here in the background? And so there’s this idea of the background and the foreground. Usually we’re paying attention to, in a pop song, let’s say, to the melody, to the lyrics, to the vocalist. So we’re going to say, okay, what’s happening in the bass? What’s happening in the guitar? What are the drums doing? What’s happening back there? We start to listen to those different instruments. So first picking them out, second, listening to them. These are questions.

Then we can start asking questions about the rhythms and the pitches and all the other different musical elements that come together to make a whole piece of music.

Christopher: Yeah, and that’s a great case in point I think because if you ask yourself, what are the instruments? That’s not a super interesting question on the face of it. Right? And to come back to what I was saying before, we don’t really care about the right answer. So, we’re not saying ask yourself what the instruments are, because then you will know what the instruments are, because that matters. As Andrew just talked through, you’re asking that question because it immediately starts your ears listening in a different way. Once you ask that question of exactly what instruments can I hear, your ear is actively going and trying to find different instruments in the mix in a way it wasn’t before and you would have just heard this general rock sound, for example. But as soon as you ask actually what instruments are there, you might hear a keyboard part jump out at you that you’ve been oblivious to before.

And what’s cool is that will never go away. Like, next time you hear that song, whether you’re listening with that question in mind or not, you’ll be aware of that keyboard part. And on a larger scale, the more you do this kind of thing, the more what you’ll start to hear that, even without asking the question. So, I think that’s a great case where a very simple question and one you don’t particularly care about the answer to actually is the perfect vehicle for awakening your ear to what’s going on in a depth and a detail you just weren’t aware of before.

Andrew: You were describing this experience in the last episode, and I want to highlight that here is that the cool thing about active listening is that once the door is open, it stays open. You hear something. It’s like once it’s there, it’s like seeing a new color. If suddenly if all your world was only, you know, blue and yellow and someone suddenly gave you a red crayon and you’ve never seen red before, it’s like you would never not see it. It would always be there. And when you hear these things and it’s not like you have to like strain for it, once it’s there, it’s there. And just with a simple little question in your mind, you can open these doors and your awareness just starts to pop and pop and pop.

Christopher: Absolutely. Yeah. And I fear if I mention meditation one more time, listeners going to write in and be like, “Look, Christopher, just start your own meditation podcast. We’re tired of hearing you talk about it.” But I was interviewed recently on a productivity podcast and I was going on about mindfulness meditation and one of the points I made was I would’ve bothered to try it out a lot sooner if someone had explained to me what people don’t often mention, which is yes, the daily practice of meditation is good, but actually if you do it daily for a few days, it changes your brain in a way that lasts forever and you have that more mindful ability to respond rather than react. You have that present moment awareness in a way that never goes away, even if you stop your daily practice. And the same thing is true here, like Andrew was saying, it’s not that you need to make sure you always listen with a question in mind and give music your 100% attention to get all of these amazing benefits.

It’s kind of an investment where you put in the effort and the more you put in the effort, the better your ear becomes. And then it’s just automatic and it’s effortless and it’s joyful because you’ve transformed the way your brain and ear operate. So I think that’s a really important thing to say because like I said, you know, with meditation I would have bothered a lot sooner if someone had mentioned that to me. I always saw it as this ongoing thing I’d always have to put effort into.

But actually, this is the same, where you put in the core effort and in our Musician’s Ear course, it’s a 10 week program, not requiring a ton of time for 10 weeks, but spread over the course of 10 weeks. By the end of that 10 weeks, you’re going to hear music differently for the rest of your life. It’s not that it’s just that 10 weeks where you have some fun with music. It’s that it transforms you in a way that lasts forever, whether or not you continue giving it careful care and attention.

So, sorry. Another little burst of enthusiasm there. We’re meant to be focusing on the how Andrew, the how, not just the benefits and joy.

Andrew: It’s easier than meditation. Okay?

Christopher: It’s true. It’s a lot more musical than meditation, too.

So we said questions are useful and I’m sure at this point you’re thinking, you know, how do I know what questions to ask or what do I do after I’ve asked what instruments are present. And Andrew, you came up with a really beautiful framework for thinking about all of this kind of stuff for the handbook that goes in the Musician’s Ear Course. So maybe you can just share that four dimensional model, at the risk of sounding too scientific that we use in the course to kind of group these questions and give people a structure that lets them explore a lot in different directions.

Andrew: Okay. So we like to use the term “musical dimensions” thanks to our bass pro Steve Lawson. We like to use it when thinking about music as all these different components that come together and them each one being their own dimension and how they work together. And so we are talking about instruments. The sound of an instrument is a timbre. A timbre is what makes the banjo sound different than the flute.

