Listening to music is an important part of learning. It allows you to internalize the notes and rhythms on a deeper level than just casual listening. Listening to self-chosen music also helps with cognitive regulation. For example, people recovering from strokes benefit significantly from listening to their favorite songs.
When you are actively listening, pick a musical element like melody, rhythm, harmony, form, texture and tempo and listen for how the composer used that element.
1. Focus on the melody
It’s easy to listen to music as background noise, but to really understand it you need to be actively listening. That means putting on headphones, finding a quiet place, and turning your attention to the track.
Start by focusing on the melody. This is the main feature of a song and often what grabs your attention. Notice whether the melody rises or falls and if there are leaps in between notes. Leap motion can be jarring and disorienting, but when used deliberately it can grab the listener’s attention.
Note how the melody is supported by other musical elements like chords, rhythm, and instrumentation. It’s also worth noticing what genre the music belongs to. Many songs contain influences from dissimilar genres. Some of these influences are obvious, others more subtle.
2. Listen to the rhythm
When listening to music, listen for the beat or pulse. This is the regular rhythm that you can clap along to or tap your foot to. It is made up of accented and unaccented beats and grouped into measures (or bars in the UK).
You can practice your rhythm listening skills by listening to your favorite songs, especially ones that have a steady beat. Try to find the beat and count each beat. This can help you understand how fast or slow the music is.
You can also practice listening for dynamics. A piece of music may start soft and then suddenly grow louder, which is called an accelerando. It may also be slow and then get faster, which is a ritardando. All of these are ways to make a song more interesting!
3. Listen to the harmony
Harmony is the layering of different notes above or below a melody. This is a great way to make a song sound fuller and more interesting. You can use your ear training skills (solfa and relative pitch) to help you listen for harmony. Joining a choir is also great harmonic practice.
Many famous musical artists are talented at arranging vocal harmonies. Some examples include the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, and Home Free. You can also listen to popular a capella groups like Pentatonix or the Five. It can be hard to figure out the individual parts when there are 5-part harmonies, but with practice you can become a master of harmonic listening! You can even try arranging your own music using this skill.
4. Listen to the instrumentation
If you want to really hone your active listening skills, try identifying the instruments in the song. Sometimes songs have fast pulsing drums underneath a slower melody, or soft chords playing an accompaniment to a louder melodic section. It’s not easy, and this can be a challenge for some people who don’t play an instrument themselves.
You can also listen to the dynamics of a song, such as whether it starts out quiet and gets gradually louder or louder all at once. This is a great way to improve your understanding of how music works and can help you learn about musical theory in the process. Try listening to music in high-fidelity when possible, as this can reveal additional details in the sonic texture.
5. Listen to the lyrics
If you listen to music often, you probably know that some songs have lyrics. Others don’t – but that doesn’t seem to stop people from liking them, like the hit “Macarena” by Los del Rio or Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito.”
Try listening to music without lyrics and see how you do. Sometimes, it takes repeated hearings of a song to make the lyrics clear. Try singing along, too! It’s a great way to connect to the song.
To improve your active listening skills, seek out high-fidelity audio files. This will let you hear more layers of the sound, which can help you understand the music better.