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Updated: Mar 6

Can we learn music without actively listening to it? It seems like a silly question. But, now that music plays most everywhere via tv, film, radio, commercials, video games, sporting events, social events, stores, streaming & social platforms, we need to ask: “Are we as musicians ACTIVELY listening”?

Active listening, a popular topic in relational psychology, could be musically defined as “a communication skill that involves going beyond simply hearing to intentionally seeking to understand and appreciate the design, meaning and intent.”

Active listening requires setting aside time and planning ahead.

Why bother? I know. We are all pretty busy. And, with music streaming everywhereallthetime247, do we really need to schedule times to "actively listen"?

Well, if we are musicians learning how to play an instrument or sing, listening is the primary skill we need to grow.

So, how do we get better at actively listening to music?

Here are a few fun examples from film and television:

In the opening scene of La La Land, one of the main characters (a jazz pianist) is stuck in traffic. While waiting, he actively listens to a recording by a famous jazz pianist on a cassette tape. He rewinds a section of the recording over and over and over. Why?

We can assume that he is genuinely curious about what he’s hearing. He wants to understand it. He wants to get to know the music well so he soaks it in as much as he can. Later in the film, this same character is invited to tour with a successful band. His hard work pays off. Listening was part of his learning and personal growth.

In Selena: The Series (twenty minutes into Season 1, Episode 1), Selena’s father, Abraham wants to educate his children on how to play music together in their family band. He invites them to sit down together while he puts on a vinyl record and instructs, “Listen to the song and then tell me what every instrument is doing. Can you hear the guitar?” When one child answers “no”, the father replies: “It’s okay. Listen again.”

They all attentively listen to the same song again. “Do you hear it now?” One child replies, “No…I don’t know. I hear the music.” The dad responds, “The music is all the separate parts— all playing together. But also, each one of you, listening to what everyone else is playing.” Eventually, it clicks. Later on, in this true story, these children grow up to become professional musicians.

As music educators, we occasionally ask our students what music they are listening to. We get excited when they share with us and we learn a lot from them. Occasionally, we meet a student who doesn't actively listen to music yet. And so we encourage them to become curious and then suggest some simple ways to make this happen.

And, for those who already actively listen, we ask: "are you actively listening to...."

1. your own playing/singing via a recording

2. another musician playing or singing the piece you are currently working on

3. a genre that’s not your favorite

4. an online concert video or music documentary

5. an in-person concert with a group of friends

Unpack it

1. Record your own playing and/or singing and listen back

What did you notice? What do you like about it? Anything you want to improve on? Be specific. After you’ve identified areas to work on, record yourself again playing/singing the same piece later on. Is the music getting better? Did you share your recording with anyone else and ask for feedback?

Celebrate your accomplishments over time. Keep these recordings in a digital folder as a reference. It’s fun to go back and listen to them later on. You'll hear your own progress.

2. Listen to another musician playing or singing the same piece you are currently working on

Thankfully, with access to YouTube and music streaming services, it is easy to find recordings of other musicians working on the same song that you’re working on. What do notice about the other musicians’ performances? What do you appreciate and admire? What can you imitate? What would you intentionally do different? This is an excellent way to learn and improve.

One feature on YouTube that I use a lot is the adjusting the ‘settings’ to slow down the video playback speed. If I’m trying to learn a difficult passage by listening to it and imitating only, I find that slowing down the speed of the music helps a lot, especially if I’m trying to play along.

3. Listen to a genre that’s not your favorite

If you want to become more flexible and fluent as a musician, you’ll need to listen to many different styles of music. Even if you only want to be playing in one style of music (e.g., classical, jazz, rap), you can still learn from and be inspired by other genres. If you play music long enough, you will no doubt be asked to play with another musician who has different tastes than you do. Getting familiar with other genres with serve you well.

