What is “active listening” – and should you be doing it? Musicians often make the mistake of thinking that “ear training” is just about specific concrete skills like recognising intervals or learning to adjust EQ bands on a mixer by ear. But actually there’s one big-picture skill that’s possibly more important than all of those – as well as providing a great opportunity to put those skills to use. And that’s active listening. Learn more about what it is and a number of ways you can start doing it yourself, today, in this episode.

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In our recent episode with Matthew and Jeremy from the Music Student 101 podcast we touched on the topic of “active listening” or “critical listening”. Jeremy talked about how having a critical ear, meaning one that’s really tuned in to what’s going on in what you hear, was a big common factor in his success as a musician and as an audio recording engineer. It’s something I talk about in an upcoming episode with Katie Wardrobe too where she shares some ways she likes to practice active listening.

So what is “active listening” and why should you be doing it?

Musicians often make the mistake of thinking that “ear training” is just about specific concrete skills like recognising intervals or learning to adjust EQ bands on a mixer by ear.

But actually there’s one big-picture skill that’s possibly more important than all of those – as well as providing a great opportunity to put those skills to use. And that’s active listening.

Active listening simply means your brain is truly engaged in the activity of listening. As Jeremy put it “A lot of people are hearing, but not many are listening”.

Ask yourself: for the music you heard in the last few days, did you just hear it? Or were you actively listening to it?

Active listening is closely related to the idea of “music appreciation”. If you take a class on music appreciation it helps you start learning this skill of active listening and equips you with some key concepts to put into action as you do it. Music appreciation isn’t about judging music as good or bad – it’s about becoming more aware, and understanding more about the music you hear. It’s useful and interesting for any music fan, but doubly-so for musicians.

Why practice active listening?

So for a musician, what’s the point of doing this? Clearly active listening is going to take more mental effort than just having music on in the background.

The answer is that active listening “wakes up” your ear. Everything you’re learning in music, whether that’s skills on your instrument like playing scales, chords or pieces, or skills in your mind like recognising notes by ear or creating your own musical ideas – all of these can be applied to and will benefit from active listening.

Think of it this way: With active listening, every time you hear a song it’s an opportunity to both put your musical skills to use and also improve those skills. Whenever a member at Musical U asks about finding more time for music practice amid a busy life, active listening is high on our list of recommendations – because there aren’t many of us who don’t have opportunities during the day for listening to music. You might be walking the dog, washing the dishes, driving a commute – all those times when music is normally just in the background can become valuable opportunities to level up your skills.

There are also a couple of great knock-on effects. When you listen actively you are also training your musical memory. To be able to mentally analyse what you heard, the brain needs to kind of hold it in place for a moment. It starts modelling what’s going on, and that kind of modelling and mental structure is exactly what you need to more easily remember longer sections of music you hear.

It’s also great for the skill of audiation, meaning imagining music in your mind. This is often applied to improvisation, where to be truly free and creative you want to be imagining the music before you play it rather than just playing notes and hoping they sound good. When you practice active listening you’re teaching your brain to conjure up vivid mental representations of music, and that’s something you can then apply to music you’re creating in your mind yourself as well as the music you’ve heard.

How to practice active listening

So are you convinced? Active listening is a versatile and powerful music practice activity that you can easily fit in to a busy life – oh, and it’s great fun too!

You’re probably wondering what specifically I’m suggesting you do. What exactly are you doing when you’re doing “active listening?”

One way to think about it is: You’re listening while thinking. You are focusing your attention on the music you’re hearing, not just letting your thoughts wander or being distracted by some other activity.

The best way to do this is by using questions to focus your mind. Instead of just trying to generally pay attention to the music, try asking yourself specific questions about the music and then use your ears to try to answer them.

You can begin with the overall question: If you had to describe this song to someone, what could you tell them?

To answer that big question you can ask yourself a bunch of followup questions. For example:

What instruments are present? It might be a rock band of guitar, bass, drums, keys and vocals, or it might be a string quartet, or it might be a full orchestra. Can you hear each of the instruments present if it’s a small group, or each of the sections if it’s an orchestra? Of course this can change during the course of a song or piece, so this alone can be a great question to pay attention to throughout, try to follow one or more of the instruments by ear and stay conscious of whether it’s present and what part it’s playing in the arrangement.

What’s the overall structure of the song or piece? Which parts repeat and in what sequence? This lets you form a big-picture mental model of the song, and a lot of these other questions we’ll cover can slot into that structure once you figure it out. If you know the proper terminology or theory by all means use it, but a simple labelling system like “section A”, “section B” and so on can work great too.

How many bars are in each section? Count it out: 1, 2, 3, 4, 2, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 3, 4 and so on.

What types of rhythm are being used? Is the beat straight or swung? Are syncopated rhythms being used? Is it the downbeat or the upbeat being emphasised?

Is the song in a major or a minor key?

What’s going on in the harmony? You can try to hear which chords are major or minor, or if there are more advanced types of chord being used. If you’ve done some chord progression ear training you can try to hear the actual progressions, I-IV-V-I, etc.

If you’ve been learning solfa or intervals, can you figure out the melody notes by ear? It can be handy to have an instrument or a keyboard app on your phone to check if you got it right.

What production techniques or audio effects are being used? For example have real instruments been recorded in a simple way or is it a full-blown electronic creation?

Another great task is to pause the song, or you can just take a minute after it ends – and try to recreate the song in your mind in as much detail as possible – again, this is developing your skill in audiation and your musical memory. The more of the questions you’ve been able to ask yourself and answer, the easier you’re going to find it to reconstruct the song in your mind.

If you start doing all of this then when someone mentions a new track instead of saying “Oh yeah, I heard that song. It’s a pop song.” you might be able to say something like “Oh yeah, that song. It’s got kind of a country shuffle beat to it, simple trio of guitar, bass and drumkit with the vocalist on top. Just follows a basic I-V-vi-IV progression in the verses, with a I-IV-V chorus. Starts out with an intro then it’s just verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus. In that bridge the bassist gets a solo and throws in these great syncopated rhythms to spice things up. The melody pretty much sticks to the major pentatonic in the verses but has these phrases lingering on the 7th note, the “ti” in the chorus which match up well with the lyrics about yearning. I love the barebones sound, just has a little bit of reverb but it’s otherwise totally clean.”

Now you’re not just sounding like a music fan – you’re sounding like a musician!

Imagine having this kind of awareness of every song you hear, and the impact that would have on learning new songs or collaborating with other musicians in a band, the impact on your ability to play by ear or write your own music.

Active listening is the key to developing a truly aware musical ear. To come back to our previous podcast episode on Mindfulness for Musicians, this is a bit like developing a mindful ear: one that doesn’t just drift through its experiences unaware, but is fully present to all the rich detail and structure in all the music you hear, so that you’re able to hear, appreciate, understand and remember it all in a powerful way.

At first active listening takes a lot of conscious thought – but in time, though your attention will be focused on the music you hear, you’ll find you don’t need to think through all those questions so much. You will have awakened your ear to everything it can appreciate and be aware of in the music.

Possibly the best thing about active listening is how easy it is to get started. As we’ve talked about there’s any number of ways to approach this, and you can base it totally on what you’re currently working on in your musicality training. You can start out with real basics, like listening to the instruments present and trying to tune in to one particular one throughout the song. And then every new concept or skill you learn in music, bring that to the task and ask yourself what this song is doing relating to that concept or skill, such as tonality, harmony, rhythm, and so on.

This is something you can do each and every time you hear a piece of music – so it’s an amazing way to fit in a huge amount of additional useful ear training. Give it a try, and start waking up your ears with active listening!

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