written by Dr. Victor Ezquerra, Metro Music Makers instructor
For musicians and non-musicians, listening to music is a part of the human experience. Even though it can be entertaining or relaxing to hear music unresponsively, it is much more constructive for one’s musicianship to engage with the music and listen with intent. In other words, listening to music actively is more musically beneficial than simply hearing music passively. Whether focusing on emotion, instrumentation, form, rhythm or subject matter, it is easy to make music listening a dynamic and participatory activity.
How Should You Listen to Music?
There are many perspectives and approaches that can be taken when listening to music. The aim of this blog is to suggest different ways of listening that can make the music come alive and allow you to participate alongside the music.
You don’t have to be a musician to obtain meaning or a valuable experience when listening to music. Although most people don’t have an extensive musical vocabulary that includes words like syncopation or modulation or programmatic music, when they hear music, those listeners become aware (either consciously or unconsciously) of off-beat rhythms or key changes or underlying meaning.
Although there is no “right” or “wrong” way to listen to music, there are definitely ways of listening that are more fruitful and productive than others. In order to improve musicianship, listening to music actively and not passively is of utmost importance.
Active Listening vs. Passive Listening
Passive listening is merely noticing that there is music playing—but attention is applied elsewhere. It would be unreasonable to expect that one can always listen attentively since we are constantly bombarded with music. Think of all the times a day when there is music playing and it’s barely noticed: during commercials, in the background of shows or films, over speakers while shopping at retail stores, while eating a meal, while working. In many of these situations, we hear the music, but we aren’t really listening. Our ears perceive the sounds, but we don’t really commit our brains to any aspects of the music. Passive listening does not require involvement or action on the part of the listener. The music is just a thing that's “there,” much like the paint on the wall or a pen on the desk.
Active listening involves engagement, effort, perception and focus. When listening actively, the mind recognizes specific musical qualities, participates along with the music, and commits cognitive resources while attempting to engage the music. Listening actively is not only perceiving sound, it is focusing attention on the music and being involved with the musical experience.
Because music is such a multifaceted experience, there are many ways to actively listen to music. Focusing on emotion, lyrics, form, rhythm or instrumentation, or creating your own meaning, allows people to practice active listening.
Subject Matter and Lyrics
Subject matter is one of the central aspects of music—and typically one of the first things listeners will notice. These questions will help you engage whatever you’re listening to:
- Who is speaking? From what perspective (i.e., first-person)? Who are they speaking to?
- What type of language is being used? Where do you think the speaker is from?
- How would you describe the style of the lyrics (academic, folky, urban, etc.)?
- Are the lyrics straightforward, or is there a hidden message? Are they nonsense lyrics?
- What is the setting of the music? Where and when does the music take place?
- Do the lyrics unfold as a story? An argument? A plea?
- What is the overall message of the song?
- What (if anything) changes throughout the song?
- Can you relate to the speaker?
On a structural level, there are several lyrical elements that make each piece of music unique. Some of these include: rhyme schemes (how frequently and when lines rhyme), phonetic repetitions (using similar sounding words or sounds), and meter (noticing patterns of syllables). Regarding this type of analysis, pay attention to form (how things are being said) over content (what is being said).
Placing the lyrics in context is also important. Consider questions like: Where was the artist from? When was this written? What type of language or vernacular is being used? What was the artist’s life like? These questions create a plethora of meanings when applied to the genre with (quite possibly) the most developed and rich lyrical style—rap. When taken at face value, it just seems like curse words, slang and derogatory comments. However, when context is considered, it suggests the genre was born from a gritty environment during a difficult time filled with strife, a dynamic social existence and incredible public awareness. When rap lyrics are closely analyzed, they reveal vivid descriptions, valid criticisms, gripping storytelling and unique societal perspectives.
Focusing on Emotion and Feeling
It’s fairly easy to be moved by music. We may cry when we hear a sad melody, get pumped up by a rock song, feel gritty when some hip-hop comes on, or be happy when we hear a jovial tune. There are infinite possibilities to the way music can make us feel. Whether our emotions match those of the artist or not, music is powerful enough to evoke feelings. Here are some questions that can help provoke actively listening for feelings:
- How would you describe the mood of the song?
- What do you think the artist was feeling?
- How does the music make you feel? What aspect(s) make you feel that way?
