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Tips for Actively Listening to Unfamiliar Music (Day Ten of Homemade Music)

Welcome to 31 Days of Homemade Music! This month we are exploring how and why everyone can benefit from music making. To see more posts in this series, click here.

Sometimes when someone gets a resolve to study music, he will become overzealous and work to understand every detail of a symphony and know the composer’s full background before attempting to play a little excerpt from it. While it can be good to memorize these types of details for your own edification, it is certainly not necessary for enjoying the music and can help lead a person to musical burn-out before he even really begins.

Today, I want to give you some tips to help you begin actively listening to music in a painless and enjoyable way.

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For Beginners

Think about how a child learns to read and write. Do mothers sit with their infants and guide their hands to trace letters? Do they sound out phonics to them at 2 months old? Not usually. A mother speaks to her child, and the child relishes in the sheer love and affection of her words, even before he fully understands his mother’s meaning. Have you even seen a baby burst into laughter at the sheer delight of hearing its mother repeat the same silly phrase over and over?

Music is the same way. You do not need to understand the composer’s intention behind the work in order to take pleasure in it. Even without any background at all, you can understand strains of emotion in the music. Is it sad, dramatic, light and airy, exuberant, reverent, energetic, or pensive? Just as a child can understand the tone of its mother’s voice before he knows the words, so you too can understand much of the music before you know the instruments playing, the melodic motives, etc.

So, when you are first listening to music, just listen. Turn up the speakers and take in the sounds. Let it speak for itself. You don’t need to read anything into it.

After having a listen, you can allow yourself to make some basic observations: What is the overall tone of the piece? Does it change at all during the course of the piece? How does it make you feel? What instruments do you think you hear? (It’s okay if you’re wrong!) About when do you think this music was composed? (You can use Part 1 or Part 2¬† of Listening through History to try to make an educated guess!) Try writing or drawing while you listen to the music. You’ll find that the piece you are listening to will influence what you want to write about or the style of your drawing. Feel free to explore the music subjectively. Just absorb it into your system and enjoy it.

For Parents

Just like the overzealous pupil that was described at the top of this post, it can be tempting for parents to want to over-manage their children’s musical education. For some reason we have to infuse every listening session with factoids about each piece- Little Johnny, do you hear how the that violin just held out a note that didn’t sound right over the rest of the orchestra? That wasn’t a mistake, that was what we call¬†dissonance. Or worse, for those of us who have studied music, we stand over our three year old at the piano and point out each time they are holding their fingers wrong or how they should change their posture…. before they have even had a lesson! (Nope, I haven’t done that, not me.)

The best piece of advice I can give you as a parent is this: Let your child explore the music. Don’t tell him how to feel, and don’t limit the music to its mere make-up of black jots on staff paper. Let him turn it up (reasonably) and listen to it over and over. Let him dance, let him draw, let him talk about it. Let him beat on a pot with a spoon while he listens.

Let small children get familiar with instruments you have in the house, even if they’re playing them wrong for now. Teach them to respect the instruments, but allow them freedom to get acquainted how they feel most comfortable at first. Let them laugh at parts they think are funny. Let them react differently to the music than you would.

If you have older children and you don’t usually listen to classical music, you may fear they will find it to be “lame.” Don’t worry. Don’t force them into an overly educational experience at first. To begin, simply let classical music become part of your household. Turn it on in the car or in the mornings while you’re getting ready for your day. You could even purchase an inexpensive beginner’s instrument and start practicing yourself. Sure, they may think you’re wonky in the beginning, but over time, the music will begin to subconsciously become a regular part of their day- and they just may start to enjoy it.

For Everyone

When you’re just beginning to listen to music more purposefully, try to listen to the same piece of music several times over the course of a week. (We like to get one CD from the library each week and listen to it every day at nap time.) Like great literary works or masterpieces of visual art, great music doesn’t grow old. Rather, the more you listen to it, the more you appreciate it. It’s complexities grow on you and fascinate you more. You hear new things each time you listen to it, yet the increasing level of intimacy with a piece will charm you.

Over time, you will gradually get to understand the music more and more. Remember the infant who listened to and enjoyed its mother’s speech? Well, after so long, a babbling baby will begin to repeat its parent’s words. The child’s speech may be jumbled and hard to understand, but nobody minds. Everyone delights in the little one’s attempts. After much practice and gentle repetition, the child begins to gain a progressively larger vocabulary of clearer and clearer speech. It is only after the child already can speak very well that he is taught to read and write, and then after that when he is taught rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Again, music should be the same way. Don’t force your child (or yourself) into reading and writing music without giving him some experience of making music first. Listening to music should be a gateway into making it yourself, even in some small capacity. While you listen to music, try tapping along to the beat, or humming the melody, or picking out the notes on a keyboard.

Once you’re feeling a little more comfortable, try getting an instrument and begin to get accustomed with it. Pluck up and down the neck of a guitar for a while. Practice drawing a bow across the strings of a cello. See if you can buzz into the mouthpiece of a trombone. Sometimes we feel awkward picking up an instrument we don’t know how to play, but isn’t that the only way to start playing? Don’t feel like you have to wait for formal instruction to begin to love on your instrument.

As you listen to and begin to play music yourself more, you will gradually increase in knowledge of reading and writing music. You will become a music theorist of sorts as you discover various compositional elements and begin experimenting with creating and performing your own. But all of this comes later. Don’t feel any need to rush yourself into understanding every little detail about what you are listening to.

How do you listen to music? How do you enjoy it with your family? Do you play music too? Come back tomorrow to find some basic tools that you already have to start playing music together.