How to Listen to Music (and Become a Better Musician)

Do you like to listen to music? What do you like about it? Have you ever thought about it?

We can enjoy music on many different levels. We can enjoy it in the background, or we can listen directly to it. It may remind us of good times, or hit us on an emotional level.

And we can also enjoy exploring how the music is put together. We can look for specific elements in the music. When we do this, we learn more about music, and become better musicians.

Actively Observe the Music

When we listen, we can participate passively (have it in the background), or actively. When we actively observe the music, we look for specific things. We ask questions and seek answers.

Here are some things we can do as we listen to music to become better guitarists.

Count along in the time signature

We can figure out how many beats are in each measure. How many beats group together to organize the piece.

Most often we’ll have 3 or 4 beats per measure (or grouping). To find the number, we can tap our foot or clap our hands. We can count aloud and see if one number seems more right than the others.

This, like all the options below, get easier with time and experience.

(For more on time signatures, see these lessons on music theory.)

Notice accents/clave

Most popular and ethnic music styles have one or more signature “feels”. This is how we can tell the different between Dolly Parton and Tito Puente. Or between Celtic music and Tango.

Even classical music has its different “feels”. A mazurka is different than a sarabande is different than a waltz.

These “feels” each have special accented notes. And these sets of accents create the feel. In Latin music this also called the “clave” (pronounced KLAH-vae).

We can find this pattern and clap along.

Notice the feel and mood

Related to the item above, we can also find general feel of the tune. Is it in swing time? Is it slow or fast? Is it happy or sad?

There may not even be words that are appropriate for some pieces. And that’s fine. We can still notice the mood, the intended emotions, etc.

Notice where chords change

We can also listen for chord changes. We can anticipate the chord changes and “conduct” them.

As we hear the new chords, we can also listen to the quality of the new chord. Is it simple or complex? Does it fit into the music harmoniously? Or does it “clash” (sound dissonant)? Was it expected, or a surprise?

As we gain more experience, we may even be able to predict which chord is coming next. This is often (but not always) easier in pop and folk music than in classical music.

Separate the melody, bass, and other voices

Next, we can isolate the different voices in the music. These are most commonly the melody, the bass, and the accompaniment. The “voice” could be different instruments, or it could all be on one instrument. (Classical guitar music usually has at least three voices playing at the same time).

We can listen to each part on its own. We can notice the rhythms, the patterns, or the space between notes. And we can notice basic behavior.

For instance, the melody may change from one voice to another. It’s not uncommon for the melody to move to an interior voice, or the bass register.

Ensemble music is music with more than one instrument. Here, each instrument will often take a single role throughout the piece.

With music with more than one instrument, we can listen to each instrument in turn. We can listen to the drums, and put all our attention on them. Then the clarinet, for example. And down the line until we’ve listened to each instrument.

Then, we listen again to the full sound. Now we may notice more interplay and relationship between the voices.

Actively Observe Yourself

Besides observing the music, we can also observe ourselves. As we listen, we may become more or less engaged. We may become swept away by the music, or our minds may wander.

We can discover loads about the music and player by how engaged we remain. A good player will keep us engaged and interested.

If we lose interest, it may well be that player is not so focused either. If we feel nervous for the player, they may not be in complete control.

Ask yourself whether you understand what is happening, and where the music’s going.

We can also question how well we understand the music. A good player won’t just play the notes and leave listeners to figure it out.

Instead, the player will demonstrate the music. They’ll lead us from one point to another. We always feel safe and taken care of, even if we don’t understand the music. When we feel this, the player is likely doing a good job.

For ugly music, ask why someone would enjoy it

For music we don’t “get”, or for music that sounds ugly to our ears, we can explore it more objectively. We can ask ourselves why anyone would like it.

We can find things that may be stimulating (intellectually or emotionally). We can seek to understand any technical challenges. We can imagine what types of preferences, life situations, or beliefs would lead us to this type of music.

When put our own personal preference aside, we can experience the music in new ways. This doesn’t mean we like it, or would choose to hear it again. But it can give us new insight and perspectives.

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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