According to Christopher Sutton, active listening is “thinking while listening”. He proposes that asking yourself questions as you listen can begin this process of focussing your mind.
Choose a song or piece of instrumental music that you know reasonably well. Have a listen to it, and ask yourself these questions:
- If you had to describe this song to someone, what could you tell them?
- Is the song in a major or a minor key?
- What’s going on in the harmony? Can you hear when the chords change? Does it modulate?
- What is the time signature? Is it a feeling in 2, 3 or 4?
- What production techniques or audio effects are being used?
It’s ok if you don’t know how to answer all these questions yet. Or if you hear things that you don’t know the name of. The important task is to start noticing. Use your own descriptors for now – but use them consistently from song to song so that one day when you do learn the name for what you heard, you will apply that knowledge broadly to your experience.
LISTENING FOR A SONG’S BIG PICTURE
You can do this in a range of ways – perhaps start by either trying it with your eyes closed (not driving!) or with pen and paper ready for noting observations, doodling or drawing shapes.
Listen to the song through once. Try not to notice any one thing in particular…just take in the whole song as though you’re hearing it for the first time.
Now listen to it 3 more times, asking yourself:
- What’s the overall structure of the song or piece? Which parts repeat and in what sequence? How many bars are in each section?
- What instruments are present?
- Can you hear each of the instruments present if it’s a small group, or each of the sections if it’s an orchestra?
- What types of rhythm are being used?
- Can you figure out the melody notes by ear, starting with the first note you would sing?
LISTENING FOR A SONG’S DETAIL
Still using the same song, let’s dig deeper by next investigating these questions:
- What is the dynamic landscape of the song? Where is it soft or loud, where do the dynamics change?
- How are the rhythms different for each instrument?
- What is the overall range of the whole melody? What is the highest note? The lowest?
- Are there any changes to the timing? Change in time signature or tempo?
- Can you mentally reconstruct the song in your mind’s ear straight after you’ve hit pause or stop?
Now, if you’re still interested in going further, I recommend you get The Active Listener’s Handbook from Musical U. It contains a great action plan and is full of more investigative tools like these which I have directly quoted from the handbook:
Instruments and Timbre
- How many different instruments can I hear?
- How are the various timbres present similar to each other? How are they different?
- What’s the impact of instrumentation and timbre on the mood of the music? How is it being used artistically, for effect on the listener?
- Are the pitches I’m hearing relatively high or low? How does that differ by instrument?
- What’s the pitch contour of the melody?
- What kind of harmony is being used? Does that change over time?
- What’s the harmonic rhythm: how often and with what pattern are the chords changing?
- Can I clap or tap along with the beat and divid it into bars?
- Are one or more instruments clearly providing that steady beat?
- Is the beat straight or swung?
Dynamics and Articulation
- What is the relative volume of each section?
- How do the volume levels of different instruments compare?
- How important are dynamics in this piece of music? If every note or every section stayed at a steady volume, how much would that detract from the piece’s expressiveness?
Form and Texture
- What layers can I hear in the music, in terms of the melodic lines and harmony or in terms of the instrumentation?
- What is the form of this piece? How many different types of section can I identify and how do they repeat in a sequence? Are there standard labels I could apply to them?
- How does this form compare to what’s expected in this genre?
- What audio effects can I hear? What does the overall environment sound like (eg like a pristine studio recording vs a live concert performance)?
- Is there a noticeable reverb? If so, does it sound like a small or large space?
- Are there noticeable effects on any particular instruments? Eg distortion on a guitar
- Why have these effects been used: is it to a subtle degree to create a certain musical atmosphere or is it to a greater extent to produce particular noticeably-different sounds?
I do think there is a role for listening with slightly less focus. Here are some ways this could benefit your musicality:
- Music in the background could be great for taking in broader impressions of a genre or artist or soundtrack while you are doing other things. A spotify playlist of a genre you want to grow into is a really useful supplement to active listening in the genre.
- Putting a track that you need to learn on repeat and imagining yourself singing along allows space for listening to the elements of the song in a way you don’t notice if you sing aloud.
- Using that repeat function with an accompaniment or karaoke track is super useful and affords you the capacity for mental practice while you learn the subtle pacing and cueing that is present.
SIGNPOSTS FOR ACTIVE LISTENING
Another way that I develop my own listening skills is by listening to other people listen…sounds funny, I know. But a favourite activity of mine is to head to one of these Podcast or YouTube channels and do the following steps:
- Choose a song they are discussing.
- Listen to it a couple of times for myself and notice as much as I can.
- Then go ahead and listen to their analysis.
- Then listen to the song again on my own and see how my listening has opened up.
- Strong Songs by Kirk Hamilton
Kirk is a fabulous teacher, composer and musician. Primarily a saxophonist, Kirk plays a wide range of instruments and tries to recreate as much of the song he analyses as possible in order to figure out how it was made. So you will get some recording history, instrument know-how, melodic break down and harmonic critique. This podcast is my favourite!
- Song Exploder
A skillful documentary about the writing and recording of songs, including interviews where musicians take their songs apart and share how they were made. Also a Netflix documentary series.
- Twenty Thousand Hertz
A fascinating podcast unravelling the stories behind the world’s most recognisable sounds. Slightly divergent from our song focus but really interesting!
These musical whizzes will take your breath away…subscribe now!
Click here for more on why singers should work on their listening.
I hope you have found some useful ideas here to ignite your listening. I’d love to listen to your discoveries, so shoot me an email to share how this has helped you!
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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper Collins, New York.
Levitin, D. J. (2006). This is Your Brain on Music: The science of a human obsession. Plume, New York
Ratliff, B. (2016). Every Song Ever: Twenty ways to listen to music now. Penguin, USA
Sutton, Christopher. The Active Listener’s Handbook from Musical U (https://www.musical-u.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/The-Active-Listeners-Handbook.pdf )
Wilson, P.H. (2010). The Singing Voice: An Owner’s Manual (2nd Ed.). Lazy O’Rhinus Press, Sydney
YouTube clip: How Does Music Affect Your Brain? https://youtu.be/HRE624795zU