How to practice active listening?

You play music on your phone during your commute, your workout, or before bedtime, etc. In other words, music remains the background rather than the main activity. In these cases, you’re in the passive listening mode. However, to progress in learning music, you must shift your focus entirely to the music and make it your task. Being an intentional listener means putting music through an analysis lens that gives you many insights into how to play, write and produce music (or simply appreciate music better!).

Should you listen to the music you hate?

Casual music listeners will stick to what they like. It seems obvious: Why bother if you don’t like a genre? However, that line of thinking limits you from developing your musicality.

Around my teenage years, I pushed myself to be exposed to different artistic experiences, specifically music, to cultivate a sense of fit and unfit. My repertoire expanded enormously when I came to the US over 4 years ago. Not just acknowledging but being able to articulate different genres of music and the way they differ, some might even be really disturbing to my ears, feels like a stepping stone to me. I can’t pinpoint when the filtering process happens or when my ears finally lean toward a particular genre or style. Still, I rest assured that I could only come remotely close to fully developing my musical language with early exposure to various stuff.

When you have a chance, seek for discomfort!! 

I resist the urge to switch the first time I stumble onto some piece I don’t like, and I check if that’s a significant piece for its genre and see if I can learn anything from it. Like or Hate is a personal judgment, but extending the learning experiences has always been my goal.

Below is my approach to active listening. I break it down into 2 parts: emotional and mechanical. Those two are not easy to separate, as they go hand in hand, but there’s a more technical level to the mechanical component of music listening that I’ll explain further:

1. Emotional

The primary encounter between you and music is emotion, and that’s how you resonate with the melody, harmony, form, and rhythm. 

  • How does it make you feel: sad, happy, nostalgic, euphoric? 

Start generic, but as you travel down the listening process, dig deeper: what mood does the song create, and what part of it speaks volume to you? If you had heard the song before, where was it: a holiday concert? A TV commercial? A military march? Is it the original song, or is it a stylized rendition? How does the energy of the music switch halfway? (I like to call it “the edge,” as some pieces can move you from one emotional state to another with much or little transition). 

  • What part explains your emotions: cheesy lyrics? tempo? key? chords? 
  • What do you like about that song?: Is that a solo? Is it a line? 
  • What you don’t like about that song? 

The common sense is simple: If I like it, it’s good. If I don’t like it, it’s bad. However, answering the questions above helps me look past my taste to a point where I’m comfortable saying: It’s not my thing, I don’t “get” it, but I’m able to define my emotional response to a certain part of the song. 

To do: Look for different versions of the same song, play in other keys, and switch up from Minor to Major in different genres. What do you notice? Did you expect a specific emotional response, but the different version throws you off? What exactly doesn’t “go well” (or, as expected)? 

Check out Musicmasher: The website crawls Spotify, Soundcloud, Youtube and Bandcamp to suggests results to you. 

2. Mechanical

Time to ‘decode’ a song on a tactical basis:

  • What is the chord progression? If you replace some notes, what would it be?  
  • What scale, mode is the song in? 

I often use jazz/blues for reference since those genres offer prosperous musical expression through rhythm and chord progressions.
Put on your engineering hat/producer hat and start paying attention to the physical details of the music: frequency, dynamics, timbre, and texture.

  • How many instruments can you recognize? Any instrument that stands out? Any that is overpowered? 
  • How does the music moves? Does some instrument sound further or closer? For some genre, or a clearer mix, you might find it easier to distinguish different frequency. The point is not to find a defined answer, but to get you used to picking up nuances in a song. 
  • Is the mix compressed, or open and dynamic? Did you notice any sound effect, any loop? 
  • Does the song feel bright, rich, or dry? What would you change in the frequency? 

Check out my article (in Vietnamese) on 7 elements of music.

How to enrich your music repertoire?

  • Attend a local concert. 

It might suck. I get it. But what’s the worst outcome of it? You may waste 1hr. Maybe you’re out with friends you haven’t seen in a long time, and the concert is a letdown. But in the scheme of things, 1hr is a low price to challenge your concept of Like/Dislike. To help you minimize that risk, SofarSounds curates 3 artists, playing 4 songs each, in different genres of music in an evening. The location is indie and intimate, and remains a secret until a few hours before the show (but you do know which neighborhood it is). The artist lineup is also left to your surprise. Even if you don’t like the music, you can still walk away knowing you had a good show.

  • Use Spotiy/Pandora/Youtube suggestion 

I swear by Spotify. Their Discovery features allow you to listen to music of adjacent genre, or artist, and you can pick music depending on your mood. The Friend Activity bar helps me try the music my friend is listening to that I might not otherwise listen.

  • Ask a music junkie/music teacher/people on the internet

I wouldn’t recommend much ranting to “people on the internet”, but in case you feel like, I’ve answered a bunch of music questions on Quora.

Check out my article on:

Let me know in the comment, what new genre have you explored lately? What delighted/displeased you about it?

P.S: The photo is from Salesforce Tower, 61st floor, the tallest building in San Francisco! It has 360 view of the city, pretty neat!

In the meantime, I’m working on a few more articles about listening in a specific genre of music. Sign up to be noticed when it’s published!



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *