Active Music Listening

I’ve talked before about the importance of listening to music. This includes listening to all sorts of music: jazz, pop, symphony, metal, etc. The idea is to actively listen to what you’re hearing. Not an easy task considering the numerous distractions available to us!

I had a jazz theory teacher who always liked to say, “Imitation leads to innovation.” In jazz that means copying others’ licks and making them your own. From there you sort of learn the sound and how to play it which gives a stepping stone to creating your own unique solos or style. In classical music, imitating can open doors to improving interpretation by copying the masters. This is especially helpful with transcriptions. When I was learning one of the Bach Cello Suites last year, I listened to a lot of Cello Music (and studied with a cellist) to get my head into the music. I stole ideas from various performers and tried them out to see if I liked what they did. If I did like it, and my teacher approved, I stuck with it. Imitation can go beyond listening. If you work with a great teacher, they may, with a beginner, simply play something and ask you to imitate it. In the same way, you might learn a cool riff from your friend. Imitation is a powerful tool!

You Hear What They Want You to Hear

The first step in active music listening is to realize that a great performer leaves nothing to chance. A great performer will force the audience to hear EXACTLY what they think is the best interpretation. If you notice a specific line or melody while listening to a piece, the performer meant it that way. If a melody grows in dynamics or ebbs and flows, the performer wanted you to notice. If you make connections between various sections based on repeat material the performer will have brought out what the composer inlaid in a piece.

It can be said then, that active listening is really a critical evaluation of interpretation rather than merely time spent only listening to music. To really be an active listener you must have an intimate understanding of the music. Fortunately for us music notation provides an easy access way to get inside a piece. Listening with a score in hand gives you a visual focus, reduces the chance of getting distracted and generally can improve a listening experience. Going to a recital or concert with a score is not always an option, but you can certainly study a piece and listen to it with the score before attending a performance.

How to Start

Take a piece you know well. A guitar piece would be a good place to start. In previous posts, I’ve talked about Sor’s B minor Etude and outlined the basic form of the piece in addition to some phrase structure things. When listening to a recording of this piece, what notes pop out? How does a performer treat the cadences? Where do they slow down or speed up? Where is it louder?

In short, active listening is about asking questions of the performer- their answers are on the recording. Sometimes music theory can provide a window into the performers mind to see why the chose a given interpretation. Other times that “why?” is simply left up in the air.

Observe, take notes on the score and try to rationalize what the performer is doing, then ask the most important question: Do I like this interpretation? If yes, steal the bits you like! and try to imitate them and figure out why it works (does it make sense with the phrase structure, form, harmony or melody?). Imitation and active listening are powerful tools. But it’s important to realize that you can make generalization across pieces. Music is really only the same 12 notes. Things happen that are the same in various pieces. A great listener and performer will take ideas from one piece and use them across the board. In a similar way, if you improve your technique in generally that will carry over to all of your playing.

If you’re interested in learning more about music theory and listening, I highly recommend What to Listen For in Music by Aaron Copland.

I do a similar sort of thing with pop music. I love listening to Metallica because they inspired me to start guitar. But when I listen to pop music it’s really about me trying to capture and think about the feel of a piece. Early Metallica is more tight sounding, but later stuff from the 90’s is very laid back feeling and more relaxed, etc.

How do you listen? Do you ever imitate interpretations? Do you think it helps?

Posted on in Musical Interpretation and Musicianship


  • malaina

    Hey, I found your blog a while back and think it’s neat. I started classical guitar with the Suzuki method and have been playing for years. I think it’s vital to listen to other performers play the piece you are learning; I imitate interpretations by other performers all the time. Before performing a Tarrega piece I listened to the segovia recording and copied (at least tried to copy) some of his interpretations of dynamics and timing of the piece. I like listening on my Ipod while looking at the score.

  • Chris

    Malaina, thanks for the comment. I did the same thing when I was first starting. Always listened, copied, etc. Now I don’t listen as much, but it seems different.

    I think as you get better as a player you get better as a listener. You begin to notice things that might not have popped out to your ear before.