Seven Ways to Become an Active Listener Using Classical Music

Music is present during virtually every activity in our daily lives. Whether you’re in an elevator, waiting in line at a drug store or shopping for new shoes, music is likely playing around you. But ask yourself this, do you really listen to this music, or do you simply hear it? Chances are, you’re doing the latter.

Why is the distinction between hearing and really listening so important? For many of us, learning to listen intently and give our undivided attention to music can benefit many areas of our lives. As I’ve observed in thirty years of teaching active listening and classical music appreciation, when people begin to really listen to music, and classical music in particular, they become better listeners and communicators in their jobs, relationships and beyond. The benefits of learning to listen intently are really endless.

Many folks think they need special training to understand classical music. I argue, while not all of us can be virtuoso musicians, we can all be virtuoso listeners. For those looking to reap the benefits of listening to classical music, I’ve outlined seven steps you can take today to help you become a better classical listener.

  1. Make a decision. The first step in active listening is to simply ask yourself: “Am I really listening?” This sounds ridiculously obvious, right? But we actually have a decision to make. We have to decide if we are we going to multi-task – which includes even just thinking about other things – or, are we going mono-focus and give the music our undivided attention.
  2. Embrace alone time. This may sound anti-social, but the truth is, even when 2,000 people are sitting in Carnegie Hall together, they are each in their own private listening world, taking in the sounds around them and having their own private reactions. So don’t think twice about sitting in front of your computer or phone by yourself with your earbuds in.
  3. Use YouTube. It’s not like the old days when the classical music-curious needed to sift through bins of LP vinyl records or CD cases with no direction on what to purchase. The entire history of classical is all there on YouTube, ready for your enjoyment – for free!
  4. Stick with the winners. You may be wondering where to start if you’re not familiar with classical. Here are eight excellent options to get your feet wet:
    1. Mozart: Overture to the Marriage of Figaro (04:30)
    2. Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, Movement III (05:00)
    3. Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 21, Movement II (06:30)
    4. Brahms: Symphony No. 4, Movement III (06:00)
    5. Fauré: Pavane (orchestral version without chorus) (06:30)
    6. Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, Movement I (07:30)
    7. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2, Movement II (11:30)
    8. Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No.2 (16:00)
  5. Find your focus. Having made a decision to listen with all of your faculties, you might be wondering: “What do I actually focus on?” Pay attention to the rhythms, the melodies, the harmonies, the contrast of loudness and softness, the different sounds each instrument or group of instruments makes and the form. Take notice of changes and similarities. Are some melodies repeated? Are they repeated identically or altered? What other changes do you notice?
  6. Keep your focus. It’s quite normal for your mind to wander as you attempt to focus completely on the music. When that happens, simply bring your mind back to noticing the melody and the instruments that are playing. Enjoy the contrasts of loudness and softness as they occur in real time. Once you shift your attention back to the music, your internal monologue will quickly vanish.
  7. Seek out help! Still wondering what to listen for? Seek out friends of yours who listen to classical for their guidance. Don’t have anyone you can ask? You can always visit The Discovery Orchestra’s YouTube page and select from any of our short “Discovery Chats” to get started. Happy listening!

Maestro George Marriner Maull is the Artistic Director of The Discovery Orchestra, a nonprofit music education organization teaching the attentive listening skills that help people of all backgrounds better comprehend, experience and emotionally connect with classical music.


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