Actively listening to music is one part of practising that many guitar players miss – in fact almost all musicians miss this point. This skill is necessary if you want to be a good musician, but is neglected by learners through to advanced players in most practice sessions.
The opposite to active listening is passive listening, where you can hear a radio, television, or stereo playing in the background. That is not listening, it is hearing. Hearing music is not active listening or even close.
Actually many people get active listening muddled up with ear training exercises, I am not talking about ear training. I’m talking about having a good stereo, putting on some good quality headphones, closing your eyes while sitting in a comfortable chair, and really listening to your favourite artists. Doing this not only speeds up the song learning process but can also make you aware of what those other artists are doing in relation to what interests you at the time, whether it is soloing, rhythm chops, songwriting, dynamics, form, etc.
I hear a lot of students complain about not being to master certain aspects of their guitar playing, but most of the time it comes back to not knowing what to listen for. Not knowing what to listen for stems back to not listening very much, or very deeply, in the first place.
You can’t learn to listen by visiting websites. YouTube users naturally tend to listen with their eyes, as the eyes are taking up most of the sensual space, not their ears. And you won’t learn to actively listen on any other digital domain either – really it can only be done via a good quality sound source (stereo), when sitting with eyes shut and ideally a good pair of headphones on.
Many guitar players get carried away with technical exercises, chord progressions, playing with backing tracks, etc., in their practice sessions, while listening is held to be a secondary or soft activity. If done it is more of an afterthought than a considered or prioritised activity. Active listening needs to be a high priority activity, but of course not at the expense of practising – you need to balance the two.
It’s surprising how many guitar players can’t hear a simple 12-bar blues progression, or a jazz 12-bar blues when they hear one, let alone hearing other complicated chord progressions, melodies, arrangements, orchestrations, and the like.
When you are actively listening to music it helps to write down some things that you can hear in the present time, like the form of the song, what the instrumentation is, what instrument plays the solo, and things like that. You will need to listen to a track more than once, perhaps many times.
Once your listening skills get a bit better, and you have learnt a lot more guitar skills and music theory from your teacher, then you will be able to listen on a much deeper level. Things to listen for at this level might include, what scale(s) the player is using for the solo, what is the key major or minor, how are the guitars complementing each other, or how is the guitar interacting with the piano? Again, it would be beneficial to write down what you are discovering.
When you get to even more advanced levels you could be listening to how the writer wrote the score, how the writer is creating emotion within the song, the different types of vibrato a singer or instrumentalist is using, how a solo compliments the vocal arrangement, or how a guitar solo builds in intensity and emotion.
Another thing I like about actively listening is learning the history of music through a genre you’re a fan of. For example, if you are into rock then a good place to begin is with your favourite artists then work back through time to their favourite artists, then their favourite artists, etc., until you get back to where rock music (or any other genre) all started with Elvis Presley, Bill Hayley, Robert Johnson, etc.
It’s wondrous to start hearing the lineage of how many players learn their craft. For example, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones started playing Chuck Berry licks and rhythms, then many others from the 1970s copied Richards, then players from the ‘80s copied ones from the ‘70s, and so on – until you get to Joe Bonamassa, in whom you can clearly hear influences like Hendrix, Clapton, Page, Beck, etc.
It’s easy to see how much you can learn just by actively listening to your favourite artists. It’s also interesting to keeping the notes of your listening experiences and seeing how you much better you get at recognising certain things over time.
In conclusion, if you really want to be a great musician I suggest you get into putting time aside each day for some active listening to your favourite artists now – and watch your playing and knowledge base quickly improve.
Kevin Downing is a professional guitarist, teacher, and author. His contact details, along with many lessons and freebies, are on his website at www.guitar.co.nz