Better Listening for Musicians – What to Listen For in Practice

As musicians, we trade in the world of sound. But we also have all the physical demands of playing an instrument. So we may forget one of our most important tools: our ears!

In this article, you’ll be invited to rediscover the art of listening. When you do so, you’ll enjoy music more, play better, and learn music faster. Have fun!

What is the Goal of Listening?

We have different listening goals at different times. Playing music alone, we listen in one way. Playing with others, another.

Music in the elevator is a different experience than in a concert hall.

Our listening goals depend on the situation.

That said, we listen to our own playing largely to compare it with our mental idea of what it “should” sound like.

Listening To vs. Listening For

Casually listening to music, alone or with others, our main goal is usually to enjoy it. Our experience is the number one consideration. This is why we can still enjoy seeing music that is not our favorite, so long as we are with people we like.

More formally, we may listen to music to study it. We may work on ear-training. We can hear what other artists are doing. Or we can get ideas for pieces we may want to play one day. We can explore different styles and techniques.

These types of listening (casual, study, critical), are primarily listening TO the music. But there is another way.

We can also listen FOR specific things in music. This assumes we have some opinions about what works and what doesn’t in music. We have our mental list we check as we hear the music.

What to Listen For In Practice

In our practice practice, we can listen for specific qualities or elements. These are the fine details of the music. This is also true when listening critically to someone else. Here are a few:

Consistency and Evenness

We can listen to the volume of each note. We can listen to the relationship of each note to the notes around it.

Each note should follow previous notes logically based on the music intention. For instance, no random notes pop out or draw attention on accident. Everything should be “on purpose”.


It’s very easy to get excess string noise on the guitar. Cleanliness is an ongoing study for most of us. So we can listen for this in our music.

We can recognize any “foot-shuffling” and do our best to cut it.

Note: Many players emphasize cleanliness above all else. But it’s one aspect, and not necessarily the most important. While it’s great to play cleanly, other elements also matter.

Tone Quality

Tone quality is one of the elements of music. For each moment of each piece, there is likely an ideal tone quality. Some music should be warm and rich. Other music sounds best bright and punchy.

We can listen for appropriate and consistent tone quality.

Rhythmic Clarity

In classical guitar music, there is a written rhythm. As the player, we may also slow down or speed up at times.

Some questions are: Would a listener who did not know the piece of music immediately understand the rhythm? Does the rhythm demonstrate the emotional content of the piece?
Are any slow-downs or speed-ups natural, logical and organic? Do they make sense in sound?

Rhythmic clarity is sometimes difficult to listen to objectively. This is especially true while we’re playing the music. As such, recording yourself is a useful tool for a clearer perspective.

How Each Note Connects to the Next (the ends of notes)

This is called “legato” in musical jargon. How smooth and connected are our notes? Is there any space between the notes? And if so, is it intentional and precise?

Phrasing and Expression (Is it obvious and intentional?)

Phrasing and expression include all our decisions about the music. This includes the volume, the connectedness, the pace, and the tone quality of each note.

This is “how” we play the notes on the page. Phrasing should be obvious and intentional. All decisions should reinforce the main emotional and psychological “message” of the music.

We can listen for each idea to relate to and support the others in the music. If done well, the piece sounds like one main idea or story, told to perfection.

When done poorly, the music sounds like a collection of musical snippets. While each moment may sound fine, they don’t work together as a whole.

Be an Active Listener in Guitar Practice

As we grow as musicians, we gain better understanding of each of the above. And we also discover other things to listen for in music.

The way to progress most quickly and stay engaged in practice, is to be an active listener.

This takes focus and attention. And as such, it takes practice. But that’s what we do!

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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