How To Listen To Music At An Expert Level

Man actively listening with his violin at the expert level.

Play 50 Questions At The Expert Level


In this series of articles, we’ve been playing 50 Questions: asking questions to help students improve their active listening skills. Part one listed 6 questions at the beginner level, part two listed 14 questions at intermediate level, and part three provided 14 questions at the advanced level. For those keeping track, that leaves 16 questions for this expert level. These questions generally require abstract thinking, multiple steps, and a great deal of musical knowledge.

Why work so hard? Jodie Francis of Music Gateway recommends active listening for music producers, and she gives reasons that not only benefit those who want to be producers, but all music students: “The more you actively listen, the easier it will become. Active listening by definition brings you closer to the music and gives you a whole new level of appreciation for it. This appreciation comes from a deeper understanding of the piece, as it becomes a lesson on music production. You can listen to what works and what doesn’t and apply your new knowledge to your craft.”

  1. What information is implied by the lyrics?
  2. How do the stressed syllables of the lyrics relate to the strong beats of the music?
  1. Are there any particular rhythms that are used repeatedly in the song?
    • Think about the 4 opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony: 3 short notes, and 1 long note.
  2. Can you transcribe the rhythm of any of the instruments?
    • Try starting with the melody.
Music transcribed by a student listening to music actively at the expert level.
  1. Are there any particular motifs used repeatedly in the song?
    • Think about the 4 openings notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony: 3 pitches that are the same, and 1 lower pitch.
  2. Can you transcribe the pitches of any of the instruments?
    • Try starting with the melody.
  1. Can you describe the articulation of the performer, and how they’re producing that sound?
  2. What is the function of each instrument performing in the song?
An orchestra performing at night that a student might listen to at an expert level.
  1. What effect do the performer’s choices have on the listener, and do you think those were the intended effects?
    • Try listening to the same song several times, each time by a different performer.
  1. Can you guess the composer?
  2. Can you guess the performer?
  3. How does this song relate to others by the same composer?
  4. How does this song relate to others by the same performer?
  5. How does this song relate to art (both music and other mediums) expressing similar ideas?
    • Christy Thomas from Yale CLT calls this “dialogic listening,” and describes it as “perhaps the most complex and time-consuming, yet also the most fruitful and potentially rewarding. As the name implies, this type of listening places a musical example in dialogue with external elements – generic conventions, other musical pieces, artwork, texts, objects, etc.”
A woman in a museum studying a painting by an artist in the time period of a composer she is studying.
  1. Listen to the transitions between the song’s sections. Are they smooth or abrupt, and what effect does this have on the listener?
  2. Focus on the shape of each phrase. How does the performer begin phrases, end phrases, and shape phrases? Think about if this changes depending on whether the phrase occurs at the song’s climax, beginning, end, or during a repeated section.

Think you’re an expert yet? Watch reaction videos, read reviews, and discuss the music you listen to with others. Are they giving honest feedback? Saying what they really think, following a trend, over-reacting to entertain others? Did they notice the same things you did? Do you agree with their response? Why or why not?

A young lady actively listening to different kinds of music at an expert level.

Continue to challenge yourself. Explore other genres, time periods, geographical regions, composers, or performers. John Hopkins Medicine writes that “Often we continue to listen to the same songs and genre of music that we did during our teens and 20s, and we generally avoid hearing anything that’s not from that era. New music challenges the brain in a way that old music doesn’t. It might not feel pleasurable at first, but that unfamiliarity forces the brain to struggle to understand the new sound.” With continued active listening, your understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of music will continue to grow.