Listening is the most important activity that we engage in as musicians. Our motivation to play music is fueled by listening. When we play an instrument, we must carefully and constantly listen to the sounds we are creating in order to choose fingerings, dynamics, tempo and more. If we are playing in a group, the success of the collaboration is dependent upon each musician listening deeply to every aspect of the musical whole.  When we compose or improvise, we must first listen to the notes and rhythms in our heads before we bring them to our instruments.

In studying music we must listen carefully to all instruction, whether that instruction is formal, as in a lesson or a class, or is one of many subtle hints that we encounter in our daily lives. As we practice tuning into those enlightening hints, we also practice listening to our own intuition, thereby reinforcing the very foundation of creativity.

One of the most exciting things that I do as a teacher is to help my students expand their listening skills. Through study, anyone can hone their ability to discern pitches and sort out rhythms. In order to achieve true artistry, however, it is necessary to go beyond the classroom and to reach deeply into personal experience. Consciously engaging in certain practices will facilitate the process of listening as a means to enhance personal expression and creativity.

Turn off the Noise

Today’s world is filled with both incessant noise and large amounts of information that is transmitted at a rapid rate. As an adaptive species, we tend to unconsciously protect our nervous systems from this barrage by tuning out the noise and by receiving only the information that comes
through quickly. In receiving only the sounds that are most demanding, we lose much of the beauty, wisdom and knowledge that reside in a subtle realm beneath the noise. The solution is to scale back the noise and consciously invite our senses to wake up! Simply choosing to stay home for a quiet dinner instead of going out or to turn off the television in favor of spending an evening on the back porch can open new mental and emotional pathways.

Spend Time in Nature

Although nature is far from silent, her sounds are more conducive to clarity and creativity than those of the mechanical world. Make time during the work week for lunch in a park or a walk after work and carve out periods during the weekends to visit the ocean, a river, stream or lake. (Leave your ear buds and cell phone at home!)


Go into the silence at least once a day. Just try it. You’ll be amazed at what spontaneously emerges.

Listen With Full Attention

Give your attention to the sounds in your everyday environment. By consciously tuning in, you will begin to notice sounds that spark your imagination and to have new thoughts, ideas or encounters that specifically relate to your goals.  You will also hone your ability to choose a supportive environment and to create a space in which you thrive.

Listening, like all other skills, begins with intention. Merely by intending to increase your listening skills you will find yourself increasingly drawn to opportunities to do so.

If you are interested in expanding your music listening skills, you can find help in the following publications: Learning to Play Lead Guitar, Chapter
(Aural Comprehension); Comprehensive Guitar Instruction (DVD), Chapter 4 ; A Guitar Player’s Guide to Ear Training (Book and 2-disc set)


  1. says

    This is an excellent question, Jay. I’m not completely sure if you are interested in how to listen more acutely and effectively in general or how to listen, specifically, to music. I feel, though, that increasing our listening skills in any realm contributes to the way we listen in all other realms.

    The first requirement must certainly be intention, which you obviously have! Once we have made a commitment to expanding our listening skills, there are some things we can do to achieve our goal, other than the ones I have pointed out in this post.

    Of the instructional publications I have linked to at the bottom of this post, the one that I think is most helpful to non-players is Chapter 3 in Learning How to Play Lead Guitar – Listening: Aural Comprehension. In this chapter I describe ways to listen to particular elements of the music, such as melody, rhythm, harmony and form and I suggest ways to observe your responses when listening to a variety of types of music. These exercises should be done, of course, with full awareness and attention. (If you would like more information about this, please feel free to email me.)

    We can apply a similar approach to listening to sounds that we don't classify as music. When listening to Nature, for instance, we might focus on the sound of a particular bird, and then shift our focus to the sound of rustling leaves of a creaking tree branch. By consciously seeking and focusing on sounds we have previously tuned out or missed, we can enrich our experience of the world around us and gain surprising insights!

    I have recently been thinking about how valuable it is to consciously and completely open to the listening experience, as opposed to anticipating what the speaker or musician has to say. Although my musical experience and consequent ability to predict a chord change or melodic direction can be useful in playing with other musicians or transcribing a song for a student, it is refreshing and exciting to indulge in authentic and unbiased listening when I’m not engaged in these tasks. The same freshness and expansive approach serves me when listening to a friend, to an animal or to my own creative mind. So – open.

    Thanks for opening up this topic!

  2. says

    recently on studio 360 there was a segment about nature recordings it is probably at Studio I truly appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to supply me with so much information; moreover, I look forward to getting your book and reading the chapter on listening.
    Once again thank you so much for your input.
    Jay Lewis

  3. says

    Thank you, Jay! I listened to the segment ( I love it – Biophony! I just downloaded the book (The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places by Bernie Krause) and am anxious to dive into it.

    One of the many things I love about living in the country is listening to the "symphony" outside my open window at night. I have often jumped out of bed and onto my balcony in an attempt to determine what animal I'm hearing (bird? mammal? amphibian? insect?) and if it is calling, mating, fighting or foraging. There is no doubt that I'm listening to a kind of music that moves me at the deepest level.

  4. says

    Hello, Charlotte and Jay,
    That looks like a good one, in fact, I just put a hold on it at the library. It's funny that you would mention a book on this subject, because yesterday I went to the library (Twin Oaks branch is pretty near our house), because they were hold a book for me. I browsed the new books while I was there, and checked out one titled "Bug Music: how insects gave us rhythm and noise" by Dvid Rothenberg. I hadn't heard anything about it, but it caught my eye. I'm only on page 14, so don't know yet if it's one I'll finish or not.


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