Thankfully, it is now easy (and free) to search any style of music and hear current examples on curated playlists (via Spotify, YouTube, etc.). If you don’t know where to start, try searching online for “music genre." is an incredible resource (and rabbit hole) to explore.

As you listen to new genres, take note of what makes each one unique. Can you imitate what you’re hearing? Can you incorporate some of the elements into your own playing/singing? Some musicians keep a ‘listening tracker’ log of what they’re listening to along with notes about what they observe.

4. Watch and listen to a live online performance

Are you watching/listening to online concert performances? Are you listening to music podcasts and documentaries about musicians? These can be informative.

While watching, notice how the musicians interact with the audience. And, notice details about how they play their instruments and sing (posture, technique, stage movement, variety, tempos, dynamics). Observe the acoustics in the live room, the technology being used, the crowd response, the flow of the song order, the memory-making moments and even the distractions and mistakes.

Write down what you want to remember. How does what you’re hearing and seeing influence your own music-making? What can you imitate? What turns you off? What inspires you?

5. Attend a listening party or concert in-person with a group of music-loving friends

At Startsong Studio, we host Vinyl Listening Parties. We gather to actively listen to recordings from our own collections in a group setting. Each attendee takes a turn playing a song for the group. We stop between songs to ask questions and discuss what we’re hearing and appreciating. We always discover new music together that we wouldn’t have heard otherwise.

Attending a concert or recital with a group of friends and then debriefing afterwards is another way to learn through active listening. Your friends will notice and appreciate things about the performance that you might have missed.

Social listening experiences are a lot of fun. Highly recommended. Become familiar with the music performance venues in your area. Subscribe to their email lists. Use apps like BandsInTown to get notified when your favorite musical artists are in town. Then, invite some friends to join you.

Just for fun, I keep a list* of all of the concerts that I have attended over the years. I enjoy looking back at these experiences, remembering what I learned even if some of the artists, genres or experiences weren’t my favorites. They all served to help me grow as a musician in some way.

We’d love to see your lists and favorite "active listening" tips too! Feel free to share them with us. And, let us know when there’s an upcoming "active listening" activity that you’ll be participating in.

Let’s keep listening and learning together!

#curiosity #creativity #confidence

#startsongstudio #musiclessons


* Dave’s Concert Attendance List

2nd Chapter of Acts


A Fine Frenzy

Adam Again

Afro Blue

Dennis Agajanian

The Alarm

Dave Alvin (of The Blasters, X)

Cyrille Aimée

Among The Oak & Ash

Tori Amos

Anonymous 4

Emmanuel Ax

Phillip Bailey (of Earth, Wind & Fire)

David Baloche

Paul Baloche

Dave Barnes

Bill Batstone

Francesca Battistelli

The Beach Boys

The Beat Farmers

Jeff Beck

Natasha Beddingfield

The Blasters


Blue Man Group

Michael Bolton

Boston Pops Symphony

Brent Bourgeois

Lincoln Brewster

Anthony Brown & Group Therapy

Junior Brown

Scott Wesley Brown

T-Bone Burnett

Patty Cabrera


Steve Camp

Brandi Carlile


Regina Carter

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

Steven Curtis Chapman

Chatham County Line

The Children’s Chorus of Washington (D.C.)

The Choir

Bruce Cockburn

Berkeley, CA

Sacramento, CA

San Fransisco, CA

Annapolis, MD

Alexandria, VA

Nelsonville, OH

Robert Cray Band

David Crowder

The Cult

Lisa Daggs

Dakha Brakha

Daniel Amos (D.A.)

Ray Davies (of The Kinks)

Andy Davis

The Dead Weather (feat. Jack White)


Jeff Deyo (of Sonicflood)

Dio (of Rainbow, Black Sabbath)

Pat DiNizio (of The Smithereens)

Gabe Dixon

Dread Zeppelin

Drive-By Truckers

Bryan Duncan

Bob Dylan & His Band @:

Sacramento (CA)

Frederick Keys Stadium (MD)

Harlem (NYC)

George Washington University (D.C.)

