Matt Sazima is a piano teacher and an Assistant Director of Piano Studies at Hoffman Academy in Portland. He recently dazzled us with a Facebook Live broadcast about passive and active listening. With so much to say about the different ways of listening, we knew Matt’s knowledge of the subject would make a great post for our readers.
Passive Listening vs. Active Listening
Even when you’re not paying attention to the sounds you’re hearing, your ears are constantly sending sound signals to your brain. Most of the time your ears do this automatically, even if you don’t realize it. This is called passive listening. You’re aware that there are sounds in the background, but you’re not focusing on them. When you’ve got music on in the background you’re listening to it passively. It’s very common for people to experience music this way. There’s music playing, you hear it, but you’re not really thinking about it.
Active listening is what you do when you’re focusing on what you hear, for example when you’re having a conversation with someone. You pay attention to the sound of their words. You’re taking in how fast they speak and their tone of voice. All of this helps you understand the meaning of what is being said. Now imagine applying that kind of attention to a piece of music that you hear. When you listen actively to music, you’re focusing on what you hear and trying to understand it.
Why Active Listening is Important
Active listening is the key to developing a good musical ear. Often in beginning music lessons we train the eye to read and the fingers to play, but we don’t train the ear. Many music students don’t realize that they can learn a lot about music just by listening, without ever seeing notes written on a page.
A well-trained ear is essential for good musicianship. You might think of a musically trained ear as something magical, something you’re either born with or you’re not. This simply isn’t true. Having a good musical ear is a learned skill like anything else. True, some musicians with highly trained ears can sit down and write out a piece of music they just heard, or pick a single voice out of a choir of hundreds. Not everyone will get to that level, but everyone can improve their ability to hear and understand the music they listen to through active listening.
Even beginning musicians can get a lot out of active listening. You don’t need to have a technical understanding of music theory. You don’t need to know how to analyze chord progressions or identify key changes. No matter how much or how little you know about music, you can listen more actively by asking yourself some simple questions.
Active Listening Activity
Choose a piece of music. Start out with something you like that you’re familiar with, something you want to listen to. Play the music and really focus on what you hear. As the music plays, ask yourself the following questions.
How Does it Make You Feel?
Is the song happy? Sad? Exciting? Does the feeling change during the song? Why does the song make you feel this way?
What Instruments Do You Hear?
For some people this is easy, but for others it can be hard to tell what instruments are playing. Can you hear drums? Wind instruments? Strings? Voices? Synthesized sounds? If you don’t know the specific name of an instrument, simply describe it.
Is This Song Fast or Slow?
To help you decide, try clapping or tapping along with the song. Listen for fast parts and slow parts happening at the same time. Sometimes songs have a fast pulsing beat underneath a slower melody, or slow chords playing an accompaniment while the melody moves faster.
What Is the Melody?
The melody is the part that will be sung if there are words. If there aren’t any words, then find the melody by listening for what you’d hum along to if you were humming with the music. Usually the other sounds, like the bass and the accompaniment, are there to showcase the melody. Can you tell what instrument is playing the melody? Do different instruments take turns playing the melody throughout the music, or is it always the same instrument?
Use these questions to ask what you hear, and then describe it. You don’t need to be too analytical to be engaged in active listening. You’re trying to interact with the music rather than letting it wash over you as you do when you’re only passively listening. Engage your brain on a higher level and really listen.
More Advanced Active Listeners
You can get more mileage out of each of the questions I’ve already mentioned by linking them to one of the many musical concepts that you or your piano student have learned in music lessons. Remember, these questions don’t always need answers. Active listening is about discovery.
Major and Minor
If you’ve learned about major and minor sounds in music, then “Is this song happy or sad” can lead to “Do you think this song is in a major or minor key?”
As your listening skills grow, then “What instruments can you hear?” becomes “How many instruments do you hear?” Can you sing along with one of the instruments? What is the name of that instrument? What instruments do you hear playing accompaniment? Bass? Melody?
If the song has lyrics, what are the lyrics about? How does the mood of the music work together with the lyrics to create meaning?
If you know about time signatures, try to figure out the time signature of the piece of music you’re listening to. Clapping or tapping along can help with this. Listen for patterns in the accompaniment if you have a hard time figuring out the time signature from the melody.
Remember, a great musical ear isn’t something you’re born with. Listening is a skill you build up over time. Next time you hear music, try some active listening, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a better musician.