How to Listen to Music

Is it possible that we really need instruction on this activity? In his 1982 book, Elliott Schwartz gives an emphatic yes, arguing that we’ve learned to tune things out, possibly owing to the onslaught of technology. In short, we hear music without really listening to it. And although his book is now out of print, author Maria Popova has outlined what we need to do to rediscover this lost art in her article, “How to Listen to Music: A Vintage Guide to the 7 Essential Skills.” Among them are the following:

  • Develop your sensitivity to music by really listening to all sounds. Notice how sounds are related to other sounds, or how they seem to occur in patterns. Schwartz gives the sound of an ice cream truck and children’s games as an example.
  • Develop a musical memory. Look for a pattern you’ve heard before in the work you’re listening to now. Schwartz acknowledges that this ability will take some time to develop, but that once you do, “life will never be the same.”
  • Learn to look for musical landmarks in a composition. By doing this, you will develop listening “stamina,” and thus easily navigate anything from a current pop hit to a symphony, to an opera.
  • Learn about the music you are listening to. Who wrote it? When? What can you find out about this person that may heighten your awareness of musical elements? Simply by doing this will help make listening less of a passive activity.

Understanding these skills is important if we are to truly appreciate that which influences us so easily. But the critical element in learning how to listen to music is this: we must make the time to apply these skills. Turn off the TV, get off Facebook, and put on some music. Take the time to actively listen to what’s going on, to look for patterns and landmarks, and to learn about what you are listening to.


While Elliott Schwartz’s book, Music: Ways of Listening, is out of print, Amazon has some used copies available. Click here for more information.


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