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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lane

Listening Approach for Classical vs Non-Classical Music

Musicians need to know how to listen well to be at their best. And to shun the incredulous advice I once heard in a masterclass, you should NOT shut yourself up in a box and avoid listening to other music in order to "avoid outside influences" (Yes, this was really said by a composer whose degree of self-importance, even comparing himself to Bartok in terms of popularity, was a great example of self-delusion.). On the contrary, you should be DIVING IN to the world of music every chance you get. The solution to being your own musician is not to avoid outside influences, but rather to avoid TOO FEW of influences. This is the case whether you're a composer, songwriter, conductor, or performer who wants to develop their own take. True originality is not avoiding the flow, but it's having an abundance of ingredients that you can choose to combine in different ways.

One thing that is true about most musicians and non-musicians is that most of us LOVE to listen to music. The difference is or should be that non-musicians (that is to say those who have never studied music in any way) tend to listen to music by asking one question: Do I like this or not?

Their listening strategies may notice the melody, certain riffs or motivic patterns, the lyrics, and the overall mood. I find that, sometimes, this is the usual limit of what a musician notices too. SHOULD notice those things, but to get something out of music, you need to be doing more.

By the way, I'm writing this in preparation of Episode 13 for The Musician Toolkit. In Episode 1, I introduced 20 tools that every musician should explore and develop to the fullest. I'm finally discovering a 21st tool that I didn't mention before: the skill of active listening.

I want to go ahead and say this right now. There's nothing wrong with passive listening, AKA music for the background while you do something else, AKA wallpaper music. Music can be a tool for our workflow when we're doing other things that (hopefully) don't involve making our own music at the same time. But...if you've only ever listened to a piece, a song, or an album in this way, you relinquish the qualifications to judge whether or not it was good. Same would be true if we were talking about audiobooks, or reading while distracted, or watching a movie while your attention is elsewhere. All art, whether it's formal or popular, demands our full attention before casting a verdict. Also, about that verdict... remember that music and other art is not a competition. It's okay if you don't like something after giving it a fair chance, and it's also okay if someone else doesn't like what you do. The question is: did you actually give it a fair chance?

Now here's something to really consider...

You don't actually have to like the music to get some benefit from listening!

Let's discuss how to listen.


Now you might think to yourself, "That's rather simplistic. Hundreds of genres and maybe thousands of subgenres in the world, and lumping classical in a category of its own?" Or maybe you didn't think the word "simplistic" but maybe "elitist". I assure you that it's neither.

I lump classical music into its own category because the way we get to know pieces is wholly different than any other genre. If you want to explore the works of the Beatles, where do you go for listening? Probably, the albums that were actually released by the Beatles, right? If you want to check out songs of Taylor Swift, do you go anywhere else than her own recordings?

This is not the case when you want to check out the music of Ludwig Van Beethoven. You don't listen to Beethoven playing his own music. You listen to other soloists and orchestras playing his music, and there is a seemingly limitless number of options.

Yeah, but Beethoven lived WAY BEFORE recordings were possible so this isn't fair!

True, and a fair point, so how about Igor Stravinsky who died in 1971? He was making music at the same time as Glenn Miller, The Beatles, Patsy Cline, and so many others that we listen to JUST for the performers themselves. And Stravinsky indeed performed or conducted many of his own pieces, but even the most adamant Stravinsky fan I know (Hi, Bob!) would not recommend that you only listen to Igor as a performer or a conductor of his works. You might want to try Robert Craft, Leonard Bernstein, Simon Rattle, Andrew Davis, Lucie Horsch, Mariss Jansons...and I'm JUST getting started.

Multiple Listens

Before I finish my point on classical vs non-classical listening, there's an important element that needs to be mentioned if you're going to do get the most out of listening, and that is to commit to listening multiple times.

Here is a Twitter poll I conducted a year and a half ago.

This was limited to classical music, but I think it applies to any music. A mere 6.6% thought that you could know a piece with 1 or 2 listens. Only 14.1% thought that 3 times listening would allow you to know a piece. Nearly 80% said that it took 4 or MORE times of listening to really know a piece.

So here's the breakdown of how to listen to classical vs non-classical.

For classical (composer-driven) music, listen to a variety of conductors. For the sake of time, I'll say to limit to 4. But if you start to love it, keep going!

For non-classical (performer-driven) music, listen to the SAME album 3 to 4 times (or more).

For classical music, here's a special listening strategy for performers. I did this with a Bach piece I was practicing. Pick a movement (or the whole piece if it's not very long) and queue up about 5 different versions in a row, and listen to them all in 1 sitting or in as few of sittings as possible. This is the blessing of YouTube, Spotify, and other streaming services. I WISH I could have done this when I was spending $15-20 on CDs in the 1990s after basically just taking a chance.

The reason this is good for performers is that you will hear 5 different interpretations, and you'll almost certainly hear at least 1 thing you really liked from all 5. That will help you shape your original approach, as opposed to hearing just 1 or 2 versions and becoming highly influenced to copy them.

Realistic Active Listening Goal: 1 album (or 1 major classical work) per week

I'm not saying to get rid of your passive listening. But set aside time every week (or every 2 weeks if your busy) to choose a piece, a song, or an album that is highly acclaimed, and give it as many listens as you can stand. Maybe this is the album Revolver by the Beatles, or maybe it's Beethoven's 6th Symphony.

What to Listen For (a general checklist)

Regardless of the style, here are some general things you should ask yourself.

❏ What is the instrumentation?

❏ What type of scales are being used?

❏ What is the meter? Does it change? What are the changes?

❏ What is the structure? How do repeated sections differ?

❏ What's going on behind the melody?

❏ Is the music polyphonic or homophonic in texture?

❏ What type of harmonic language is being used? Triadic, 7ths, clusters, etc?

❏ What are the most common rhythm patterns? Could you pause and tap them out?

❏ What is the overall mood, and are there changes throughout?

❏ How are those moods achieved?

❏ What are the chords or chord progressions? Could you play them yourself?

❏ What are the effects of dynamics throughout?

❏ What are the different types of articulations used?

❏ How would you generally describe the pace and development?

❏ Technical aspects: How is the mix? Reverb? Use of other effects?

For Pop and other vocal music

❏ Listen to the bass.

❏ Listen to the drums.

❏ Listen to the keyboards.

❏ Listen to the guitars.

❏ Listen for the lyrics.

❏ How are background vocals used, or overdubbing?

❏ What are the riffs or common patterns throughout?

For Classical (and with multiple recordings)

❏ What do you most like and dislike about each specific performer or conductor?

❏ How do the tempos differ?

❏ How do the dynamics differ?

❏ What are differences in recorded sound quality, and does that affect your opinion?

❏ For orchestral pieces, focus on the woodwinds...

❏ the strings...

❏ the brass...

❏ the percussion, and other instruments.

This is not a comprehensive list, and I hope you'll add to it. Listening can be fun, but it's also work if you want to REALLY get value out of this tool. So let's welcome this 21st tool to explore, active listening, and let's get better at it as musicians and use this to become familiar with more music and learn from it!

You can listen to the podcast version of this topic here!

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