Actively listening, will teach you tons. It implies paying attention to what you hear, without over-analyzing (i.e. thinking about-, or better said, judging it) just yet. Not mixing in your own thoughts, forming an opinion and thereby distracting your attention away from actually absorbing the input. This proves difficult. Here's how to increase the benefits of listening.

Problem: Missing valuable information due to self-centeredness - being too quick to judge and over-indulged with our own opinion.

Catch: Our mind is eager to run away immediately with the slightest bit of information we hear, over-analyzing it, pouring our own opinional sauce over and spitting it right back - making us miss value that can be picked up and learned from the information encapsulated in the audio waves that reach our ears.

Solution: Listen. Actually. Actively. Aware. Pay attention to every possible nuance. Soak up what someone else conveys. Let it sit and sink. Take it in. Learn. Be patient before forming an opinion and an optional counter-response.

“Listening is an attitude of the heart, a genuine desire to be with another which both attracts and heals.” L. J. Isham
“The first duty of love is to listen.” Paul Tillich
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen R. Covey
“Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.” Dean Jackson
“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” Dalai Lama

Piano Wisdom Nugget 5 - Listen


This might seem obvious to an extent that it's a little strange to even mention here - especially when referring to music, right?

Of course we listen. We listen all day long.

But beware - there is a huge catch here.

Perhaps it is exactly because it seems so obvious, we tend to overlook the importance of actually listening and often neglect paying the required -or at least, desired- amount of attention.

Active vs. Passive listening.

There’s a big difference between actively and passively listening.

Actively listening equals learning.

This is very true in music, where listening to what someone else is doing, playing, can -will- teach you a whole lot about how to play the thing yourself.

How it should sound (which in the end is the most vital part of music), but also the emotional, deeper meaning the player expresses.

Actively listening, means paying attention to what you hear, without over-analyzing (i.e. thinking about-, or better said, judging it) just yet, not mixing in your own thoughts, forming an opinion and thereby distracting your attention away from actually absorbing the input.

Being completely aware and picking up nuances, meaning, expression, dynamics, sound and color, will not just greatly enhance your level of enjoyment, but also add an enormous amount of educational value to what you hear.

Unfortunately, our attention span is fairly limited.

When we are not actively trying to pay attention and rest our focus on the message, the meaning of the sound, our mind tends to wander quite quickly. On top of that, we are inclined to lose a lot of our attention on being busy with our own output, whether in our mental- (thoughts) or the physical world.

Being occupied with other things, whether thoughts or activities, means we take that attention away from listening and are left with only passivelylistening.

Obviously there’s degrees to the level of passivity and the amount of attention we have left for listening (jogging, for instance, might require less attention than writing; the former leaving more “room” in the brain’s total span of attention), but basically, passively listening teaches us nothing. We just experience the blur, the cloud of sound and don’t really register the message, the value.

In one ear, and out the other.

Listening Activity Level 1 & 2

Even when we are in fact “actively” listening and the aural information does reach us in a way that we can actually state we are experiencing the message, there is still a difference in listening and listening, which is conveniently illustrated with music and can be categorized as “enjoying” vs “analyzing.”

This first form of listening, although already active, is the one most people experience, or should I say “practice,” quite simply because they don’t have enough musical knowledge to be able to listen analytically deeper.

You could think of this like listening to Italian. Beautiful language, I’m pretty sure many will agree. I’m also pretty sure that the majority of you does not speak Italian, which doesn’t mean that you couldn’t enjoy two Italians frantically and passionately conversing about who’s right. Hand-gestures and melody-like intonations free of charge.

Although already rare, since most people only listen to music passively, while doing other things, active listening “level 1” is listening to a piece of music exclusively.

Put on music, sit down in a chair, rest your attention on the sounds and enjoy.

Or, at a concert, when not distracted by your phone, friends or the barmaid, you are actively listening to the music too, although you might not quite understand it. I like to call this “base-level” active listening.

Base-level active listening, is consciously taking in audio waves, but apart from picking up emotion, still without doing much else with the underlying information.

Listening analytically, or - active listening “level 2” - to the conversation of these two passionate Italians would only be possible if you’d actually speak (thus understand) Italian.