It’s what makes one instrument different sounding than the other. And again, before, you don’t have to even be able to name it. You don’t have to know the difference between a banjo and the flute to hear that their sounds are different. So, that’s one of the dimensions.

Then the next one we talk about is pitch. Pitch is the highness and the lowness of the sound. So you know, basically if you think of a melody, it goes in three directions. It goes up, it goes down, or it stays the same. I mean, when you move from one note to the next note. And it can go up big or it can go up small or same thing. So, this is the element of pitch and also pitch has do with harmony, how notes sound when they play together. So listening to the harmonies.

Rhythm also has several aspects. Rhythm being first of all, the pulse of the music, and then rhythm has to do with the longness and shortness of the notes. So is it going to be short little things or it’s going to be? Are the notes gonna be long and simply by looking at melody for example, where the notes are short and where they are long can tell you a lot about that melody and what the differences between one part of one section and the other section of music. A lot of times, you think about rhythm, we’re just thinking about drums and things like that, but rhythm is in all of music, in melodies as well.

Dynamics is the loudest or the softness of the sound. So, it’s the amount of energy that it’s carrying. A lot of times that could mean just loud. Everything loud. But there’s certain things in the music that are going to be more loud and certain things are going to be softer. There’s certain styles of music like classical music where there’s a great amount of attention put on the dynamics and things growing louder, growing softer and the dynamic and interplay between it. So these are like the four basic musical dimensions and if you use them to create questions, you’re going to start to hear more and deeper into the music you love.

Christopher: Yeah, and I think what’s super cool about this is part of the reason we use the term dimensions is so that you don’t think these are just topics. You know, we could have talked about the four topics and given you a list of questions for each, but in the same way that in the real world and physical space we have like forwards, backwards, left, right up, down, kinds of dimensions, you can use those dimensions to answer a question like how do I get from my house to the bus stop? Or you can use it to answer questions like, when I’m making a sandwich, what order do I stack things in? That different level of granularity and different sense of exploring the dimensions is totally the case here too.

So for example, as you listened to Andrew talk through those, you may well have been thinking about a melody and hearing everything he was saying in terms of a melody, one note at a time, how do the notes move, how loud are they, but step back and you could be thinking about the whole piano part with up to 10 notes at once and asking those same questions about the instruments part, as a whole.

You could be thinking about them in terms of this instrument versus that instrument, or as Andrew was referring to before, the foreground and background of the music. You can think about them in terms of the time change and we’ll talk more about this in a moment, but how do these things differ from this moment of the piece to that moment of the piece and so they really are these broad, fundamental, structural, dimensional things that you can use as the kind of lens to look at any aspect, any layer of the music, any moment of the music, any role in the band.

And so in the handbook that goes along with the Musician’s Ear course, for example, we have a chapter on each of these and we go into them in great detail, but we also remind you frequently like the questions we’re giving you, you can ask them of a note or an instrument or a rhythm section or the brass section of the orchestra. You can apply them in so many different ways. It gives you this really versatile mental model for how to kind of approach listening to music and how to direct your attention to different areas that might be worth asking questions about.

So Andrew, I made reference there to how things change over time and we kind of tied this together in the handbook with the idea of form. So, for someone who’s not familiar with that or indeed, somebody who is, can you talk about how musical form that relates to those four dimensions?

Andrew: Absolutely. Musical form is how something changes, what changes and what stays the same through time in music. And we know when we’re listening to music, things are changing, otherwise it’s boring, right? But also things are staying the same. If they don’t stay the same, otherwise it’s just like, scattered. And there’s different levels of that.

And oftentimes there’s sections of music, like in a lot of popular music, there might be a section called diverse and then one called the chorus or something called the hook or something like that where you notice, okay, there’s a big change. Something happened to make this difference. Those are all conversations about form, about the structure of music and the form music. Now, it goes down to very small things. Like for example, in a melody, you might have just like a two or three note motif or a little thing that repeats, where you know, there was like, a five note thing that repeated at different pitches and you notice that it went up. It kind of wiggled around and went up and then I did the whole thing at different pitches, going up. So that’s a small example of musical form.

Or it could be, again, like the shift from one section to the other section and any one of those musical dimensions can be used to mark out that shift. So there can be a change in rhythm. Like, we were just talking about the song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and how there’s actually a meter shift, like from the verse is in triple meter. And then it shifts into this rock and roll four beat thing. It’s like, in four. Big, huge change, huge shift, this time marked out by the meter aspect of rhythm.

Also, things tend to get louder and softer in different sections. So you know, there’s all kinds of ways in which all the musical dimensions conspire together to separate different sections in the musical form.

