Passively vs. Actively Listening to Music

Listening and hearing are two very different things. Hearing is actually an involuntary reflex performed by the auditory function of the brain. Passive listening is very similar to hearing; sound is encountered and is initially or even sporadically heard but  your mind drifts, the sounds become background noise and you may think you are listening but actually the sounds are simply going past you though not on a meaningful level. While listening passively you can be thinking about everything but what you are hearing so it does not require much effort. Listening actively is listening with a purpose; you are engaged with what you are hearing, paying attention to sounds, expressions, intonation and questioning what you don’t understand. You listen actively to gain information and solve problems. When you listen actively you are emotionally effected by what you are hearing. Active listening uses more energy than speaking as you must receive and interpret sound. Active listening can be seen as a two-way communication. Passive listening is a one-way communication. Basically, it’s all about relationships.

How does this information apply to music? Passive music listening is selectively listening to music while you are actively doing something else. The listening is secondary to your primary activity. Many people listen to music passively most of the time. The business that began as Muzak created an industry that has taken over the retail environment to “enhance the customer experience”. Background music is everywhere; at malls, in restaurants, at the dentist office, it’s part of the movies you watch and it’s even part of the video games you play. It is so pervasive that we have conditioned ourselves to specifically not listen to it. We tune it out like noise pollution or the other sounds that are part of our environment. People who live in cities don’t hear the traffic sounds around them, people who live near airports are oblivious to the sound of flights going by, etc. Though we are not listening to any of those sounds we would become very aware of their absence if they stopped.

Active listening implies closeness, intimacy, a deep understanding. You are fully present in the music one hundred percent of the time. You are immersed, preoccupied with it and therefore interacting with it. The more time you spend actively engaged  in the music, the closer your relationship with it will be. The closeness of the relationship built will be determined by both the quantity and quality of time spent actively listening. It is important to realize that active listening is a skill and if we want to become better listeners, we have to practice listening. It takes dedicated time, focus and critical thinking to get to the level of intimacy that leads to understanding and appreciation. Learning active listening skills can enrich and improve your life and your relationship with music.

If you are interested in learning to actively listen to music here are some suggestions. There is the cerebral approach and/or the meditative approach.  If you are so inclined you might like to do a bit of research before beginning to listen. You can determine what genre best fits the music, who composed it, what time period and country it comes from and historically, what was going on at that time, in that place and for that composer? Then set a goal to listen without distractions for about ten minutes. In addition or instead you can take a more meditative approach to learning to actively listen. Begin by sitting comfortably, turning off your phone and other distractions; let go of the stresses of the day and perhaps even turn off the lights. Next relax, close your eyes and slow your breathing. Closing your eyes helps keep you focused and heightens your auditory senses. Take the music in with your breath and note where it resonates in your body. You can try placing one hand on your heart and another on your diaphragm. Engage other senses. How does the music move you emotionally? Tune into those feelings. Do any images or colors come to mind? Let the music engage your imagination. Pay attention to details in the music like melodic contour, musical form, harmonies, instrumentation and dynamics. This is called critical listening and can be a good exercise for the brain and for helping you to stay focused. It is important however, not to become judgmental or let your critical mind take away from the joy of listening. Finally, take a few moments at the end of the music, before opening your eyes, to let your system fully process the experience.

There are many other aspects that can be explored as well. If you are studying an instrument with a teacher you can delve deeper into the music by discussing such things as key signatures, rhythm, harmony, pitch, consonance and dissonance and dynamics. Once you dedicate yourself to sitting down with a piece of music and becoming actively involved with it you will realize the rewards of focused listening and there are many rewards. I am sure you have heard about all of the health and educational benefits of listening to music, the Mozart Effect for instance which claims that music has a cognitive effect on the brain of listeners. Unfortunately passive listening does not convey all of those benefits in the same way that active listening does. Active music listening, taking formal lessons, learning and practicing an instrument produces substantive positive changes in the brains of both children and adults. Much has been written about this subject in prior posts to this blog. Active listening will improve brain function and it will also improve your overall musical enjoyment. The more closely you listen, the more you engage the different areas of our brain. The more you engage and the more senses you activate, the more strength a piece of music will have in positively affecting your physical, emotional and mental states, especially when you return to that same piece of music later.

Of course, different people want different things from their music and different artists appeal to different types of listeners. Some listeners want something deep out of their music and others are just looking for background sound as they go through their busy days. There’s nothing wrong with passive listening but much to be gained by active listening.



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