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The Art Of Listening

Updated: Feb 20

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!


* Dave’s Concert Attendance List

2nd Chapter of Acts (Stockton, CA)

77’s (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA & Santa Clara, CA)

Johnny A. (Annapolis, MD)

ABBA The Concert (Wolf Trap, Vienna, VA)

A Fine Frenzy (Birchmere, Alexandria, VA)

Adam Again (Nashville, TN)

Afro Blue (Kennedy Center, DC)

Dennis Agajanian (Fair Oaks, CA)

The Alarm (Shire Road Pub, Sacramento, CA)

Dave Alvin (of The Blasters, X) (Crest Theater, Sacramento, CA)

Cyrille Aimée (Black Rock Center, Germantown, MD)

Amber Wild (Baltimore Arena, MD)

Among The Oak & Ash (Birchmere, Alexandria, VA)

Tori Amos (Crest Theater, Sacramento, CA)

Anonymous 4 (San Fransisco, CA)

Emmanuel Ax (San Fransisco, CA)

Phillip Bailey (of Earth, Wind & Fire) (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

David Baloche (VA)

Paul Baloche (Granite Bay, CA & VA)

Dave Barnes (Jammin’ Java, Vienna, VA)

Bill Batstone (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Francesca Battistelli (Weinberg Center, Frederick, MD)

The Beach Boys (The Capitol, Washington, DC)

The Beat Farmers (Crest Theater, Sacramento, CA)

Jeff Beck (River Cat Stadium, Sacramento, CA)

Natasha Beddingfield (The Capitol, Washington, DC)

The Blasters (Cal Expo, Sacramento & Club Soda with a Twist, Shingle Springs, CA)

Bloodgood (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Blue Man Group (NYC)

Michael Bolton (The Capitol, Washington, DC)

Boston Pops Symphony (Sacramento, CA)

Brent Bourgeois (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Lincoln Brewster (Granite Bay, CA)

Anthony Brown & Group Therapy (Warner Theater, DC)

Junior Brown (Frederick Keys Stadium, MD)

Scott Wesley Brown (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

T-Bone Burnett (PA)

C Note House Band (Loquillo, Puerto Rico)

Patty Cabrera (Crest Theater, Sacramento, CA)

Cake (Sacramento, CA)

Steve Camp (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams (Birchmere, Alexandria, VA)

Brandi Carlile (Baltimore, MD)

Carmen (Arco Arena, Sacramento, CA)

Regina Carter (Kennedy Center, DC)

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (Lincoln Theater, DC)

Steven Curtis Chapman (VA)

Chatham County Line (Hamilton Live, DC)

The Children’s Chorus of Washington (Kennedy Center, DC)

The Choir (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Bruce Cockburn

UC Berkeley, CA

Crest Theater, Sacramento, CA

Warfield, San Fransisco, CA

Ramshead, Annapolis, MD

Birchmere, Alexandria, VA

Nelsonville, OH

Robert Cray Band (Birchmere, Alexandria, VA)

David Crowder (La Jolie, CA)

The Cult (Arco Arena, Sacramento, CA)

Lisa Daggs (Crest Theater, Sacramento, CA)

DakhaBrakha (Kennedy Center, DC)

Daniel Amos (D.A.)- (Warehouse & Cal Expo, Sacramento, CA)

Ray Davies (of The Kinks) (9:30 Club, DC)

Andy Davis (Jammin’ Java, VA)

The Dead Weather (feat. Jack White) (David Letterman Show, NYC)

Dessa (Kennedy Center, DC)

Jeff Deyo (of Sonicflood) - (CA)

Dio (of Rainbow, Black Sabbath) (CA)

Pat DiNizio (of The Smithereens)- (The Black Cat, DC)

Gabe Dixon (Ramshead, Annapolis, MD)

The Doobie Brothers (MGM, National Harbor, MD)

Dread Zeppelin (CSUS, Sacramento, CA)

Drive-By Truckers (Merriweather Post, Columbia, MD)

Bryan Duncan (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Bob Dylan & His Band @:

Sleep Train Amphitheater (Wheatland, CA)

Frederick Keys Stadium (Frederick, MD)

church in Harlem (NYC)

George Washington University (Washington DC)

Merriweather Post (Columbia, MD)

Verizon Center/Capital One Arena (Washington DC)

Wolf Trap (Vienna, VA)

The Anthem (Washington DC) (2x)

UMBC (Baltimore, MD)

Civic Theatre (Akron, OH)

Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (Baltimore, MD)

Duran Duran (Merriweather Post, Columbia, MD)

Jakob Dylan (Philadelphia, PA)

Sheila E. (San Diego, CA)

Vince Ebo (of Charlie Peacock Group)

David Edwards (BVHS, Fair Oaks, CA)

