active listening

Active listening can help you as a musician

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Active listening will serve you well in live situations, recording sessions, and even in your interpersonal relationships. Active listening is specifically making listening the primary activity and doing nothing else. Don’t clean, don’t drive, don’t carry on a conversation. Just listen.

The amount of background music we experience in our lives is staggering. There is background music playing at the supermarket, at the gas pump, on every TV show and in every movie, in dentists’ offices, in bars and restaurants, and in many venues – often in the bathroom!

Many of you, like myself, are involved in creating this background music for a living. The problem with the ubiquity of all of this music aimed at the passive listener is that it becomes very easy and almost habitual to tune it out, and thus very difficult to “break through” to people. The famous violinist Joshua Bell, who commands thousands of dollars for live performances, played Bach on a $3.5 million violin in the DC Metro for 45 minutes and made $32.

This shows just how hard it is to break through the passive listening wall if that’s the context in which you’re performing – nearly impossible! If you, too, are making music live in situations like restaurants or corporate events, you may have also experienced the frustration of playing for audiences who are not really listening; they’re talking, eating, drinking, occasionally connecting to a song they might know, but otherwise occupied.

This kind of listening is passive listening. You are hearing what might jump out at you while you’re engaged in other activities, but the music/musician has to work to get your attention. Depending on the distractions, getting your attention may not even be possible1 There’s nothing wrong inherently with passive listening, we all do it. I’m passively listening to a baseball game broadcast while typing this. Often I’ll listen to music while doing dishes, driving, doing laundry, and cleaning the house. I can hear and absorb some of it, but if it’s a new piece of music, I might not remember much about it the next day beyond what the guitar sound was and whether I liked it or not.

Active listening is the skill I’d like to encourage you to practice as music professionals of all stripes. It will serve you well in live situations, recording sessions, and even in your interpersonal relationships. Many who write about active listening say it is the same skill with pieces of music and with people; you are developing a relationship through repeated active listening and the process of getting to know both music and people is remarkably similar. Active listening is specifically making listening the primary activity and doing nothing else. Just listen. Don’t clean, don’t drive (especially), don’t surf the web, don’t read a book, don’t carry on a conversation. Just listen.

It can be hard to find the time in our busy modern lives to be present in this way, but the benefits are enormous! Here are some tips to get started as an active listener, which will in turn improve your musical connections, relationships, and life.

Start small

Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the proverbial saying goes, and neither does one learn to be an expert active listener overnight. For one thing, active listening, like any other focused activity, requires energy and it can be tiring. Like the practice of meditation, active listening requires training of the mind to stop that chattery little voice in your head and be present in the moment. So don’t rush to find those recordings of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung operas and expect to listen actively for 17 hours (and 14 minutes). Start with your basic three-minute pop song, one that you are familiar enough with to recognize but not so familiar that you will tune out the details.

If you can actively listen for one minute without your attention wandering, you’ve done great! Do it again tomorrow. Like any skill requiring muscle memory, active listening requires daily practice to improve. But that daily practice doesn’t have to be long; I tell my guitar students to start out practicing five minutes a day. It’s amazing how quickly progress is achieved if students adhere to this simple principle. So turn down the lights, eliminate distractions such as computers and smartphones, close your eyes if you like (but don’t fall asleep!), and put on a three-minute piece of music. Listen to the music. Make notes on your experience. Repeat the next day.

Focus on specific elements

One way to keep your attention focused during active listening is to focus on specific elements within the music itself. Start with the most obvious – the singer or the most prominent lead instrument. Try to keep your focus on this for the entire song. If it’s the singer, what are they saying with the lyrics? What qualities does their voice have? Which other singers do they remind you of? Are there harmonies? If it’s an instrument, is it playing lead or rhythm? How would you describe its tone? Does that tone change? If it’s the drums, where are the fills coming in? How would you describe the basic beat? Does the meter change? You get the idea. Start with one element, and if your active listening work is starting to become easier, listen to the song multiple times focusing on the different elements.

My favorite personal example of how this kind of active listening changed my life involves the song “Nowhere Man” by the Beatles. I was singing and playing bass in a band that wanted to cover this song many years ago, so I had to listen to the bass line actively for the first time. McCartney’s line for “Nowhere Man” is total genius, and it’s completely contrapuntal (meaning independently melodic) to the vocal line. You can’t hear how brilliant it is unless you’re actively listening to the tune as it bubbles underneath the surface of the guitars and the vocals. It took some doing to be able to sing and play it, but active listening was how I learned the line and nailed it for the gig. And I developed a new appreciation for McCartney’s incredible bass playing. That’s what active listening does – it leads to intimacy, understanding, and appreciation.

