HOW TO LISTEN TO MUSIC: 8 Practical Tips

Listening Ears

1. Listen blindly. Listen to a work not knowing who wrote it, or the title of it, or the style and when it was written. Just you and the physical music, with no preconceptions or artificial mental expectations or without knowing anything about it’s origins or classifications.

2. Listen bodily. Listen with your gut, your own visceral reactions, your own emotional responses, your own freedom of imagination. Approach music as an innocent, like a primitive or a baby, and enjoy the “nourishment of impulses” that feed your body and mind. This kind of listening can be exhilarating, bewildering, exciting, calming, inspiring, emotional, or mesmerizing, but the physicality of “real world” sounds is key to this visceral musical experience. Let your whole body literally vibrate, resonate, and pulsate with the music, in a literal sense, and enjoy the sheer physicality of sound.

3. Listen with both ears.  This means focusing on the sounds as well as the overall flow of the music. Listen to the individual parts and the whole of the music, from the tiny details to the shapes of the phrases to the overarching form. Listen to the changes, to the repetitions, the recapitulating elements, the rhythms, the themes, and the instruments physically creating the sounds. Listen stereophonically with both ears, to bring into focus the whole from different perspectives of listening, just as the eyes view stereoptically through binoculars, bringing the world into a harmonious singular focus from two different visual perspectives. In order to learn this focused art of listening, sometimes it is helpful to listen with the left ear only or the right ear only, because the brain processes sounds differently in each hemisphere. Focused listening with both ears finally unites the parts within the whole, tying together the innocence of pure, immediate sounds with the experience of reflection and holistic context. As you listen with both ears, you gradually assimilate experiences into a wider frame of context and expectations, enriching your understanding of music.

4. Organize your listening experiences. Enjoy the immediacy of music, but find a disciplined way to track your listening experiences. Group musical works in ways that help you remember them, and compare them with others by organizing them in different ways: by composer, style, historical period, genre, instrument, favorite artists. Deepen your reservoir of music by taking notes, comparing music, counting the works that you really “own” as part of your own personal listening and/or performance history. Save your concert programs, record in a notebook new music as you encounter it, along with your reactions to the experience.

5. Listen to live music. No recording or video can replicate the full experience of listening to music live, in the flesh, with the musicians who are performing the music. This enriches your own experience of music, and it is equally vital to the musicians who are performing the music. Music is a social art, in which the musicians communicate directly with the listening audience. The living, breathing personal exchange of music dies when live music is replaced by second-hand music.  So support your local symphony, opera, musical theater, ballet and other musical groups, and enjoy the personal human bond that live music offers to both listeners and performers.

6. Join in the music making. Improve listening skills by performing music, especially with others. Sing, dance, play an instrument, move to the beat, or just tap your foot. But physically enter the world of music to focus your active listening skills. Playing music together requires listening actively and cooperatively to others, making music the ultimate social art.  Becoming physically part of the music as a performer necessitates and fine-tunes our listening skills.

7. Expand your listening world. Indulge in the music you love, but adventure periodically into new worlds of music that are foreign to you. If you are a big symphony buff, try a Gregorian chant or an intimate solo or chamber concert for a change. You may love rock concerts, but venture to an opera to understand that the same emotional combustion of love and music once had Italian audiences shouting in pleasure or despair. If you only listen to Western music, taste a little of the East in the complexities of Indian or Chinese music. If you love contemporary folk music, discover the folk tunes rampant in Mozart, Beethoven or Copland. If you normally turn to classical music for soulful comfort, enjoy a change of pace by sinking into a blues ballad, or a Piaf chanson, or a tearful Portuguese fado. Opera buff? Go see a ballet for a wordless change of pace.  If you are trapped in repertoire of the 19th century, venture forth into the 20th and 21st, as there’s a lot going on. Push your sonic limits beyond the comfort of your own narrow world of music. Ultimately, as your music listening grows, so do you. Your character, your morality, your tastes, your aspirations, are often reflected in your listening choices. Widen your listening framework, and you will find yourself growing and developing and changing, and yes, even improving.

8. Don’t let a day pass without listening to music. It’s not enough to go to music class or practice your instrument daily. Incorporate a 10-minute diet of listening into your daily menu. Something old, and something new. Enjoy the daily “comfort” foods of your familiar musical diet, but also whet your appetite with new, unfamiliar music every day. Record your impressions (see #4) and watch your experiences and tastes expand!


Roger Shattuck, who mentored me in graduate school, once wrote a surprisingly simple-sounding yet thought-provoking essay entitled “How to Read a Book.”  His ideas on “how to read a book” directly inspired my own essay on “how to listen to music.”

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