Tommy Emmanuel (Birchmere, Alexandria, VA

Joe English (Paul McCartney & Wings drummer) (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Farewell June (Germantown, MD)

Fee (Lincoln Theater, DC)

Firehose (UC Davis, CA)

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones (Frederick, MD)

Renée Fleming (Kennedy Center, DC)

Ruthie Foster Band (Black Rock, Germantown, MD)

Peter Frampton (The Theater, MGM National Harbor)

Aretha Franklin (US Capitol, DC )

Brooke Fraser (New Jersey)

Bill Frisell w/ Harmony (Keystone Korner, Baltimore, MD)

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

The Ghost Wolves (The Odditorium, Asheville, NC)

Chuck Girard (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Philip Glass Ensemble (UC Davis, CA)

GoGo Penguin (Hamilton Live, DC)

Amy Grant (Cal Expo, Sacramento, CA)

Michael Gregory Band (Sacramento, CA)

Patty Griffin (Warner Theater, DC)

Sara Groves (National Harbor, MD)

Tom Goodlunas & Panacea (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Hannah Guerra (Weinberg Center, Frederick MD)

J. J. Hairston (Warner Theater, DC)

Brandon Heath (Lincoln Theater, DC)

Benny Hester (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Hillsong (Modesto, CA)

Hillsong United (Baltimore, MD)

Tom Howard (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Israel Houghton & New Breed (Baltimore, MD)

Tim Hughes (VA)

Jars of Clay (Nissan Pavilion, Bristow, VA)

Paul Jackson Jr. (San Diego, CA)

Jilette Johnson (house concert, Turlock, CA)

Rickie Lee Jones (Memorial Auditorium, Sacramento, CA)

Phil Keaggy (Stockton, CA; Seattle, WA; Frederick, MD)

Mat Kearney (New Jersey)

Paul Kelly (Lincoln Theater, DC)

B. B. King (RiverCats Stadium, Sacramento, CA)

KISS (CGF Bank Arena, Baltimore, MD)

Kix (JAX, Hagarstown, MD)

Greg Koch (Makin’ Music, Frederick, MD)

Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) (Verizon Center, DC)

Kronos Quartet (SCUS, Sacramento, CA & UM, College Park, Maryland)

Abraham Laboriel (San Diego, CA)

Nikki Lerner (Gaithersburg, MD)

Les Misérables Broadway Cast (Kennedy Center Opera House, DC)

Phil Lesh & Friends (of Grateful Dead) (Sleeptrain Amphitheater, Wheatland, CA)

Colin Linden (Crest Theater, Sacramento, CA)

Living Colour (UC Davis, CA)

Michelle Lockey (Gaithersburg, MD)

Locksley (9:30 Club, DC)

Greg Long (Crest Theater, Sacramento, CA)

The Lost Dogs (house concert, Clarksburg, MD)

Love Movement (Michela Marino Lerman) (Kennedy Center, DC)

Lyle Lovett & His Large Band (Sacramento, CA & Wolftrap, Vienna, VA)

Holly Macve (Songbyrd Cafe, DC)

Taj Mahal Trio (Nissan Pavillion, Bristow, Virginia)

Matt Maher (Baltimore, MD)

Barry Manilow (US Capitol, DC)

Darrell Mansfield Band (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Pat Matheny (Keystone Korner, Baltimore, MD)

Randy Matthews (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Chris McClarney (VA)

Sandra McCracken (Convention Center, DC)

William McDowell (Virginia)

Barry McGuire (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Sarah McLachlan (Radisson Hotel, West Sacramento, CA)

Michael & Jennifer McLain Band (Banjo Cats) (Isis Theater, Asheville, NC)

JD McPherson (Merriweather Post, Columbia, MD)

Brad Mehldau (w/ Joshua Redman) (Weinberg Center, Frederick, MD)

Emily Mitchell (Gaithersburg, MD)

Keb’ Mo’ (Birchmere, Alexandria, VA)

Geoff Moore (Granite Bay, CA)

Van Morrison (Nissan Pavillion, Bristow, VA)

Muse (FedEx Field, Landover, MD)

National Symphony Orchestra (US Capitol, DC)

Natural Born Leaders (Asheville, NC)

Naturally 7 (Strathmore, Bethesda, MD)

Nehemiah (Gaithersburg, MD)

Ricky Nelson (Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park, CA)

Newsboys (Cal Expo, Sacramento, CA)

Nickel Creek (9:30 Club, DC & Ramshead, Baltimore, MD)

Mojo Nixon (Crest Theater, Sacramento, CA)

Christy Nockels (VA)

Nichole Nordeman (VA)

Norma Jean (Roseville, CA)

Larry Norman (Santa Clara, CA)

Orange Whip (Frederick, MD)