Merriweather Post (Columbia, MD)

Wolf Trap (Vienna, VA)

The Anthem (D.C.)

UMBC (Baltimore, MD)

Duran Duran

Jakob Dylan

Sheila E.

Vince Ebo (of Charlie Peacock Group)

David Edwards

Joe English (of Paul McCartney & Wings)

Farewell June



Bela Fleck & the Flecktones

Renée Fleming

Ruthie Foster Band

Aretha Franklin

Brooke Fraser

Bill Frisell (w/ Harmony)

Bill Frisell (w/ Rudy Royston, Greg Tardy, Ambrose Akinmusire)

The Ghost Wolves

Chuck Girard

Philip Glass Ensemble

GoGo Penguin

Amy Grant

Michael Gregory Band

Patty Griffin

Sara Groves

Tom Goodlunas & Panacea

Hannah Guerra

J. J. Hairston

Brandon Heath

Benny Hester


Hillsong United

Tom Howard

Israel Houghton & New Breed

Tim Hughes

Jars of Clay

Paul Jackson Jr.

Jilette Johnson

Rickie Lee Jones

Phil Keaggy

Mat Kearney

Paul Kelly

B. B. King


Greg Koch

Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits)

Kronos Quartet

Abraham Laboriel

Nikki Lerner

Les Misérables Broadway Cast

Phil Lesh & Friends (of Grateful Dead)

Colin Linden

Living Colour

Michelle Lockey


Greg Long

The Lost Dogs

Love Movement (Michela Marino Lerman)

Lyle Lovett & His Large Band

Holly Macve

Taj Mahal Trio

Matt Maher

Barry Manilow

Darrell Mansfield Band

Randy Matthews

Chris McClarney

Sandra McCracken

William McDowell

Barry McGuire

Sarah McLachlan

Michael & Jennifer McLain Band (Banjo Cats)

JD McPherson

Brad Mehldau (w/ Joshua Redman)

Emily Mitchell

Keb’ Mo’

Geoff Moore

Van Morrison


National Symphony Orchestra

Natural Born Leaders

Naturally 7


Ricky Nelson


Nickel Creek

Mojo Nixon

Christy Nockels

Nichole Nordeman

Norma Jean

Larry Norman

Orange Whip

Over The Rhine

Out of the Grey

Fernando Ortega

Leon Patillo (of Santana)

Charlie Peacock

Dan Peek (of America)

Murray Perahia

Andrew Peterson


Sam Phillips

Phillips, Craig & Dean


Robert Plant & Alison Krauss

Amanda Platt & The Honeycutters

The Polyphonic Spree

The Punch Brothers

B.J. Putnam

Alim Qasimov Ensemble


Robert Randolph Family Band

Joshua Redman

Brandon Redmon

Resurrection Band

Paul Revere & The Raiders

Henry Robinett Group

Joe Robinson

Michael Roe (of 77’s)

Ali Rogers

Niles Rogers & Chic


The Royal Royal

Leon Russell

Sacramento Philharmonic Symphony


San Francisco Symphony w/ Michael Tilson Thomas

Joe Satriani

The Scratch Band


Kathryn Scott

Steve Scott (& Primitive Justice)


Shane & Shane

Aaron Shust

Sidewalk Chalk

Michael W. Smith

Mindy Smith

Snarky Puppy

Steven Soles (of Alpha Band, Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue)

Esperanza Spalding

Rita Springer

Mavis Staples

Randy Stonehill



Sudan Archives

Sun Ra Arkestra

Sweet Comfort Band


Steve Taylor

Terry Scott Taylor

Chris Thile

Third Day

The Threshing Floor

Richard Thompson

Rosie Thomas

Tim Timmons

Chris Tomlin

Tye Tribett

The Tubes



Jimmie Vaughan (Fabulous Thunderbirds)

