Headphones on a bright yellow background.What is active listening? It’s the practice of engaging with the music that you’re listening to on a level deeper than simply enjoying the notes as they pass by. When you listen actively, you analyze the music and learn about its structure with the intent of learning to replicate it on your own instrument. Active listening is an essential part of being a good musician and improviser.

Why should you practice active listening when you could just learn a tune much faster from sheet music? First, because there are elements of  a song that just don’t come across on sheet music. Listening to the original recording is the most effective way to soak up the articulations, rhythm, and texture of the song. 

Secondly, you’ll memorize the tune much more easily if you rely on active listening during your learning process. When you learn something from sheet music, your brain doesn’t internalize it the same way as if you’d learned it by ear. Active listening helps you remember the details of a song on a deeper level.

How is active listening different from passive or relaxed listening? When you practice relaxed listening, you’re often multitasking and listening to music in the background. Passive or relaxed listening is what you’re doing when you put on some tunes as you wash the dishes or drive to work. This type of listening is a great way to bring music into your life and make melodies familiar to your brain, but it’s not detail-oriented. Active listening, on the other hand,  is all about learning the details of a tune. It’s best done with your instrument in your hand and even a pencil and paper to write down some of the details you might want to remember. Here are some things you’ll pay attention to when you practice active listening:

        • What key is the song in? You can often tell by listening for the last note of the form.Orange waveforms in a sound editing application.
        • What is the time signature? It will almost always be 3/4 or 4/4 in the genre of swing and Western Swing.
        • What is the form of the tune? AABA? Something else?
        • What is the chord progression of the tune? If you can’t tell right away, it can be helpful to look at a chord chart as you listen.
        • How many times will you play the melody before going into your solo?
        • Which solos do you really like? What instrument is playing?
        • Can you tap your foot on beats 2 & 4?

How can you make active listening a bigger part of your practice time? Whenever you learn a new tune, build in active listening. Find a version of the tune that you love, then slow it down if necessary and ask yourself the questions above with your instrument in your hand. The more you practice these listening skills, the greater your musical knowledge and ability will be.

Photo Credits: C D-X and Godfrey Nyangechi