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
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." AllMusic.com 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!
* Dave’s Concert Attendance List
2nd Chapter of Acts
A Fine Frenzy
Dave Alvin (of The Blasters, X)
Among The Oak & Ash
Phillip Bailey (of Earth, Wind & Fire)
The Beach Boys
The Beat Farmers
Blue Man Group
Boston Pops Symphony
Anthony Brown & Group Therapy
Scott Wesley Brown
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Steven Curtis Chapman
Chatham County Line
The Children’s Chorus of Washington (D.C.)
San Fransisco, CA
Robert Cray Band
Daniel Amos (D.A.)
Ray Davies (of The Kinks)
The Dead Weather (feat. Jack White)
Jeff Deyo (of Sonicflood)
Dio (of Rainbow, Black Sabbath)
Pat DiNizio (of The Smithereens)
Bob Dylan & His Band @:
Frederick Keys Stadium (MD)
George Washington University (D.C.)
Merriweather Post (Columbia, MD)
Wolf Trap (Vienna, VA)
The Anthem (D.C.)
UMBC (Baltimore, MD)
Vince Ebo (of Charlie Peacock Group)
Joe English (of Paul McCartney & Wings)
Bela Fleck & the Flecktones
Ruthie Foster Band
Bill Frisell (w/ Harmony)
Bill Frisell (w/ Rudy Royston, Greg Tardy, Ambrose Akinmusire)
The Ghost Wolves
Philip Glass Ensemble
Michael Gregory Band
Tom Goodlunas & Panacea
J. J. Hairston
Israel Houghton & New Breed
Jars of Clay
Paul Jackson Jr.
Rickie Lee Jones
B. B. King
Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits)
Les Misérables Broadway Cast
Phil Lesh & Friends (of Grateful Dead)
The Lost Dogs
Love Movement (Michela Marino Lerman)
Lyle Lovett & His Large Band
Taj Mahal Trio
Darrell Mansfield Band
Michael & Jennifer McLain Band (Banjo Cats)
Brad Mehldau (w/ Joshua Redman)
National Symphony Orchestra
Natural Born Leaders
Over The Rhine
Out of the Grey
Leon Patillo (of Santana)
Dan Peek (of America)
Phillips, Craig & Dean
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Amanda Platt & The Honeycutters
The Polyphonic Spree
The Punch Brothers
Alim Qasimov Ensemble
Robert Randolph Family Band
Paul Revere & The Raiders
Henry Robinett Group
Michael Roe (of 77’s)
Niles Rogers & Chic
The Royal Royal
Sacramento Philharmonic Symphony
San Francisco Symphony w/ Michael Tilson Thomas
The Scratch Band
Steve Scott (& Primitive Justice)
Shane & Shane
Michael W. Smith
Steven Soles (of Alpha Band, Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue)
Sun Ra Arkestra
Sweet Comfort Band
Terry Scott Taylor
The Threshing Floor
Jimmie Vaughan (Fabulous Thunderbirds)
Robert Vaughn (R.V.) & The Shadows
David Virelles Trio
The Walking Sticks
Weber and the Buzztones
Bob Weir & RatDog