Christopher: Yeah. And in the last episode we were talking a little bit about how active listening, at least as we approach it, is not about getting the answers right. It’s not about knowing the perfect terminology and that kind of thing. And I think this is a great example where if you tried to study musical form, unfortunately often all you get is the kind of clear factual, this is what form was used in the Baroque era and this is the verse/chorus structure of this song. And that’s the answer.

And actually, it can be so much more interesting than that. As Andrew’s just described, form is really about the grouping of music by keeping these different dimensions the same or changing them. And you know, any one of them can be tweaked and mark a new section or it can work with the others to define a section and once you start hearing form in this way, it’s so much more fluid and versatile, and by all means you can pin labels on it and say, you know, this is the refrain and this is the verse and whatever you like.

But the bottom line is, are you hearing those changes and can you pay attention to each level of the structure that’s going on? Because as Andrew said, it could be a few notes, it could be a few bars, it could be a few minutes. And that is really an exciting way to think about form if you’ve only ever heard about it, talked about, as “this is the answer. These are the forms you may use.”

So, that’s kind of how we tie everything together in the handbook that goes with the Musician’s Ear course. And it’s a good way for you to start thinking about these questions. So if you go away and start listening to music and trying to do active listening, think about these four dimensions and ask that secondary question of, okay, something’s changed in the music. What changed? What can I hear has stayed the same? What has suddenly gone different? And it might be about the arrangement, the orchestration. So the timbre Andrew was talking about. It might be the pitch. It might be the rhythm. It might be the dynamics. It’s most likely a combination of all of those. And as you pay more attention to that, you’ll find you become more kind of conscious and aware of all of these overarching structures that are going on all the time in music. And that’s really fun and exciting to experience.

So I asked Andrew if he could put together a little demonstration because as we were working on the Musician’s Ear, what we found was it was great to kind of codify all of this and hand you like, these are the four dimensions, here’s the idea of form, here are lots of questions and examples to get you thinking in the right way.

But we knew people would come out on that being like, “Okay, fantastic. What do I do now?” So actually the way we designed it is it’s this handbook and then a series of 10 listening guides that span over 10 weeks and walk you through tracks and talk you through what is going on and ask you questions that you then answer to really get you into the step by step process of doing active listening.

And so, I asked Andrew if, for this episode, we could just give a little taste of that so that you see, “Oh, okay. This is how all of this stuff actually comes to life,” with a literal example track. So Andrew, take it away.

Christopher: Cool. Okay. Fantastic. Well, you know, one of the things we were aiming for with the Musician’s Ear course was that it would be a bit like if your expert musician friend whose ears you always admired, sat down with you and just kind of talked you through what they heard and helped you to hear it, too. And hopefully that’s given everyone a little taster of what’s in this course and what that can be like to just have your ear woken up in that way that isn’t painstaking. It’s not about doing drills. It’s just about becoming more aware, becoming more appreciative and really hearing music in a whole new way.

So there was one little final thing we wanted to touch on there, which is the process of active listening as we talk about is really about sitting down with a track, listening in this particular way and maybe doing that a few times to kind of uncover everything you can about a track.

But there is a really cool thing you can do after, and this comes back to some of the side benefits we talked about in the last episode about musical memory and audiation. And that’s once you’ve done active listening as it were, once you’ve listened through to a track and you’ve kind of picked it apart, that’s something you can do afterwards that kind of amplifies the effect it will have on your musical awareness. And Andrew, maybe you can talk people through the mental reconstruction exercise?

Andrew: Yeah. So here is the ultimate portable musical exercise, because you don’t even need to open your mouth and make a sound, where you can take a piece of music and you’ve exercised active listening with it, you’ve listened to it and then you try and put it back together in your head so you’re actually listening to it. You’re imagining it.

Now, this is something we all do all the time. We all have like, some little soundtrack or little ditty here or something like that that we hear as we go through our day. But here we’re putting more attention on actually putting something together, either a whole section of that piece of music or even the whole song from start to finish, where we really start to understand all the different dimensions of that piece of music and reconstruct them in our minds.

It’s really fun and it’s something, you know, I like to do it when I’m going to sleep, I’ll be thinking about a song and I’ll just kind of reconstruct it my mind and then drift off. But it’s just very enjoyable but also extremely useful in terms of you’re exercising your musical memory, as we spoke about earlier. You’re exercising your active listening, you’re exercising your mental modeling and then if you can do it in your head, well, the next step is to be able to actually make the music yourself if that’s what you’re inclined to do, such as musicians like myself.

Christopher: Absolutely. And so what we’re talking about there is audiation and using your musical imagination to conjure up the music, even when it’s not playing. And this can be a really powerful way to see what active listening has done for you. So even when you’re at the beginner stage, you know, someone who’s just at the beginning of the Musician’s Ear course, or if you’ve just listened to these two podcast episodes and want to give it a try yourself.