- What is a song that makes you happy? Sad? Angry? Lonely? Excited? Why do those songs make you feel that way?
- Think of songs that attempt to achieve a certain feeling (“Happy” by Pharrell, “Blue Christmas” by Elvis). Does the artist succeed in evoking that emotion? How do they do that?
One of the keys to noticing feeling in music is to just feel. Try to listen to what your body, heart and soul are telling you instead of your mind. It sounds a bit hippie-dippy, but one of music’s most important qualities is its ability to provoke emotions.
In music, form describes the organization of a piece of music. Take note of how many different sections there are in the song and if they repeat. Each section is usually designated by assigning it a letter, beginning with “A,” followed by “B” if a section is different, and so on. Typically, lyrical form is considered separate from musical form—a prime example is in the verse/chorus form in popular music. Despite the lyrics being different in different verses, they are considered the same type of section because of the connection of the music in the sections. Here are some formal questions you can ask while listening actively include:
- How many sections does the song have?
- How do the sections of the song differ from one another?
- Do sections repeat? How often?
- How does the song develop from start to finish?
- How does the form contribute to the mood, style, and subject matter?
- What is the main organizational element of the song/sections (melody, harmony, etc.)?
Listening for Instrumentation and Different Voices
Some basic questions to consider when listening for instruments and voices:
- What types of voices/instruments do you hear?
- How many voices/instruments are being played?
- Are the voices/instruments happening simultaneously?
- How would you describe the tone of the voices/instruments (clear, dirty, loud, soft, smooth, rough, etc.)?
- Where do the voices/instruments sound like they’re coming from?
Below is a fun activity that helps improve the way you hear different voices and also help you approach music production more critically. I suggest doing this activity with either headphones or a surround sound system. Starting with a horizontal, blank piece of paper, draw a baseball-sized circle in the center of the paper. The circle represents your head. Sounds that are heard to be seemingly in front of you will go above the circle, and those that sound like they are behind you will be placed under the circle. If the music pans to the left, place the sound to the left side of the circle; if it pans to the right place the sound to the right side. If a sound seems to be closer place it closer to the circle, if further then place it further from the circle. If a sound is louder, make the word or picture you write down larger or bolder; for softer sounds make their visual representation smaller or finer.
As you listen to the music, start to write down where you hear the sounds and what you hear. It may help to label the sounds with the time they occurred, or use colors to represent different types of sounds. This activity is even more fun and artistic if you draw the sounds you hear or represent them with something more abstract instead of simply writing words. When you’re finished, you will have a fantastic visual representation of all the sounds you heard in the song and how those sounds behaved.
Rhythm is another one of the most prominent aspects of music. It’s not uncommon for us to begin clapping our hands, stomping our feet, bobbing our head, tapping a desk, or moving our entire body along with the beat (underlying pulse) of the music.
From a music theory perspective, you can actively listen for meter (the recurring pattern of strong and weak pulses), tempo (the overall speed of the beat), and any changes that occur throughout the music. Counting along with the music, either in your head or out loud, can be particularly engaging especially with non-western music. Following the music’s rhythmic aspects gives an excellent idea of the repetitions and mathematical patterns that are inherent in music; comparing rhythmic values of different genres of music demonstrates how cultures can perceive musical time in distinctive ways.
An obvious application of musical rhythm is dancing. Not only does dancing require aural awareness of the underlying beat and rhythm of the music, it also requires kinesthetic awareness of one’s own body and creative presentation of music through bodily movements. Whether the dancing involves learning a dance that has already been choreographed like a TikTok dance or a line dance, dancing in a certain style like the tango or the waltz, creating an interpretive dance, or improvising your own moves—immersion in the music is an inevitable consequence of dancing.
When listening actively, music can take on new meanings and you can begin to notice new characteristics of songs you might have never noticed before. Although passively listening to music in the background does have merit, active listening is much more stimulating and strengthens knowledge and experience in areas including subject matter, lyrics, form, rhythm, instrumentation and emotion.
Hopefully the above questions and activities help you engage music as a listener. But don’t stop there! Try to be as creative as possible when listening—the key is that the listening is what stimulates you to do something related to the music (paint, make a soundtrack, create a sequel to the song, etc.). Ask questions about the music. Participate. Enjoy.