The Passivity Trap

Even when you do speak Italian, it’s still only possible to go to this level of analytically listening when you’d actively listen, following their conversation as opposed to ignoring what you hear or let other sounds muffle their words - like you would with 90% of all conversations you “hear” when walking the street every day - that are conveniently filtered out automatically (an automated system in our brain to prevent you from going mad on info-overload).

This level of active listening means you’d let everything they say, including meaning, emotion, underlying and implied messages etc. not just enter your ears, but your mind too.

The busy, judgmental and self-indulged mind

Counter-intuitively, often the biggest jammer of actually being able to listen actively -and then analytically, to take value from what you hear- isn’t so much other outside impulses, but in fact our very own mind.

When we don’t actively guide and rest our attention on the aural input we wish to absorb, our mind can be constantly racing. Thoughts pop in and out like crazy, which not only distract from what is given to us through the ears (even holding the potential power to degrade our listening level back to passive again), but even when we DO register it, we are often impatiently forming our own option, eager to counter.

In our minds we’re already busy with our own reply, before giving what’s been given to us the respect to let it sink in.

Analytic listening 2.0 - Active Listening Mastery

Above passive-, then active-, then analytic listening, is a next step.

This goes further than simply understanding what’s being said and is only possible when completely switching off your own opinion for a moment. This allows you to think about the point of view, the meaning of what you hear, with a completely open mind - the “beginners mind.”

Analyzing without any form of judgement.

What does what you hear mean, context-wise? Why do they say/play that? What does it imply? How could you place yourself in the mind of he that conveys and see how in a similar situation you could agree, or even do the exact same thing. Can you fully understand why that is his opinion?

It’s listening with the beginners mind - the receptive mind that is open to learn from anything and anybody and at all times - that can teach you the most.

Learning (Musical) Languages

Although with anything, it’s much more valuable and enjoyable to be mindful and practice an active form of listening - with music, there isn’t much wrong with simply enjoying.

There is no need to constantly be transcribing licks and harmonic movements, although that might very well be the most educational thing you can do when wanting to learn and improve in music.

It is however indeed much more enjoyable even to just listen to music when you play and understand its language. This will allow you to hear contexts, deeper layers and even meaning that you wouldn’t be able to experience when you don’t understand it.

So if you’re keen on increasing your musical enjoyment, make sure you learn to understand the language of music, even if it's just for listening.

Exercise / Getting Practical:

When dealing with any form of audio that you are actively listening to, try to upgrade to listening 2.0. Take in every tiny nuance and absorb without judging. Then analyze, still without judgement.

When this regards music, and you hear something you like but don’t understand, analyze it -preferably by figuring it out by ear. If it’s above your level, either in knowledge or solfege qualities (not being able to figure what’s being played by ear), find out what it was with external sources (Google, tabs, chord sheets, Youtube, Piano Couture, Piano Lingo).

Learn about it, so you’ll be able to use (and better recognize it next time).

In conversation, active, analytic listening 2.0 is always the better approach. People talk to you because they have something to say. Something to convey. Listening with an open, non-judgmental beginners mind will teach you a great deal about your conversational partner and his way of thinking, which can always teach you something new about the topic at hand - especiallywhen it differs from your own take on the matter.

On top of that, it’s just the most respectful thing to do. Not just to let someone finish before interrupting them, but to actually take in what she says - before even considering your own counter-response.

Having trouble resting your attention on audio (or, perhaps, anything) and being patient? Try meditation.

Not only will it do wonders for your stress levels, grow your ability for compassion and improve your overall well being, but it will also teach you (and train you) to focus in a relaxed way.

I like Headspace.

The larger-scale takeaway:

There’s value in every bit of audio. When listening is expected, try to bring up the respect, to the one that conveys the message and yourself, to keep your mind on the matter at hand for the full 100% (or try to get close to that).

It won’t just benefit the speaker - who will feel heard - but also yourself, by learning amap with the sponge-like, open, beginners mind.

About Coen

Founder of Piano Couture and creator of the Hack the Piano method. Coen is a musician, reader, writer, web-designer, eater and traveler. Find him at

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