on listening pedagogy, take 1

we don't often pay it much attention, but listening is an important way that we relate to the world around us. not only does it physically orient us in both time and space, but it's also how we come to learn new ideas—whether it's through conversation, watching the news, or tuning in to our favourite podcast.

how effective we are as listeners, however, is another question altogether. to listen with the intent of truly learning something is itself a learned skill. it takes time, willingness, and patience to make ourselves available to new ideas. and the only way we can do that is if, just for a moment, we commit to being silent. for some, that's easier said than done.


i try and teach the skill of listening as best i can in the context of the classroom. to do so, i use a number of techniques that push students to critically engage with and through their ears. one of which entails unpacking a dedicated form of listening that most of us are very familiar with: musical listening.

thinking musically is an effective way of getting students to critically assess their listening abilities. after all, music is something that most of us really enjoy, and is an important part of our daily routine. while we work, while in transit, when we're getting ready to leave the house in the morning, and before bed in the evening: these are only some of the many moments that music accompanies our everyday lives. as a result, many people tend to fancy themselves as good musical listeners.

but this is a question of quality, not quantity. so i ask, what music do we listen to and how do we listen to it? where do we find it? how do we come to know it? (which is entirely different than where and how we find it). or, do we come to know it at all? answering these questions takes some reflection, but our responses tell us something about our relationship to music, about the type of listeners we are, and about the time we put into cultivating listening as a skill.

oftentimes, the most rewarding musical experiences are the ones we don't understand at first. the ones that take some time and dedicated listening before we can say "i get it", or at least "i think i get it". where the music presents a challenge, almost as though it's pushing us to be better listeners before it can resonate with us. but we need to be up for that challenge.

sometimes, we reach these moments alone, after repeated listening to a particular song or album. the first time we hear it, we're not entirely sure what it is. but by the 10th, 15th, or even the 20th time through, finally it clicks. these are important moments that we can only arrive at by listening with patience.

at other times, we find these moments by listening with others, in a group setting or with a friend. some of the most memorable listening experiences i've had were with friends who pointed out something that i otherwise missed. and it completely changed how i listen to a particular song or artist. often, someone else's observations helps us make sense of it.

but based on my interactions with students, these types of listening experiences are more the exception than the rule. we tend to have an aversion to musical experiences that challenge our skill as listeners. but why? is it that we don't have time for them? do we not want to put in the energy? or are we so sure about our listening abilities that when a song doesn't immediately click we figure it must be the music and not us?

the problem is, when we don't engage music with curiosity and patience, we miss the opportunity to learn something new. we miss the opportunity to allow new ideas to resonate within us, even if (or, particularly because) those ideas weren't communicated through words per se. it's knowledge in the truest sense of the word, and it's acquired through sonic experience. it's reason enough to listen to music we otherwise wouldn't have time for, and to re-listen to the music we're already familiar with.

these ideas, by the way, apply not only to musical sounds but to all sounds. but that, i'll save for another post.