The Art & Science of Sound

The Art of Intentional Listening

Has this ever happened to you? You’re at a business conference, a meeting with a client or a lecture on the Comparative Literary Theories of the Romantic Period, and you leave feeling like maybe you didn’t do a great job listening. You heard what the speaker was saying, but your brain didn’t bother to do anything with the info.

Yeah, it happens all the time.

In the business world, intentional listening as an effective means of communication is regaining a fair measure of renewed respect. It makes sense: No relationship can flourish if we’re simply just waiting to formulate a response. We can only benefit from what we hear if we are truly listening.

There are three types of listening:

Passive Listening is where we pay just enough attention to be able to repeat a phrase or nod approvingly when we get caught not paying attention. It’s the kind of listening you do when you’re checking your email or social media or drying dishes. Passive Listening is not an effective means of communication. We also spend more time passively listening to music than actually listening to it. So what are we really hearing?

Evaluative Listening is the most common form of listening. While listening we are evaluating what we hear so we can provide a response – either positive or negative – based on our own prejudices. This kind of listening is crucial for proper communication, but it suffers when the listener spends more energy planning their reply than evaluating the information.

The last style of listening is Intentional Listening: A skill that must be practiced and practiced before we can truly reap its benefits. Intentional Listening requires a full commitment from our minds, our hearts and our ears. Intentional Listening isn’t easy – and you can’t fake it. This is true whether you’re listening to a client, a co-worker, or that favorite album you’ve decided to hang out with for the evening.

Passive Listening is our most common way to listen to music, and that’s a shame, because the joy of music is in the details. Just like you can’t truly have a conversation if you are listening passively, you simply can’t have a full musical experience when you’re passive to it. Unless we are intentionally listening to a track we can never fully embrace the emotional journey it’s been designed to give us.

When it comes to music, all three methods are useful, and they all have their place – depending on what you’re trying to get from what you hear. Just like that barely comprehendible professor back in school, when you buckled in and truly listened, or cleared your own subjective thoughts out of the way and just listened, you got what she was saying. Maybe not right away but eventually. The same thing applies to music.

Sure, on a surface level we hear the drums, the keyboards, the vocals. But do you really know the song after listening to it passively for a few moments? Try this little experiment: Think of your favorite song from the past two to three years and then dissect the soundstage, or the lyrics or what the song is truly about just by recalling the song in your mind. You’d likely miss the mark. Now think of a song from when you were in high school or college and do the same thing. The song from your younger days is cemented in your head as a fixed memory – simply because you listened to it a lot and you listened intentionally because it meant something to you.

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to rediscover the lost art of intentional listening, but it does take some time. Put the phone down, turn the video off, lower the lights and tell all those people who are constantly badgering you that you’re going to practice your listening skills for a while.

The first thing that stops people from truly intentional listening is that they don’t necessarily know what to listen to. That really doesn’t matter though, your tastes and interested will figure that out for you. But here are some hints…

Every song has a musical heartbeat the arrangement is built around – it may be the rhythm, the bass or a very cool rhythm guitar riff tucked away in the depths of the right channel. The foundation of the song may not always be upfront and obvious. It could be a percussive instrument you can barely hear, but it’s there and it’s driving the song. Listen for it and determine what it is.

Listen to the voicings of the instruments and how they interact.

Listen to how the vocals interact with the rhythm. Is the singer right on the beat, a little ahead, a little behind? Phrasing is critical to the emotions the artist wants to convey. Were they intentional or just sloppy?

Listen to how the words become rhythmic and lace in and around the main melodic instruments.

Listen to how the bass and drums interact with each other. 

Listen to how many of each instrument is present and where they are located.

Can you tell the difference between a solid body and hollow body guitar, and can you hear the different effects on each instrument?

Are those real strings or synthesized?

Are the vocals doubled or is there just a single vocal track in the song? How many singers are there?

These suggestions might seem a little bit wonky at first, but if you intend to listen intentionally, these are decent places to start. Learn to listen for different things and your ears will begin to present your brain with all kinds of sounds you didn’t know were there in the first place. Your journey has begun, and you’ll begin to hear and feel things you had always hoped were there – they were, they’ve just been waiting for you!

As you spend more time immersed in what you are listening to, all sorts of fun things start to take place: 

You might get an emotional rush you weren’t expecting, you might hear something that gives you an entirely new appreciation for the song, or you might just simply enjoy what you are hearing and appreciate it at a level deeper than you ever gave yourself the chance to enjoy before.

Don’t just go through life thinking you’ve heard music! Set aside some time to intentionally listen to your music and you’ll be surprised what you get in return.

And who knows, maybe all this intentional listening might just pay off in a lecture or a business meeting someday! 

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