young woman listening to music on headphones“For you to perform with native inflection, you have to listen and listen until you break through to the soul of a style.”
The Musician’s Way
, p. 98

We all enjoy listening to music.

But there’s a level of musical perception that transcends ordinary hearing.

Deep listening, as I call it, pierces the essence of a composition and the way in which it’s performed.

Musical Grammar

There’s a grammar-like structure to the expressive language of music. Differing articulations, for instance, generate contrasting emotional effects, as do inflections of tone, timing, dynamics, melody, and harmony.

We musicians need to be able to grasp musical grammar as listeners if we’re to present performances that move audiences.

Otherwise, “When musicians with scant listening experience try to play or sing repertoire from unfamiliar genres, they produce the musical equivalent of a clumsy accent.” (The Musician’s Way, p. 98).

Here, I propose 7 ways in which we can deepen our listening habits.

Apply these concepts when weighing your self-recordings as well as when you attend live performances and hear other musicians’ tracks. Then, use your heightened perception to listen more intently when you practice and perform.

“When musicians with scant listening experience try to play or sing repertoire from unfamiliar genres, they produce the musical equivalent of a clumsy accent.”

Seven Ways to Deepen Your Music Listening Habits

1. Listen for overall effect

Listen to a track and ask yourself: What images, emotions, or story lines does the music evoke? In what ways does the performance hit home or miss the mark? Also research background information about pieces – the knowledge you pick up can enhance your artistic connections.

2. Go over sections

Target a chunk of music and listen repeatedly, pinpointing elements. For instance, you might listen to a self-recording and initially focus on your timing. A second time around you could zero in on intonation. Third, your attention could be on tone, dynamics, and articulation. When you notice glitches, isolate the troublesome passages in practice and solve any problems.

3. Follow and mark a score

If you’re working from a score, as you listen, follow the music and mark problem spots, special moments, and any other features that stand out.

4. Identify interpretive elements

Listen to recordings of notable performers and map out their interpretive gestures; in particular, compare various artists performing the same compositions. Use the “Seven Essentials of Artistic Interpretation” in The Musician’s Way as benchmarks. Peruse recordings not to copy them but to gain insight into interpretive possibilities and spark your imagination.The Musician's Way book cover

5. Spot solutions to technical problems

If you’re stumped by a technical problem in a piece, check out recordings – especially videos – of musicians performing the repertoire you’re tackling. You might discover technical tricks and devise solutions of your own.

6. Expand your horizons

Commit to listening widely, embracing music in your main genre and beyond. Given that musicians are interacting globally, wide-ranging listening habits will help you build a foundation for performing diverse styles.

7. Transcribe improvised solos

One of the best ways to extend your improvisational vocabulary is to regularly transcribe solos. Seek out recordings of prominent artists in your genre and notate their improvisations. Listen to both vocal and instrumental recordings. Singer Ella Fitzgerald said, “I stole everything I ever heard, but mostly I stole from the horns.”

See the Practice Page at for information about personal digital recorders and music listening resources.

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein
Photo licensed from Shutterstock