Listening to music is pure pleasure, but learning how to listen actively is an invaluable skill for musicians because active listening makes it possible to learn from any sound.

We all listen. But the truth is, most of the time we’re listening passively. The music is playing, and we’re loosely aware of it, but it’s serving a decorative or soundtrack-like purpose for whatever else we’re doing.

Passive listening means you’re concentrating on something else. Active listening makes listening your central task, rather than an afterthought.


What is active listening?

The active listening definition is simple. Active listening means that all you’re doing is listening. It requires no distractions: no other tasks or ambient sounds around you.


How to actively listen

Find a space you feel relaxed in with no distractions. Choose a piece of music that you would like to learn something from.

Using headphones will help your focus, but they’re not essential. Just make sure that you’re in a quiet environment, where you won’t be disturbed.

As you listen, resist the urge to sink into the music. Don’t let yourself slip into a passive listening mode.

The trick to effective active listening is to get into a critical mindset. Try to see the music as a set of objects. Listen for rhythm, timbre and melody. Pick apart all the different instruments and sounds. Don’t focus too closely on any one part yet. Instead, just try to keep the sound in the front of your brain for easy analysis. Here are a few questions that you can ask as you listen:

  • What layers are at work?
  • What instruments am I hearing? Do certain instruments play only in some sections or is the instrumentation the same in every section? Try to isolate each one and re-listen to the song focussing on each one.
  • How does the mood change between the start and the finish?
  • Why is the hook so catchy?
  • How do the chords progress?
  • What key is the song in?
  • When does the song shift tone and why?
  • What is the structure of the song? Does it follow a common structure like AABA?
  • What is repeated? What changes and when?
  • What kind of acoustic “space” is suggested by the music (dry vs. reverberant, near vs. far, etc.)?


These are just a few things to examine. Other elements can include asking questions about lyrics, rhythmic patterns, tempo, timbral characteristics, sound texture, production techniques You can also form questions for yourself based on what you’d like to learn.

Listen to the piece several times so that you can isolate and understand each part.

In addition to helping you learn how a particular piece of music “works,” active listening can also help you understand your subjective responses to music. For example, are there particular aspects of the song that sound familiar, nostalgic, emotional, etc.? Can you explain why (perhaps with reference to the parameters discussed earlier)? When listening passively, it’s common to have some kind of emotional response. But via active listening, you have a chance to understand what it is, specifically, that causes that response. And once you understand a technique or musical gesture, you’ll be able to adapt it for use in your own music.

If you’d like to participate in an active listening workshop, several options will be offered in the upcoming weeks. For more information and to register, visit our website: