Press an Ear, active listening

There is plenty you can discover on your own when learning to play music but sometimes the instrument itself can be a distraction. The constant exploration can lead to a serious lack of focus when it comes to the learning process. So, today, I’m going to offer up a bit of advice when it comes to processing and retaining musical ideas.

Active listening is when you give the music your full attention. Simply put down your instrument, press an ear to your speaker and rewind often. When you listen to a piece of music, what do you hear? The first time I listen to a new piece of music, I want to take in the song without trying to focus on any one particular part. I simply enjoy the journey it takes me on.

It is important to spend a significant amount of time, in the early part of decoding a musical piece, listening to the song over and over again to catch new details each time. You should examine the instrument(s) individually, attempting to hear their role in the song. Does the instrument play the same thing over and over or change? Does it repeat non-stop throughout the song or does the instrument come and go? What is the role of the instrument at any given moment? Is it a support role? Lead role? Other considerations to examine while practicing active listening are the melody and chord structure/format of the song. Notice as many details as you can until you feel like you’ve got a bit of a landscape in your mind as to how the instruments fit together and work together in a particular tune and how the song flows. 

Check out the Ear Training pt 1 and the Technique Focused Ear Training class to go deeper into this topic!

You can continue this process by narrowing in on one instrument for a while. After actively listening to the song and the roles of the instruments, you will then focus in on just one instrument carefully, like the harmonica for example. You might even live with just one short lick, listening to it over and over before ever attempting to find it. Each time you hear it, try to see the notes you’ll be playing on your instrument as you listen to them. 

Now pause the same track and simply attempt to replicate a specific lick, phrase or vocal line with as much attention to detail and nuance as possible.This process yields more accurate results, in a shorter period of time, if you attempt to process smaller amounts of music at onceEar training is often a musician’s sole approach to learning music. I know that for me this was and still is mostly my approach. Things to consider while listening: tone (is it acoustic or amplified? dark or bright?), techniques used (tongue technique, hand wah or no hand wah etc.), dynamics, timing and phrasing of the musical idea? In addition, you can use the visualization technique that I have referred to many times in my emails and videos. Attempt to visualize the way the lick moves, the pattern it creates, the texture it has, the tone etc. This helps tremendously with the recall process. 

I should mention that the sharper your skill/technique is, the easier the task of replicating a musical idea will be.  Anyone can work on active listening and ear training in order to be able to hear more detail in music. The key is to start off with something simple and work your way to more complex pieces of music slowly. Don’t forget to put down your instrument.

If you’re looking to sharpen your harmonica technique, be sure to check Essential Blues Harp Technique.

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