Before you listen to a song, try and reconstruct it in your mind, and I’m sorry to say that you’ll probably be stunned how little you can manage. You know, it sounds so easy, but what you’ll probably find is you can hear one instrument, probably the melody instrument, maybe a little sense of the rhythm. You might realize you don’t know all the words if it’s a song. You probably realize you don’t quite remember the structure of it in terms of verse and chorus or whatever it may be, and you’ll realize actually your ability to construct it in your mind is fairly simplistic, even if you’re a very experienced musician.

Then spend 10 minutes listening to the song three times, or whatever the case may be. Doing active listening and asking yourself these guide questions like what instruments are present? How are things changing over time? Part of the four dimensions doing in each moment? And without planning ahead to the mental reconstruction, just doing the act of listening for the sake of it, finish your session by doing the mental reconstruction again and you will be stunned how much more vivid it is in your mind and how exciting that is because you realize you’ve just kind of, I don’t know, trained your brain, trained your imagination, put rich detail on what was a very bare bones ability. And all you’ve done is pay careful attention a few times through.

And so that’s what we’re talking about here and that before/after transformation. I wanted to mention it in this episode because it’s a really clear-cut way of seeing, oh, active listening is going to be super useful and you can do on day one. You can do that before and after. And you won’t have the perfect mental reconstruction. That’s not what we’re talking about, but you will see the dramatic transformation just from having spent the time paying careful attention, listening with a question in mind and stretching that musical imagination by paying careful listening attention.

Andrew: I just had that experience recently. You know, we’ve been doing this Beatles Month, and I’ve been listening to the Beatles all my life and at the same time as you’re doing this, I was hired to play “Blackbird” as a saxophone solo at a wedding and yeah, I probably could have just written it out and just read the music or something like that or found it written out.

But I did a listening guide at the same time. I was doing a listening guide that’s going to be part of this product on “Blackbird” and gosh, I mean, I’d heard the song all my life and it seems like such a simple song and when I did some active listening with it, I just discovered so many riches in the song. I learned so much about it.

And then when I went to play it, you know, as I’m playing it on a saxophone solo where I was just playing the melody, I was playing a few tidbits from the guitar parts, but I was hearing the rest of the music and responding to it. So, playing it was such a deeper, richer experience for me because I had taken the time to do metal reconstruction, to do the active listening guide, then do mental reconstruction because I was thinking about my arrangement when I was driving, you know, or something, or when I was going to sleep and then to actually play it, such a richer and deeper experience with the song.

Christopher: Fantastic. I love that. That’s such a great example of how mental reconstruction can help you and how active listening can transform your experience even if it’s a song you know well. That’s super cool.

So that listening guide, you made reference to there, the Beatles one, is actually one of our bonus gifts for the launch promo we have going on. We have this exciting new course we’ve been putting together, The Musician’s Ear and if you get it now, you get a discount, you get bonuses. It is the perfect time to buy it. If you’re watching this episode as it comes out, we’ve got a limited time offer on.

So if you want our Fab Four bonus that actually applies all of this to Beatles songs as well as some other cool exclusives, check out and see if that’s something you might be interested in.

And I just wanted to finish up by coming back to something I said earlier, which is don’t be overwhelmed or intimidated at all. I hope that the enthusiasm you’ve heard from myself and Andrew has got you fired up about the idea of doing active listening. And even though the number of questions you can ask yourself is endless, that’s actually a good thing, because you don’t need to ask them. You certainly don’t need to answer them all.

What we’re talking about really is listening with a mindful curiosity and you know, material like we have in that training course can be fantastic for making it super easy and step by step and ensuring you kind of learn as efficiently as possible and enjoy the process as much as possible.

But even without that, just go away and give this a try, because you’re going to experience that before and after transformation. And as we talked about, this isn’t something where you always need to be putting in that effort to get the benefit. This is something where the more you do it, the more you’re investing in your musical awareness, your musical understanding. And that’s something that’s gonna pay off for you, every song you hear, every day for the rest of your life. And if you’re anything like us here at Musical U, you love music to the extent where that is a really exciting proposition.

So, hopefully listening to these two episodes has got you fired up about trying active listening and given you a taste of what it can be like and given you a few bits of guidance on how to go away now and try it for yourself. I hope you’ll have a blast. If you want all of the training material and support you could possibly hope for, check out We’d love to see you in there. And until next time, thank you Andrew for joining me for these two episodes and my name is Christopher Sutton and we will see you on the next episode.

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The post How to “Hear Like A Musician” appeared first on Musical U.