Do You Know How To Listen?

Weekly Newsletter #14

November 11, 2021

Listening to music is something almost everyone does. But for us musicians it can be a totally different experience than it is for non-musicians. 

When you listen to music, what are you actually doing? Is it any active experience? A passive one? Are you singing along and having fun? 

As musicians, our lives revolve around rhythm, melody, and harmony; these elements are what drive us to emulate our musical heroes, craft that perfect melody, or play that ripping guitar lick. But most musicians, especially guitarists, miss out one of the most crucial parts of progressing as a player: active listening. 

When you sit down to watch a movie that you’ve been waiting to see, are you actively involved in watching that film? I would imagine the answer is yes. Passively watching a movie, basically letting it play in the background as you scroll your phone, is not likely to be a memorable experience for you. Even if the movie is incredible, you’ll necessarily miss out on all the nuances and intricacies that make that movie excellent. 

Why should music be any different? Well for one, music is much easier to surround yourself with all day long. You can walk around with headphones listening to music; you can listen in your car, at your desk, pretty much anywhere. The ubiquity of music has been a blessing, but it has also allowed us to take music for granted. 

One of the tricks that I learned early on in my music career was that I needed to treat listening to music the same way I treated watching a great movie. I needed to be fully engrossed in what I was experiencing. Otherwise the music became disposable and meant nothing to me. 

Learning how to listen actively instead of passively is one of the greatest tools you can use as a guitarist in your pursuit of musical excellence. Many players already listen very intently to the guitar licks, the tone of the guitar and how the player crafts his/her musical ideas. However, guitarists are notoriously bad at listening to other elements of the music, particularly elements that aren’t front and center. 

Everyone can hear the vocal melody, and most guitarists cue in immediately to the guitar playing. But when was the last time you sat there, with no distractions and listened to the bass line, or the kick drum or hi-hat for an entire song? Most likely, the answer is never. 

This is a real shame, and to be honest, you’re leaving a lot of meat on the bone when it comes to how fast you can be progressing as a musician. By learning how to listen intently to all the various instruments in a song you are essentially training your ears to hear in 3D. Just like one of those Seeing Eye images where you have to cross your eyes and learn how to see the picture before it pops out, getting proficient at not just hearing music, but truly listening to it will take practice and effort. 

The rewards for this however, are unimaginable. As a professional musician, I spend the vast majority of my time on stage listening to everyone other than me! Of course I can hear my guitar playing, but what I really want is to hear every little nuance of all the other instruments so that when I play something, I know it will fit exactly in the right spot. 

Never forget, as a guitarist or any other instrumentalist, you are most often simply one part of a larger equation. And in order for the whole mechanism to work well you must know what to play and where to play it. By training your ear through active listening off the stage, you can become a much more tasteful and musical player on stage. 

One of the very best ways you can learn to actively listen is to focus simply on rhythm. This doesn’t mean just the drums or percussion, after all every instrument uses rhythm. What you can do to improve your ear is focus on one instrument only. 

As I said earlier, don’t pick something that is front and center like the vocals or the guitar solo. Pick something more hidden in the mix. Then try to block out all the other sounds you are hearing and focus only on the rhythm of the instrument you picked. See if you can tap your foot to the beat while humming the rhythm of that instrument. 

Once you can comfortably do that, try another instrument in the song. Generally speaking, the lower the frequency the harder this exercise will be. Kick drums and bass are often the hardest to hear, but are also the foundation of every song. I would argue those are the most important elements and you should spend a lot of time learning how to listen to those parts actively. 

Once again, the key here is to have no distractions, so remember to put your phone away and turn off the TV when you do this. 

Once you feel like you can hum or even tap the rhythm of the instrument you’ve focused on, now comes a much harder part. Try to continue tapping that rhythm while switching your listening to another part of the song. If you were tapping the rhythm of the hi-hat for example, you would continue tapping that rhythm and maybe begin actively listening to the synth or the bass. 

This is much more advanced and should only be done if you are comfortable with the first stage of active listening. 

From here, you can scale this up gradually until you can tap any part of the song, even the most obscure, hidden instrument; the one buried way down in the mix. 

Learning to train your ears the way you have trained your eyes, by focusing on things near and far, is the key to a successful journey as a musician. Without our ears we can’t really do anything with our instruments. This isn’t a science project, it’s music! 

Start small, but do this very often. I recommend to everyone that they actively listen to 2 songs per day, minimum. Don’t forget, avoid all the distractions. You want to be fully involved in the music; training your ears and your mind to parse through every sound and all the complexities until you have focused on one small element, and then don’t let that element out of your sight! 

You can’t think your way through music, you have to hear your way through it. 

-Max Rich 

Hopefully you’ve found this newsletter helpful. If so please consider signing up for the newsletter here, or for those who are truly dedicated to the instrument, you might like to consider a private lesson.  

I offer discounts to all the members of the newsletter, so if you are looking for personalized help with any guitar-based subject, I’d be happy to work with you.  

In addition, any member who refers a friend who goes on to take a private lesson will receive a free 30 minute lesson as thanks for the referral.