Hearing vs. Listening

There is a big difference between hearing something and actually listening to it.

In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman observes

“Sounds thicken the sensory stew of our lives, and we depend on them to help us interpret, communicate with, and express the world around us.”

Even when we seek to be completely silent, there are still noises.We are all born with the sense of hearing, but musicians must be especially sensitive to developing their powers of listening.


ensemble members listen to everything

Hearing is a passive activity. Our ears are constantly taking in information, much of it background noise. Those little bones in our ears are vibrating whether we want them to or not. Our brains have been processing auditory input since the first day we were born. Most of us are pretty good about filtering out the unimportant noise like traffic and the sounds of the house/office/school. It doesn’t take judgment or discernment to hear a sound because it’s a purely a physical, unconscious process. If you’ve ever been woken up in the middle of the night by a loud sound, you know that you are hearing even when you are asleep.

Listening, on the other hand, is an active, conscious process. True listening only takes place when were fully aware of the auditory inputs. Listening involves making judgments, and it invites changes. Listening is dynamic. However, listening is a learned process and that’s why it is a skill that must be cultivated by musicians.

Why is deep listening important to musicians?

1. The sound we hear while playing the instrument is different than the way the audience hears it, especially the tone color and dynamics.
2. Because our art is guided by the ear, we learn by emulating teachers, recordings, concerts, masterclasses.
3. Musicians who play wind and string instruments have to make fast and accurate adjustments in pitch.
4. Identifying mistakes is the first step in fixing them.
5. The beginning, middle, and end of notes must be carefully shaped.
6. In an ensemble, the players have to be responsive to one another.

The next time you’re in a crowded place, try focusing on a single conversation. Can you block out the other sounds? This exercise will strengthen your powers of listening.

Parents can help their young musicians by being another set of ears in the practice room. Because listening involves concentration, having another person in the practice room can promote mindful practice. I talk about other ways you can help your child in the practice room in the blog post Helping Kids Practice.

Musicians need to be reminded that expressive elements need to be exaggerated to be heard by the audience. Actors apply heavy makeup when they are onstage. The lights and distance mute the effects of the makeup so that it seems natural from the audience. In the same way, musicians have to exaggerate dynamics, vibrato, accents, etc. for the listeners to perceive them.

The first time I ever recorded myself playing the flute, I was astonished. It was like hearing my voice on an answering machine – shocking and humbling. The sound was remarkably different and suddenly I realized all the little mistakes in tempo and intonation. In graduate school, I recorded all of my lessons. Reviewing the tapes, it was amazing how much information I had missed. Now that cell phones are ubiquitous, it is easy to make digital recordings. I believe all musicians should record themselves from time to time.

It takes discipline to develop mindfulness in the practice room. Cultivating deep listening skills has been invaluable to me as a performer and teacher. Beyond the practice room, I think good listening skills have helped me be a better mother and wife.

Happy practicing!