Robert Vaughn (R.V.) & The Shadows


The Vespers

David Virelles Trio

Tommy Walker

The Walking Sticks

Rachel Wagner

James Ward

Matthew Ward

The Waterboys

Derek Webb

Weber and the Buzztones

The Weepies

Bob Weir & RatDog

Deniece Williams

Lucinda Williams

The Who

Victor Wooten

Stevie Wonder

Brandon Yip

Updated: Dec 8, 2021

5 things to know before you shop

Are you ready to purchase your first guitar for yourself or your child, but have no idea what to look for? There are literally thousands of options to choose from, so narrowing things down can help. If you’re just starting to learn how to play, you will want to find an instrument that physically fits you (size), is affordable (price, brand), is functional (intonation, action) and enjoyable to play (your preferred style and tone).

And, you will eventually want some basic accessories to go along with your new guitar (case, picks, replacement strings, music stand, strap, foot stool, cleaner, capo, humidifier).

1. Size

Guitars come in a variety of sizes and shapes. There are a variety of terms used to describe the different sizes. Here are some common size descriptions for acoustic guitars (varying widely between manufacturers):



Orchestra Model

Dreadnought/Full-Size: around 38” long

Other commonly used ‘guitar size’ descriptions are:

1/4 size

1/2 size

3/4 size

4/4 size

In general, the younger the student is, the smaller the guitar needed.

If the instrument is too large for the student, it may be frustrating to play and difficult to learn with.

Here are some basic guidelines for matching ‘guitar size’ with a child’s age:

1/4 size (or ukulele): age 5 to 6 years old

1/2 size: age 6 to 7

3/4 size: age 7 to 10 years old

Full size: age 10 and up

2. Price

Most first-time guitar buyers are hesitant to spend a lot of money on their first instrument. What if you end up not wanting to continue after awhile? What if you quickly outgrow the size of your instrument? What if you have a limited budget? These are valid reasons to not want to invest too much money in your ‘starter’ guitar.

However, its important to be aware of the differences between entry-level ‘toy’ type guitars (usually costing less than $120 new) and quality entry-level guitars (usually cost between $125-$500 new). Non-toy guitar manufacturers address concerns that guitar players tend to care about (e.g. quality, durability, intonation, action, tone).

Entry-level guitars typically use laminate (pressed plywood) versus solid wood which is one reason there can be a large price difference between entry level guitars and professional-grade guitars. Professional-grade guitars are constructed out of carefully sourced cuts of wood that maximize resonance, tone quality and appearance. They are custom crafted by luthiers and typically cost over $1,000.00.

3. Brand

To avoid purchasing a ‘toy guitar’ or one that is difficult to play or listen to, we recommend buying from a local retailer that specializes in musical instruments (as apposed to WalMart, Target, Macy’s, Best Buy, Costco, etc.) so that you can benefit from a staff’s expertise and hands-on demonstration. Since you may not know how to play the guitar yet, don’t be afraid to ask the music store personnel to play some of their recommended guitars for you so you can listen to the differences between the guitars they are selling.

While we’re not endorsing any particular brand or retailer, we have found brands like Yamaha (nylon string), Cordoba, Fender, Epiphone, Ibanez, Alvarez, Seagull and Guild to offer high quality and good value.

If you want keep your cost extra low while still being quality conscious, consider buying a used guitar. You can usually get more for your dollar if you know what things to look for. Some music retailers sell used guitars. Ask them if you don’t see any.

Another place to find used guitars is on Facebook Marketplace or even Craigslist. Don’t be afraid to ask the seller about flexibility on pricing if you see some nicks or scratches, etc.

4. Functionality

Questions to ask yourself (and the music store staff):

a. Should I choose a nylon-string or steel-string guitar?

Nylon strings are easy on the fingers while steel strings will your fingertips when fretting until calluses form. For this reason, nylon-string (classical style) guitars are a great choice for a beginning guitar student.

