Active Listening

Have you ever had a whole conversation with someone while you were scrolling Instagram, only to realize that you have no idea what they said?

My husband Ryan jokingly (okay, half jokingly) uses this as an excuse if he’s forgotten to tell me something. “Oh,” he’ll say, “I told you that… you must have been on Instagram.”

Truth of the matter is, we’ve all become really good at passive listening – letting sounds enter our ears without following and translating them into meaning. But that means that, correspondingly, we aren’t as good at active listening as perhaps we once were. And that means it can be really difficult for us to enjoy classical music.

But fear not – you already know how to engage your active listening muscles. You just don’t know that you know. (But I know that you don’t know that you know… wait, wasn’t this an episode of Friends?)

Nevermind. Onward!

The Evolution of Passive Listening 

Listening well was less of a problem a few generations ago, when people weren’t as bombarded by constant sound as they are today. Think about all the sources of sound you encounter in your day. Take your commute, for example. A busy public transit trip made noisier by mediocre headphones playing a very loud podcast you’re only half-following. Or, the radio on in your car, plus traffic noise, plus your partner talking to you in the passenger seat. This is a little bit different than when commutes were by horseback (usually, I believe, sans Beats by Dre).

It’s all a lot for our little ears and brains to take in, so we’ve adapted by becoming good passive listeners. You know how people say they “tune things out”? That doesn’t mean you aren’t actually hearing anything; it just means you’ve learned to not process the sounds you hear. It isn’t that you’re not hearing, it’s that you aren’t listening. (Just like I’m not listening to my husband as I “mmhm” and “oh?” my way through an Instagram-induced conversation coma.)

The Case for Active Listening

Active listening, on the other hand, is a truly miraculous thing. When you’re doing it – really doing it – you aren’t even aware of it. You’re just “honed in”, “focused”, or “engaged.” Think about times in your life when you’ve had a really important conversation. For example, think of a very challenging but ultimately successful job interview you once had. Remember being zoned-the-fuck-in on everything the interviewer said? Remember feeling totally focussed and energized because you were crr-rushing it? And how knocking each question out of the park depended on you really listening to what was being asked of you? I bet you can feel your ears lifting up and your whole being focused in on everything the other person was saying. The inflection in their voice. The nuance of their word choice.

That’s active listening.

My personal favourite example of active versus passive listening? One-sided phone calls. Anyone who has ever worked in an open concept (or thinly-walled) office knows the constant weirdness (and occasional hilarity) of colleagues being on the phone. Sometimes you can tune them out, but every once in a while, someone says something really juicy, even several desks away, and suddenly you have the ears of a Doberman. (Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I mean.) That moment when you go from “la la la I can’t hear you” to “omg not only can I hear you, but I can tell from your tone that this is HUGE” is the shift from passive to active listening.

You can actively listen. You’ve done it before, and you’ll probably do it at some point today. So guess what – you’re more than halfway on your journey to appreciating classical music.

Active Listening and Classical Music

One of the first things a good music professor will harp on about in first year music history or theory class is the importance of active listening. A lot of us are accustomed to thinking of classical music as background music. We’re used to hearing it in background contexts, like in movies, at dinner parties, and on hold. Because of that – and because most forms of classical music don’t have lyrics (or don’t have lyrics in English) – we need to learn how to listen to it to fully enjoy it. 

Active listening for classical music basically means following along, just like you can follow along in a multi-person conversation. Listen as if the instruments are talking and you’re listening to what each speaker has to say. Turn your ears and brain on just like you do when Sally is telling whoever she’s talking to on the phone about what your boss apparently did this morning. Listen like you do when you need to hear every word, like in a job interview. Be fully present, lift your ears, and listen.

Don’t. Just. Hear. Listen.

Does one instrument or one line of music “say something,” and another voice responds? OR, does another voice echo what the first voice said back to it? Does one voice start very quietly, all alone, and then a whole bunch of its friends join in and lift it up and suddenly EVERYONE IS SAYING SOMETHING VERY MOVING?! Are your ears and your brain pulled all over the orchestra, or is one voice leading the way, telling a story while the others back her up? Is what she’s saying sad? Jolly? Does one voice seem like a real jokester, or a beautiful bird, or a menacing threat?

Is there a melody you’ve heard a few times in a row now… has it changed? Or did you think one thing was going to happen, but then BAM something TOTALLY out of left field? And then WAIT didn’t that guy say that thing already? And now he just keeps saying it over and over and the tension is building and OMG NOW IT’S SO TRIUMPHANT! 


Sorry, I’ll stop yelling. Active listening is just so thrilling that I can’t help myself with the caps.

Do you see, though, how if you turn your ears on as an active listener, instrumental pieces become WAY more meaningful? They become stories. They become journeys.  


Listening to YOUR story

The BEST part about active listening (aside from just being more enjoyable than sitting and daydreaming for an hour or so) is that you’re in the Land of Abstraction. What does that mean? It means that, even though you’re hearing a story of sorts (or maybe literally a story, as in programmatic music), it’s become wonderfully abstract. And that gives the musicians – and the listeners – room to colour the music with meaning from their own inner beings and their own outward lives. This is where the magic is.

If you listen actively with not only your ears and mind but also your heart open, you will very likely have a transformative experience when listening to a great work of art performed by great musicians. Ideas will come to you, or emotions will rise to the surface that you didn’t even know you were feeling, or something you haven’t processed will finally sort itself out deep inside you.

If nothing else, you will go on one hell of a ride.  

Give it a Try

Challenge yourself to try active listening to just one piece of classical music without words. Here are five very short pieces for you to pick from. Choose the one you feel most drawn to, put some headphones on (that’s VERY important, since computer and phone speakers are the absolute worst), get rid of all distractions, quiet your breath and your heart rate, and… listen. Just observe what happens. There’s no right experience to have. Just observe. 

I hope you enjoy. I think you will.

Rachmaninoff Piano Prelude Op. 23 No. 4 in D minor, played by Vladimir Ashkenazy

Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet, Second Movement, played by the Borodin Quartet

“Asturias” by Isaac Albéniz, played by Xuefei Yang

Bach’s Partita for Violin Solo No. 1 in B Minor – Courante (Double), played by Hilary Hahn

Elgar’s Enigma Variations – “Nimrod”, played by Chicago Symphony with Daniel Barenboim