Repetition

You actively listened to a song! Good for you. Now listen again. Repeated active listening is the crux of improving as a musician. You’ll be forced to do it if you’re a band or solo artist making recordings. The mixing process alone generally takes equal time as the recording process, and you’ll be listening to your own songs hundreds of times (as well you should be as that’s how you’ll be able to make them great). Compared to that, listening to others’ music is mostly a piece of cake.

When you actively listen to a recording repeatedly, listen first for what is familiar and then try to listen for anything except the parts that stuck out and are familiar. It’s amazing what you can find deep in a mix when you are actively listening. And like the previous example of learning the “Nowhere Man” bass line, for learning parts and chords of songs this method is key. You may find guidance in sheet music, Internet charts, and tabs, but if you are trying to learn a piece of music note-for-note, repeated active listening is the way to do it. That’s the rock music way at least. In jazz and classical music, repeated active listening is also important but not necessarily to copy the performers’ lines note-for-note; more to get a sense of the artists’ own personal phrasing and style in such a way that it will help you hear what style is in order to develop your own.

One record that I always find something new in is Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. There are so many instruments and little noises buried in that mix that I often feel as if I could listen to it forever and never touch bottom. Actively listening to music is meditation, so like other meditative practices, you might find yourself having some genuinely out-of-this-world experiences the deeper you pursue it.

Take notes after

Meditation teachers teach journaling as well; it’s important to keep a record of your active listening so you can learn and improve. After each active listening session, take notes on what you heard. For some of you this might be a full blog post and record review, leading to your new career as a music writer. For others, it might be “sounds good, I like the singer.” It’s not important what you write so much as the fact that you write down something and keep a record of your progress. Don’t take notes while you listen! Active listening involves your full attention. If there’s some revelation or idea you really need to remember and are afraid you will forget, pause the recording, write it down, then restart it. Active listening means no distractions of any kind!

Open yourself stylistically

All of the great musical artists have been exceptional active listeners. One thing that many of them have in common is their willingness to branch out and draw inspiration from other genres and styles of music different than their own. Pete Townshend’s open-mindedness led him to modern classical music in the form of Terry Riley, which in turn he paid homage to on The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” Many of the great jazz musicians were listening to classical (Bird loved Stravinsky) and even pop music. When you’re a prolific active listener, eventually you do seek new and different music to listen to as part of the process. Just like eating, some people might want the same meal every night, but most of us crave variety. This search for varied active listening experience led David Byrne and Peter Gabriel to world music, Tom Waits to composer Harry Partch, Bob Dylan back in time to the great blues and jazz musicians of the 20s, and Thom Yorke to the electronic music of Aphex Twin and Autechre. In turn, these artists’ own music transformed and grew.

So keep yourself open to all kinds of recordings for your active listening. And don’t just think lofty, exalted, and “great;” think weird, so-bad-it’s-good, sublime, and obscure. Keep it fun! David Bowie has a great list of his top 25 records called “Confessions of a Vinyl Junkie.” It includes genius discs like The Apollo Theatre Presents: In Person! The James Brown Show and Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich, but also the worst record he’d ever found (The Glory (????) Of The Human Voice by Florence Foster Jenkins) and fun stuff like The Fugs.

The point is that there is a world of music out there, and when you are actively listening to it and not passively overhearing it you will enjoy it, absorb it, delight in it, want to share it with others, and it will transform you. Otherwise you and it are like moving targets – how will you ever find each other? As you become a more advanced active listener, you may start to develop preferences like vinyl over CD (or CD over vinyl) and start noticing how different bit rates affect your digital music. You may even purchase a pair of $200 Bang and Olufsen headphones to use with your iPhone. This is all part of the process. The point is if you are always doing other things while you listen, you will miss the chance to experience this and your music will suffer for it. Don’t be that person!

Happy active listening.

Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.

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6 thoughts on “Active listening can help you as a musician

  1. Why stop at Bang and Olufsen, why not the new Focals at $3999?! You’d have to become an active listener, if only to justify the outlay!

  2. This is an excellently written and well research article by all standards, knowing is one thing and doing is another. I like the practical action steps included in your article however about aspect of taking notes, I think making mental notes or “keeping place holders” in your mind helps a tonne. I don’t know if keeping mental notes will constitute passive listening or be considered active listening, something I wish you can respond to.

  3. I started to “actively listen” to music at age 8. I loved The Monkees So much that I wanted to be “inside” the songs so I would lay on the floor with my head right next to the speaker and absorb it all. I continued this practice while getting into Grand Funk, (and the drums in general), Black Sabbath and finally YES/Return to Forever/Mahavishnu Orchestra. This is one thing I have stressed to my guitar students over the years….the importance of good listening skills……great advice.

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