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Learning When To Listen

As a musician–a creator of sounds–it can be difficult to understand the concept that music is mostly about listening, not creating.

It’s about listening for just the right amount of silence between notes. Listening for the sounds that give you cues how to act next, and how to hone your performance.

The skill of listening is what separates the great musicians from the mediocre ones.

Becoming known as a listener will help you score gigs as a session musician and will greatly enhance your own musical mastery. 

Here are four scenarios where listening can greatly affect your performance.

Listening To Other Musicians

The greatest factor to playing well with other musicians is each musician’s inherent ability to listen to each other.

Listening is an amazing tool. It will let you know when a drummer wants to end a song, or when a guitar player is stepping down to finish a solo. Listening gives you the foresight to step in and play when another musician needs help.

Listening To Your Audience

By listening to your audience you can set moods and work to create a better performance.

Is the audience quiet or are they talking? Do people look bored and tired, or are they dancing and clapping?

Listening to your audience, understanding their mood and choosing what you play next, based on this criteria, is how great performers keep a show moving.

Listening On Record

Session musicians have the difficult job of coming into a session cold and being expected to play something meaningful on a track, to enhance it. A session musician who listens, will have much greater success then one who simply plays over the song.

A producer is looking for an atypical artist who can quickly understand the song, understand the lyrics, and play the missing part that injects even more life into the tune.

Only by listening to what others have played, and grasping their intentions, can you get a sense for what needs to be played.

Listening To Yourself

This is the one that gets me the most. The musicians who don’t even listen to themselves.

Hear and understand the notes you are playing, and the relationship they have to what’s going on around you. One of the biggest mistakes of newly formed bands, is that they all play individual instruments but never once sound like a unit.

Some people never grow out of this phase.

Getting lost in the moment is all fine and good for your stage performance, but if you’re not actually listening to the sounds you’re making, it’s not doing anyone any good.

Be sure to master listening to yourself, so that you can fully master the other steps of listening.

When do you listen?


Image by: Fe Ilya

Mike Venti is a musician and creator of the Wayward Musician blog, which provides ideas and advice for atypical artists. This post was originally published on Wayward Musician on May 18, 2010. You can connect with Mike on Twitter and Facebook

Reader Comments (10)

"Some people never outgrow this phase" - Love this post. Great advice for any musician young or old.

I find there is a delusion amongst most musicians that when you learn to listen eventually shatters into a million pieces. A good way to kickstart the desire to want to listen harder is to demo yourself or get soundboard recordings. The first time you ever demoed or heard a soundboard recording of your band it is never pleasing. This is great because it will make you pay attention to what you are doing. Unfortunately it wasn't the mic causing your drummer to fall off time, or the soundboard that caused your singers voice to crack. From demoing and hearing soundboard recordings you can realize what you haven't been listening too and who hasn't been listening. Lastly watching peoples reactions when you share your record with them is another great way to listen through watching.

Fantastic job Mike!

September 23 | Registered CommenterStephen Francis

Very enjoyable and well written article! When you have more than one instrument playing at any given time, each has to give and take, pulse and breathe. The individual elements need to both respect and support each other and come together to form one cohesive sound. Listening closely to what everyone is doing is essential to create this balance and togetherness. Seems pretty obvious, but I agree musicians have a tendency to get too locked into what they're doing individually and miss out on the bigger sound-picture.

Also, good point about listening to your audience. I think the key word is "awareness", the trick is to try to be clued into everything that's going on and understanding your role as part of that.

Thanks for writing.

September 23 | Unregistered CommenterPeter Doran

Two very good points Stephen, thank you.

Analyzing your playing by listening or watching recordings of yourself is a great way to improve.

September 23 | Unregistered CommenterMike Venti

Some good points, that simply can't be made often enough.

Thanks for the post.

September 24 | Unregistered CommenterMike Saville

Great post! I think listening to myself is the curse of the musician. Every performance can use improvement!

September 24 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Schmoe

Mike many excellent points here but I want to focus on just one. As a band develops their live show and gets better a key tool to truly fine tune how well you sound live is a recording off of your soundboard. It's easy to tell how well band members gel with each other live by listening to the soundboard recording. It's like a photo - it doesn't lie. Overplaying parts, bad parts and an uneven fit between musicians becomes revealed. Great bands listen, leave their egos behind and fix these problems. Using a soundboard recording as a soundboard for your sound is pure genius. Great bands have the stomach to use them to their benefit and develop compelling live performances.

David Sherbow, CEO/Founder

September 24 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Sherbow

Great post and advice! I agree completely I am more in the hip hop genre and there is a tendency for artists to have egos. Instead of listening to the audience when the crowd isn't enjoying their music or performance they point the finger at the crowd saying that the crowd doesn't get it or they are hating. I think if the music is great or even good then the crowd will respond more positively but many artists need to let go of their egos and act more humbly!

September 27 | Unregistered CommenterA Butta

Of course, these points or right on, but, they are not presented in a way that would allow someone who doesn't know to listen to be able to understand how to listen. I don't believe that's the authors fault, however. The ability to be still and listen comes to us thru a convergence of variables. One is spiritual. Is the musician in a place in their own lives where they can silence themselves enough to be present in a creative and demanding situation? Has the musician dominated the fundamentals that are necessary to produce the music that they want to produce? It's not about hard or easy, 3 chords or virtuosic solo'ing. It's about having the tools to get done what you want to get done. There are very subtle levels to it. Even when a musician is close to having the fundamentals down or thinks that they are, that final .5 sec gap for having to reflect on a position, or chord change, or any type of physical motion involved in the creation of that musical moment will disallow the musician from being able to listen...even if spiritually they are ready for it. There are many roads to go down and many hours of deliberate practice and concentration before being able to earn the privilege of being able to be a good listener. It's unfortunately not as simple as just deciding to, or having someone tell you that you should. But, this article serves as a good reminder for those on the cusp and a glimpse at understanding what is to come for those who aren't ready. I appreciate seeing the sentiment on the table and being enjoyed by musical friends.

October 6 | Unregistered CommenterBilly

Great post! Something so simple and seemingly obvious... and people just dont pay attention too it....

October 14 | Unregistered CommenterJay Harris

Nice article, Mike. And so true -- although, in a way, one could also say there are three aspects to listening -- the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. The physical is related to the ear, the mental to our brain, and the spiritual to our hearts. Musicians study Ear Training in music school, and it helps to hear correctly (via the ear). The hearing in our brain is related to how we analyze the sounds we make -- and everyone else in the band is making, so we can coordinate them, play together, and harmonize. The spiritual component happens via an understanding heart, so that we "hear/sense" the mood of the song (and what it needs), the mood of the other players (and when to "lay back" or get "out front" of the band) and the mood of the audience (to see what they need emotionally). All in all, it's very complex making music -- and, as a songwriter, to learn to listen to the silences in-between, to give other players space, and to help make the whole thing work.

October 16 | Unregistered CommenterLeigh Harrison

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