Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Active Listening

It surprises me how many students I have that play classical piano, but don’t listen to any classical music. To me, it equates to learning a new language, but never listening to a conversation in that language. This would make it a lot harder to learn the application of the language, even if you had learnt how to say each word, and what each word meant. The quickest and easiest way to learn a new language is to go to a foreign country and submerge yourself in it – the same can be said for music.

Even having classical music on in the background can make you appreciate it more, but to understand what is going on musically, listening with intent – or active listening – is far more affective. I recently did a few workshops with my adult students on musicality and senstivity to style, which included a lot of active listning and group discussion. Some of the topics included – How can we tell the time signature just by listening? What are the characteristics of a waltz? Is the melody on the top or bottom? These questions, however basic, proved a challenge for those new to just using their ear for the answers. My aim for the workshop was for them to think of their own playing more than just by the written music, but by what they hear – hopfully, they can start to tell by themselves when the accompaniment is drowining out the melody, or if their waltz is missing the ‘oom pah pah’ feel.

Active listening activities can also include listener-participation – by having them clap or tap each beat, or just the down-beat, this gets their internal metronome working. Also, shifting focus to different parts of the music, such as the melody or harmony, can advance their sensitivity and increase their aural awareness. These skills are new to beginner students, and if nurtured from the onset of their learning, adds a new dimension to their practice time, by giving them musical aspects to think about as well as the process of learning notes and hand positions.

Active listening does not have to just be through listening to full pieces – any aural activities, such as the ones used in exams, are great for development of aural awareness. In my experience, teachers generally leave aural skills testing to a few weeks before the exam, as the focus is on the repertoire, so they end up being the weakest aspect of the exam. I introduce aural skills right from the first lesson, and try to keep my students a couple of grades ahead of their playing. This way, their ear is their strength, and their playing is more musical as a result.

One thing that I would like to create, and I would love any feedback on this, is a musical appreciation group – quite similar to a reading group, I guess – where my students can get together once a week or once a fortnight, and listen to music together, commenting on different aspects of what they hear. This would not only introduce a social element to their musical journey, but would keep them making time for music appreciation. Obviously this would be more appealing to adult students rather than children, but introducing these concepts and conducting these types of activities can still be used in the younger students’ lessons in smaller doses.

About the Author

Brandon Pearce
Brandon Pearce is the founder and CEO of Music Teacher's Helper, a web-based software program to help music teachers manage the business aspects of teaching music lessons.

A piano teacher and computer programmer himself, he created Music Teacher's Helper as a side project to manage his own students, and in 2004, made it available for music teachers worldwide.

Since then, it has grown to supp... [Read more]


  1. Christopher

    I wrote a post on something similar not too long ago. It always amazes me when musicians don’t listen. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the jazz and rock players who do nothing but listen and play by ear.

    Just curious, but do you have any of your students sing lines or melodies of the pieces they play?

    I like to do this in my own practice, and I really encourage it with my students. Guitar is a slightly different animal as I end up teaching more pop than art music. But even when I’m teaching rock music singing is helpful. If I just throw a chart a student and let them listen, then often can’t play it back. Listening then making them sing it back to me, then trying to play it seems to help.

    I like your idea of a music appreciation group. If you haven’t, check out this video. I think that would be the thing to model with a listening group. It’s like Zander puts years of training in form and harmony and turns it into a succinct analysis that completely avoids any technical terms or verbiage that pervades most analysis. And everyone listening falls in love with the piece and doesn’t know they learned an incredible amount about music in general!

    What would be really cool is if the music appreciation group had multiple skill levels of students in it. Perhaps some of the more experienced students could become “teachers” as they bring in pieces they enjoy and come prepared with things to talk about–even if those things are as simple as, “check out this cool rhythm.”


  2. Leah Coutts

    Thanks for your feedback Chris, that video was great! I hope everyone who reads my blog checks it out! I’ll have to do some further delving into Zander, I really like his approach, and my ambition is to give massive workshops like that one day too. (I’m only young, so I have plenty of time to get to his calibre!)

    I haven’t done much singing with my students to be honest, but it is something I should definitely pursue. I tell them to try out singing the melody as the play in the comfort of their own home, but it is a method I am going to incorporate for everyone from the new year on.

    I was thinking with the listening group that I could offer small assignments or discussion topics, and nominate someone to lead the group each time, and I love your idea of letting the more experienced ‘teach’.

    Thanks again,

  3. P.A.

    What a great article.
    Very informative I learned something from it.
    Keep it up!

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