Over The Rhine (Jammin Java, Vienna, VA & Birchmere)

Out of the Grey (Sacramento, CA)

Fernando Ortega (Weinberg Center, Frederick, MD)

Leon Patillo (of Santana) (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA & Fair Oaks, CA)

Charlie Peacock (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Dan Peek (of America) (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Murray Perahia (DC)

Andrew Peterson (DC)

Petra (Sacramento, CA)

Phantom of the Opera (NYC)

Sam Phillips (Crest Theater, Sacramento, CA)

Phillips, Craig & Dean (VA)

Pitbull (New Year’s Eve, Times Square, NYC)

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss (Merriweather Post, Columbia, MD)

Amanda Platt & The Honeycutters - (Asheville, MD)

The Polyphonic Spree (Ramshead, Baltimore, MD)

The Punch Brothers (Lincoln Theater, DC)

B.J. Putnam (VA)

Alim Qasimov Ensemble (College Park, MD)

Ramones (Sacramento, CA)

Robert Randolph Family Band (Nissan Pavilion, VA)

Joshua Redman (Frederick, MD)

Brandon Redmon (Gaithersburg, MD)

Resurrection Band (Sacramento, CA)

Paul Revere & The Raiders (Cal Expo, Sacramento, CA)

Henry Robinett Group (On Broadway, Sacramento, CA)

Joe Robinson (Jammin’ Java, Vienna, VA & Ramshead, Annapolis, MD & Hamilton Live, DC)

Michael Roe (of 77’s) (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Ali Rogers (Germantown, MD)

Niles Rogers & Chic (Merriweather Post, Columbia, MD)

Rooney (Ramshead Live, Baltimore, MD)

The Royal Royal (Viriginia)

Leon Russell (Merriweather Post, Columbia, MD)

Sacramento Philharmonic Symphony (Sacramento, CA)

Salvador (CA)

San Francisco Symphony w/ Michael Tilson Thomas (San Francisco, CA)

Joe Satriani (Chuck Levin’s, DC)

The Scratch Band (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Scorpions (Clear Lake, CA)

Kathryn Scott (Virginia Beach, VA)

Steve Scott (& Primitive Justice) - (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Servant (Sacramento, CA)

Shane & Shane (NJ & VA)

Shout Sister Shout! (musical on Sister Rosetta Tharpe) (Ford’s Theatre, DC)

Aaron Shust (VA)

Sidewalk Chalk (The Isis, Asheville, NC)

Michael W. Smith (Strathmore, Bethesda, MD)

Mindy Smith (Ramshead, Annapolis, MD)

Snarky Puppy (Hamilton Live, DC)

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

Esperanza Spalding (Kennedy Center, DC)

Rita Springer (MD & VA)

Mavis Staples (Wolftrap, Vienna, VA & The Anthem, DC)

Randy Stonehill (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Stryken (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Stryper (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Sudan Archives (Merriweather Post, Colombia, MD)

Sun Ra Arkestra (Merriweather Post, Colombia, MD)

Sweet Comfort Band (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Switchfoot (MD & Nissan Pavilion, VA)

Steve Taylor (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Terry Scott Taylor (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA & Clarksburg, MD house concert)

Chris Thile (9:30 Club, DC)

Third Day (VA)

The Threshing Floor (Sacramento, CA)

Richard Thompson (The Birchmere, Alexandria, MD)

Rosie Thomas (Jammin Java, Vienna, VA & house concert)

Tim Timmons (VA)

Chris Tomlin (Baltimore Arena, MD)

Tye Tribett (Warner Theater, DC)

The Tubes (Cal Expo, Sacramento, CA)

U2 (FedEx Field, Landover, MD)

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (Strathmore, Bethesda, MD)

Undercover (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Jimmie Vaughan (of Fabulous Thunderbirds) (Frederick, MD)

Robert Vaughn (R.V.) & The Shadows (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Vector (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

The Vespers (Hamilton Live, DC)

David Virelles Trio (The Village Vanguard, NYC)

Tommy Walker (La Jolle, CA)

The Walking Sticks (The Hamilton Live, DC)

Rachel Wagner (Sacramento, CA)

James Ward (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Matthew Ward (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

The Waterboys (Lincoln Theater, DC)

Derek Webb (Baltimore, MD)

Weber and the Buzztones (San Jose, CA)

The Weepies (Ramshead, Annapolis, MD)

Bob Weir & RatDog (Weinberg Center, Frederick, MD)

Deniece Williams (Warehouse, Sacramento, CA)

Lucinda Williams (9:30 Club & Lincoln Theater, DC)

The Who (Oakland Coliseum, CA)

Victor Wooten (Weinberg Center, Frederick, MD)

Stevie Wonder (US Capitol, DC)

Brandon Yip (Sacramento, CA)

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