Sound-wise, nylon string guitars have a warm, mellow sound and wider neck while steel strings have a brighter, louder sound. Both types of strings eventually grow dull sounding over time so replacement strings will be eventually be needed. Replacing nylon strings require learning how to tie a knot at the bridge. But, nylon strings tend not to lose their tone as quickly as steel strings so they may not need to be changed as often.

Keep in mind that there is a huge variety of brands and types of strings to choose from.

Things to learn about are string gauges (e.g. extra light, light, medium), string materials (steel, nickel, brass, bronze versus nylon), string coatings (e.g. Elixir) and string windings (flat wound, round wound, half wound).

b. Will this guitar make my fingers hurt when I press the strings down onto the fretboard?

In other words, is the action too high?

Just learning how to achieve a clear sound when pressing down on the string can be a little challenging at first. If your guitar's string height is set too high (due to the action not being set up properly or a warped neck), it can be extra frustrating and painful to play for even an experienced player.

Before purchasing, physically examine the guitar to see if the string height is set at an even distance from the fret board (2.0mm-2.8mm) between the nut and the bridge.

c. Will this guitar be in-tune when played on every fret (Is it properly intonated)?

If not, your instrument will likely sound out-of-tune when playing along with other musicians. Some intonation (and action) issues can be resolved by making adjustments to the truss rod (not all beginner guitars have these) and or the bridge height. Personally, I wouldn’t take a guitar home from the store if it doesn’t already play in tune on every fret.

d. How can you test the intonation yourself?

Download a chromatic guitar tuner app onto your smart phone. Tune all six of the open guitar strings (E, A, D, G, B, E) and then play the 12th fret of each string (one octave higher). If the octave higher fretted notes are sharp or flat, there is likely an intonation issue that needs to be addressed.

Check the tuning of other frets too, as sometimes intonation problems only happen on certain frets.

e. Is there a buzzing sound on any of the frets (Is the action too low)?

It’s possible to raise the string height on a guitar, but to do so requires extra time and money. Because there are so many guitars on the market to choose from, you may want to pass on the buzzing-string instrument so that you can start playing right away.

f. Are the string tuning keys easy to rotate (not too tight and not too loose)?

If you’re purchasing a used guitar, be sure to test the tuning keys (tuner machine heads) to see if they are rusted out, difficult to move, or too loose from neglect or poor craftsmanship. Guitar tuner keys can be replaced and upgraded. But, that may not be worth the effort unless you’re getting a real deal on the guitar.

5. Enjoyable to Play

In a 2018 research study conducted by Fender entitled “Illuminating the State of Today’s Guitar Players,” 42 percent of respondents viewed their guitar as "part of their identity.” With that in mind, you or your child will probably have some strong preferences regarding the color, shape, size, sound and overall appearance of the guitar.

For example, many new students are attracted to the brighter sound and body style of the steel string guitar or maybe even an electric guitar. However, after a few weeks of practice, they may realize that purchasing a soft stringed (nylon-string) guitar could have made their learning process more enjoyable.

Regarding guitar shape, you’ll probably notice that some guitars have a cutaway body shape. This makes it easier to reach the very high frets (and notes) on the guitar fret board. If you’re interested in learning to play high-note guitar solos or just like the appearance, this feature may be important to you.

If you’re interested in plugging your guitar into an amplifier, sound system, effects pedal or recording device, you’ll want to check out guitars with a built-in pickup pre-installed. Active versus passive pickups for acoustic guitars require a 9-volt battery. There are even hybrid guitars that combine electric and acoustic guitar pickups within one guitar.

My main point is that learning to make music should be fun! Having an instrument that you feel good about (emotionally/physically/functionally) should play a role in your decision-making process. If you are motivated to learn and practice regularly because you love the way their instrument looks, sounds and feels, that’s a really good thing. Finding ongoing inspiration to practice regularly with the guidance of an instructor is the key to musical growth.

Have fun exploring the world of guitars. Enjoy the journey!

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