How to Listen to Music

So much of what happens here on We Are the Music Makers revolves around listening. That's because the ability to actively listen to music is the skill set that sets musicians apart - from being noise makers to music makers. Part of my philosophy of music education is that we cripple our young musicians if we teach them to play scales, read rhythms, and sing in head voice but neglect to teach them how to listen to music. Active, critical listening is what allows young musicians to distinguish the high from the poor quality music; and because they are the future consumers of the music industry, their opinion of quality matters a great deal.

Stages of  Listening: 

Part of the reason we don't always know what to listen for in music is that our listening environment is not condusive to fully giving our attention to one thing at a time. 

1. Background noise

Examples of background noise include music playing at a coffeeshop or in a restaurant while you talk with friends. The focus here is on your surroundings - your friends, the food. . . This is the type of listening we have the most practice at. We are surrounded by noise every day and most of the time we tune it out to focus on other things. 

2. Casual Listening

Examples of causual listening include singing along with the radio, tapping your foot to music, humming a song while doing household chores. . . There is some interaction with the music (singing, tapping foot) but the focus is split between music and the surrounding physical elements. The response to the music is somewhat mechanical and we do it absent-mindedly. 

3. Critical Listening

Critical listening happens very rarely. It takes place when the listener purposefully alters his or her environment so that the music is the only focus. The listener tunes in to the ELEMENTS of music to see how the composers have manipulated and played with them to make the song more interesting. Critical listening is active. It is intentional. And it has to do with our engagement level. 

What to Listen for in Music: The Seven Elements 

What we commonly refer to as the simple word, “music” is actually a complex sound picture that is constructed using many different tools. Those tools make up the elements of music. In Western music there are 7 elements. Actively tuning in to each of these 7 elements is what makes us critical listeners.

  • Melody: Melody is how the high, medium, and low pitches work together to create a line that you want to hum. When you have a song stuck in your head, it's normally the melody that you can't get rid of. As you listen, ask yourself if the melody uses a wide range of pitches, or only a few. Are these pitches next to each other, or does the melody jump around? Maybe the melody of one section has pitches close together and in another section the pitches are far apart. Perhaps some sections of the song use high pitches and some sections use low pitches.
    • Exercise in melody: Listen to the aria Un bel di from the opera, Madame Butterfly. This is a very famous soprano aria. As you can imagine, it uses a lot of high notes. The the highest pitch, however, doesn't happen till the very end.


  •  Rhythm: Rhythm is how long or short notes are. As you listen to music, ask yourself if the notes happen quickly, or if they are elongated over the steady beat. Are they straight forward, or do they sound kind of jagged? Is there any space or silence between the notes or do they all take place right next to each other? Songs will also sound different based on how they rhythms are grouped together. The grouping of rhythms changes whether we feel that we should march to the music, or sway to the music. This grouping is called meter
    • Exercise in rhythm: In the piece, Children's Corner by Debussy the rhythms are very quick with no space between them. This is to imitate a child’s wild, fast, active imagination while he is supposed to be diligently practicing.
  • Harmony: Harmony is when more than one pitch is played or sung at the same time. Melody and rhythm are how music takes place linearly while harmony is how music takes place vertically. Depending on what pitches we combine, we can change the mood of the music. Different harmonies might make us feel happy, sad, adventurous, or scared. As you listen, ask yourself if you hear many notes together (thick harmonies) or only a few notes together (thin harmonies). Also listen to see what the mood of the music is.  
    • Exercise in harmony: LIsten to Lux Aurumque by Eric Whitacre. Notice how many pitches take place at the same time. Can you imagine how different this song would sound without all those beautiful clusters of notes? 
  • Form - Form is the roadmap to music. When we listen for form, we are listening for the sections of the music that are the same, and parts that are different. Typically we label these sections with alphabet letters. Sections that sound the same get the same alphabet letter. We stay in that letter until new musical material arrives. As you listen for form, ask  yourself questions like "Does this sound like something I've heard before?" "Is this a new melody?" Listen for when sections change and when sections repeat. Some songs are easier to hear the form of than others. 
    • Exercise in Form: The song, We are Never Ever Getting Back Together by Taylor Swift has the form ABCABCDC. A = verse, B = pre-chorus, C = chorus, D = bridge.


  • Texture: Texture is the combination of voices in music. Trumpets, violins, guitars, drums, humans, saxophones all have unique voices. When we listen to those unique voices and how they work together, we are listening to the texture. As you listen for texture, ask yourself what instruments you hear. Banjo? Snare drum? Piano? Are there backup singers? A full orchestra? Solo? Do all these voices come in at the same time or do they layer in? .....and then do they layer back out? Listen to see if there are any sounds you don't recognize and try to identify them. Another word we use for texture is color. When composers play with what instruments play together, they create unique colors. These colors can also change the mood of the music just like harmonies can.
    • Exercise in Texture: Listen to Big Country by Bela Fleck. This song uses a beautiful combination of instruments to create a rich, vibrant color when they all play together. Notice how the song starts out with just violins, then moves to banjo and other instruments add in to create a thick texture. In the middle, many voices drop out for a solo section creating a thinner sound so the listener can focus on the main instruments (dulcimer and banjo). Then all the instruments jump back in again. 


  • Tempo: Music can be fast, slow, or somewhere in between. We measure tempo in Western music by how many steady beats take place in one minute (beats per minute, or BPM).  These changes in tempo can happen gradually from slow to fast (accelerando) or gradually from fast to slow (ritardando). Or they can happen suddenly. When you listen for tempo, tap your foot to the steady beat of the song and ask yourself if your foot tapping is fast, slow, or somewhere in between. 
    • Exercise in Tempo: Listen to Proud Mary, performed by Tina Turner. The beginning of the song is slow, and laid back. Then, with now warning at all, the tempo increases and the song is suddenly faster.


  • Dynamics: Dynamics are how loud or quiet music is. As you listen for dynamics, ask yourself if the music is loud, or quiet, or somewhere in between. Music can start quiet and get gradually louder (crescendo) or start loud and get gradually softer (decrescendo). These changes from loud sections to soft sections can also happen suddenly, without warning. Music can also have some some notes that are suddenly very loud while all the other notes stay quiet (accents). Often times certain instruments or voices will be quieter than others so that the composer can highlight a certain sound for the listener. 
    • Exercise in Dynamics: The piece, Bolero by Maurice Ravel is one loooonnnggg looooonnnggg crescendo from super duper duper quiet to super duper duper loud by the end. - especially for the snare drummer. The actual notes he plays don’t change but notice at the beginning of the video how close to the drum head the sticks are so he can play very quietly. Compare it to how high off the drum they are and how loud the sound is by the end of the piece and listen for the sound getting gradually louder as the piece goes on.

Even altering just one of these musical elements can change a song quite drastically. The next time you are listening to a song, try to find a quiet place without a lot of distractions and focus on one of the musical elements: melody, rhythm, harmony, form, texture, tempo, or dynamics and critically listen for how the composer or song writer chese used that element in the song. Ask yourself why? What would be different if the composer had made a different choice?


Music can paint such vibrant, dramatic, colorful pictures if we can learn to purposefully alter our environment so that we can focus on what we are hearing. Tuning in to the seven musical elements allows us to experience our music more fully and more deeply than ever as we learn the simple art of critical listening. 


Keep listening, 

- Victoria