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Listening (Actually)


I apologize to regular readers for not writing for so long. I have been doing a lot of substitute teaching lately, and I’ve been forgetting to keep up with my blog. Ironically, I realize that this is actually a lot like what many students do with an ongoing assignment! Once the new glimmer fades away, you just sort of let it slip in favour of whatever else catches your attention. I’ll try to implement a schedule from now on, because I really like doing this (when I remember to do it and not be exhausted from dealing with another 25 new children to teach!).

Anyways, today’s topic: listening. More specifically, real listening. Not the kind of listening that you do to that random stuff on the radio. A festival adjudicator that came and worked with our community band last night brought this topic up, and I think it’s worth exploring. Most people listen peripherally: there’s music playing, and they hear the one or two specific features that are designed to be brought out.

There are those who are amateur musicians and appreciators of music who listen on the next level up, where they start to recognize some of the distinctive styles of their favourite groups and artists. This type of listening engages more of brain, but generalizes rather than specifies.

Finally, there is a type of listener who often does not listen to music in this way naturally. People must usually be taught to listen in this third way. This way of listening involves actually attending to the music. There are many elements of music that slip by a casual or semi-casual listener. Many pieces of symphonic music work this way. It takes an extremely focused ear to hear the fine interplay between the second violin and the third clarinets, which is not something that is a natural reflex.

In this way, listening is a lot like the actual learning of a musical instrument itself. Just as you have to practice many of the fundamental techniques in isolation before you can incorporate them into a whole, with active listening you need to practice, probably with being led to expect certain things, and just try to discern small differences. The way I learned to do this was in music classes where a teacher would comment on the supreme beauty of this tiny detail or that very specific timbre, and I would listen again and again to the same moment until I heard it.

This may sound a little bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I think this is a valid way to learn many things. Sticking with music for now, when beginning to play an instrument or sing, the student has no idea what the proper tone is supposed to be. Even when shown two examples of performances, the student may be able to pick out the better, but also cannot describe the difference. Similarly, when learning how to listen, you have to parrot the expectations until your brain focuses enough to actually identify them.

Listening actively is hard, because although it is an incredibly deep and involved process, it must be a non-judgmental thing (at least in part). The human temptation is to analyze and formulate an opinion on the quality of anything we hear or experience. But when listening (and this applies equally well to listening to speech as to music), in order to actually receive all the information, you can’t be breaking it down as to the quality. The moment you start saying, “This is good, and this is bad”, you have superimposed yourself on the music instead of letting yourself absorb the music. Can you judge the quality after hearing it? Absolutely. But letting yourself get in the way of the listening process means you miss something vital.

Teaching this is also difficult, depending as it does so much on the student’s ability and readiness to receive instruction and be open to leading. Giving up control is something humans don’t do well, and giving up your ability to auto-judge with your opinion doesn’t sit well with many people. It’s the same reflex that leads children to conclude that the music of their grandparents is dumb and boring while the music that their friends listen to is awesome and innovative.

Listening is one of the activities that humans do the most often with the least amount of success, I think. And given that not everyone is interested enough in music to take post-secondary music appreciation courses, I’m not sure that’s likely to change. Which is a pity. I’d love to have more students, or to be frank, more people in general, be able to say that Beethoven and Bob Marley are equally awesome, or that they don’t have a preference between Eminem and Jelly Roll Morton.


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