Most of the time we barely hear the music around us.

In a shop, in the car, or on the radio while we cook dinner. The music surrounds us but how much do we really listen to it – and how much do we just hear it?

The human brain is very adept at filtering out sounds, so that we become almost entirely oblivious to them. Even with music, if you’ve heard the song before or it’s played at a low volume you might not even be aware that it’s playing.

We rely on this automatic filtering every day, but for the practising musician this can mean missing out on potential inspiration. Even worse, it trains us to be lazy, passive listeners…

Active Listening

One of the most vital skills for a creative musician is “active listening”.

Active listening is the ability to do the exact opposite of the “automatic filtering” we just discussed! Instead of letting our brain tune out from the music and ignore it, you choose to actively and consciously pay attention to the music you hear.

Really focusing in on nothing but the music hitting your ears.

Listen actively and really hear the music

If you’re like most musicians, you probably don’t often take the time to do this… because it does take time. Unlike the car radio on in the background while you drive, active listening requires your full attention. Actively listening to a 3-minute pop song will take 3 minutes of your time!

Even if you’re a huge music fan, or a dedicated musician, it’s likely that you haven’t spent a lot of time developing your active listening skills. But if you really want to develop your musical ear, it’s time to learn active listening.

Here are some tips and techniques for getting started and making active listening a core part of your musicianship training:

Tip 1: Start small.

Just try to pay attention throughout a 3-minute song! It sounds trivial, but you will find your mind very quickly wanders off… into the thoughts of the day, what you’ll do next, the memory of that one time your friend Jeff said something funny… and so on.

Take the time to listen activelyTry to catch yourself doing this, and bring your mind back to the music. If you manage to concentrate for a total of 1 minute during the 3-minute song you’ll be off to a good start!

Over time you’ll find yourself able to dismiss unwanted thoughts more and more quickly, and so focus on the music more consistently.

Tip 2: Choose one thing to focus on.

It can be fun to let your mind’s ear wander all over a song or piece of music as it plays, delighting in the variety and the interaction between different elements: rhythms, harmonies, instruments, lyrics, audio effects… In most interesting music there’s always something new to latch onto!

For the sake of active listening practice, try choosing one element (e.g. the drum part) and focus on that throughout. Be aware of how it relates to other parts – but don’t let yourself be distracted by them.

Tip 3: Hear what you know – and then listen for what you don’t.

If you’ve heard a song before, you’re probably familiar with parts of it and oblivious to others. Even with a song you know well, there will be hidden aspects of the mix or arrangement which are still rich for active listening exploration.

  • Before listening to the song next time, try to remember as much as you can about it – perhaps the lyrics, the main accompanying instrument, the overall structure of the song (e.g. verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse), and so on. Maybe even practice some audiation, recreating the song in your musical imagination.
  • Listen to the song and focus on these parts you remembered. Check them against what your memory was able to summon up.
  • Now listen to the song a second time – and try to focus on anything except those parts. Pick out the elements you couldn’t remember or didn’t realise were there.

Explore with your mind’s ear the different sounds and structures in the music as you listen. As you discover new treasures in songs you thought you knew well, you’ll find you want to repeat this exercise again and again.

More Ways To Start Active Listening

Here’s a nice explanation of active vs. passive listening:

We have two series here on the site which are ideal for this kind of aural exploration:

Listen Close ear training series

Listen Close

Learn how songs are put together, what distinguishes a mediocre track from an amazing one, and all the tricks and techniques used by song-writers, musicians and producers to make great music. Develop your active listening skills to hear all this and more, every time you listen to music.

Open Your Ears ear training series

Open Your Ears

The Open Your Ears series aims to introduce you to kinds of music you’ve simply never heard before. Discover great new music that will stretch your ears in new directions and broaden your musical horizons.

Try using the tips above to get started with active listening.

One great thing about active listening is that opportunities to practise it are everywhere! The next time you notice there’s some music playing, try to take a moment to really pay attention and explore the sound with your mind. Just make sure you don’t do it while driving!