Intro to Active Listening

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:

  1. If you had to describe this song to someone, what could you tell them?
  2. Is the song in a major or a minor key?
  3. What’s going on in the harmony? Can you hear when the chords change?  Does it modulate?
  4. What is the time signature? Is it a feeling in 2, 3 or 4?
  5. 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.


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:

  1. What’s the overall structure of the song or piece?  Which parts repeat and in what sequence?  How many bars are in each section?
  2. What instruments are present?
  3. Can you hear each of the instruments present if it’s a small group, or each of the sections if it’s an orchestra?
  4. What types of rhythm are being used?
  5. Can you figure out the melody notes by ear, starting with the first note you would sing?


Still using the same song, let’s dig deeper by next investigating these questions:

  1. What is the dynamic landscape of the song? Where is it soft or loud, where do the dynamics change?
  2. How are the rhythms different for each instrument?
  3. What is the overall range of the whole melody?  What is the highest note?  The lowest?
  4. Are there any changes to the timing?  Change in time signature or tempo?
  5. 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



Dynamics and Articulation

Form and Texture



I do think there is a role for listening with slightly less focus.  Here are some ways this could benefit your musicality:


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:

  1. Choose a song they are discussing.
  2. Listen to it a couple of times for myself and notice as much as I can.
  3. Then go ahead and listen to their analysis.
  4. Then listen to the song again on my own and see how my listening has opened up.



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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

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Photo by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash

Photo by Travis Yewell on Unsplash

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 ( )

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?

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