The Importance Of Mindful Music Listening

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Clarinet By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Clarinet
Last updated: 04/06/2017
Tags: #howtopractice, eartraining

At a time where music is abundantly available at the click of a button it has never been easier to immerse ourselves in a wide range of genres and to develop our listening skills as musicians. But how much attention do we really pay to the sounds being played out to us? If ‘listening’ were to be described as a conscious process and ‘hearing’ as unconscious, then how conscious are we really with our listening?

It often seems we have a limited understanding of the difference between the two; for example, you might assume that any music that we have chosen for ourselves would count as a listening experience whereas the music being played out loud from someone's phone on public transport would be heard but not listened to. This may not be the case, however, as too often we listen to our own music inattentively to the extent that we are merely hearing it and aren’t acknowledging important details in the music. The reality is that we can work our way through hundreds of albums without allowing our hearing skills to reach their full potential. We should aim to do as much mindful listening and as little inattentive hearing as possible in order to avoid missing out on key areas our development as aspiring musicians.

Rather than delving deeply into these issues, the purpose of this article is to discuss a couple of fun, simple ways to fit listening exercises into our daily life without hassle or sacrifice. They are quick practical solutions that will be beneficial in the long term and help you get more out of your listening experiences. The example I would like to use is the commute to work/college; already an opportune time for discovering new music for many people, but all that's required here is altering your approach ever so slightly. You may have had the first play of that long-awaited Björk album, but how will this enjoyable listening experience be turned into one that is also educational? What I recommend here is to take an analytical approach to listening and try to up your focus a little. (Of course I don't recommend risking missing your stop on the tube for the sake of these exercises, but we can refrain from fiddling with our phone for a minute or two!)

Take one track from an album of your choice and be prepared to listen to it several times over, focusing on different elements each time. The purpose of the first listen can be to gain a broad overview, paying equal attention to all aspects of the music. Regardless of whether they are far forward or back in the mix, allow the different instrumental timbres to merge together into one unified sound. What is your overall impression of this piece? Does it evoke a particular emotion in you or conjure up some sort of visual imagery or memory, a geometric shape? Does it remind you of another song you know?

Now have another listen and have a go at working out the time signature and the length of the form in bars, plus any notable modulations in the piece. In your third listen try to memorize the melody/ harmony lines as possible, and test your aural recall skills by seeing how much of it you can sing it back at the end. We tend to more easily remember phrases that resemble music we already know, so you may need to replay some bits of the melody more than others. By that token, the more music we know the more easily we assimilate new music so it’s worth repeating this exercise as often as possible.

The final few listens might involve trying to work out the basic outline of the chord progression by listening to the bass notes; how many changes are there in the first verse? What was that chord at the beginning of in the B section? If the harmony is largely static then how is this compensated for in other aspects in the music?

These exercises can be made more or less advanced by varying the complexity of the music, using anything from large scale orchestral pieces to simpler pop tunes.  As well as applying these listening methods to your own personal choices of music it is worth seeing how much you can gain from other music your exposed to; even styles of music that you’d normally be dismissive of can provide fruitful listening experiences if you are willing to see them in different light. So let’s return to that song being blasted out from someone’s phone on public transport; as disruptive as this may be for you, can you find the silver lining in this scenario by turning it into an opportunity to practice your listening skills? If so, then what key was it in and how many bars was the chorus?

Implementing these exercises into your daily routine requires effort and persistence but you are likely to notice it having a knock on effect in other areas of your musicianship. For example, if you have a tendency to lose your place in a piece of music while performing, then practicing working out the form lengths of songs in your head will help address this issue. The ultimate aim is to be able to get as much out as few listens as possible to the extent where you’re carrying several of the stages of the exercises all at once.

If you struggled with some of the tasks you may consider putting in further work by playing along with the record on the piano at home, purchasing a score/ chord chart and checking your answers up against this. On occasions we are required to set aside time in our day for some more in-depth listening exercises such as transcription and aural dictation to develop our notation skills and well as our musical ears. I am keen to post a follow up article on this topic very soon so do revisit this page and I hope what you have read has been both inspiring and thought provoking.

Aidan Pearson Clarinet Teacher (East London)

About The Author

Learn to play the clarinet/sax from a friendly, experienced and qualified teacher! Whether you're discovering a musical instrument for the first time or are an experienced player wanting to brush on your skills I would be glad to help you out.

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