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Engaged Listening, Part #1

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

One of the most real and unforgettable things I’ve experienced as a student of music is this one point in time where your ear suddenly “actually hears” an odd time signature or an unusual scale in a riff, and unlike the previous times where you’ve listened to it, you now actually understand what is going on, which is soon followed by immediate cheering in your head going, “I LEARNED THE THING!?!” This, people, is the beauty of something I call engaged listening. This is what produces the eureka moments, the actual learning, the frission, the #realfeelz. It's so powerful that you might even hear the actual lyrics of a song (lol), the bassline in the back, what the hihat is doing, and all those amazing textures you never knew were in this song that you’ve heard countless times already. Engaged listening seems self-explanatory, but it still is more than just the act of listening to music with one’s full attention. As a musician, there’s a lot you can get out of engaged (or active) listening that benefits your playing, your ear, and your muscle control. A well-written scholarly article by David Huron lists no less than 21 styles of music listening, the most interesting and useful of which I’ve quoted directly from the article here: Signal listening: Truax coined the term "listening-in-readiness" to denote the state of a listener waiting for some expected auditory event. E.g., rather than laboriously count hundreds of bars of rest, a percussionist may recognize a certain musical passage as a cue or "alarm" -- signaling the need to prepare to perform. In effect, the music is heard in terms of a set of signals or sign-posts. Similarly, a dance couple may wait for a dance tune with a desired tempo before proceeding on to the dance floor. A more sophisticated example of signal listening occurs when listening to a work known or assumed to be in sonata-allegro form; the listener will wait for features in the music that signal the advent of the next structural division, such as the advent of the development section, or the beginning of the second theme in the recapitulation. Identity listening: A listener engaged in asking any "what is" question regarding the music is engaged in what might be called "identity listening." Typical "what is" questions are: What is this instrument I am listening to? Is that a Neapolitan sixth chord? What is the meter signature? What language are the lyrics in? Who might the composer be? What is the style of this music called? etc. Identity listening often employs allusive listening as a problem-solving tactic. Feature listening: This type of listening is characterized by the listener's disposition to identify major "features" that occur in the work -- such as motifs, distinctive rhythms, instrumentation, etc. The listener identifies the recurrence of such features, and also identifies the evolutions or changes which the features undergo. The "feature listening" mode may be considered superficially to be a creative union of two other listening modes: retentive listening (identification and remembrance of features), and signal listening (recognition of previously occurring features). Directed listening: Directed listening entails a form of selective attention to one element of a complex texture; the listener purposely excludes or ignores other aspects of the music. For example, the auditor may attend to a single instrument for a short or prolonged period of time. Directed listening may ensue as a result of a listener's special interest, or may result from suggestions made by others. When a listener is concurrently viewing a notated score, it is possible that a visual attraction or interest in a particular aspect of a score may cause the listener to selectively attend to the corresponding sounds. The Norton Scores use a highlighting method to draw attention to various parts in orchestral scores. These scores thus dispose listeners to adopt a directed listening mode. The best practice is to use all these forms of listening while we learn. Half the battle is won when you really know the very basics of what you’re trying to learn. For example, the fastest learners are the ones that already know what they want the music to sound like. They have the right notes in mind, whether or not they’re able to produce them at the moment. The execution is always a matter of practice and repetition, but you won’t get anywhere if you don’t know what the right notes even are. Listening closely opens your ears up to finer details in things you’ve already heard, especially if you direct your attention to specific parts of the music that you’re trying to figure out. Part 2 on this topic coming soon! References: David Huron, Listening Styles and Listening Strategies, 2002.

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