A Listening Guide to Classical Music

Updated on March 27, 2020
Reginald Thomas profile image

This author has been an educator, conductor, and trombonist for the past 40 years. His experience qualifies him as an expert in this field.

Understanding how music is put together opens many new genres for listening. Read on to learn more.
Understanding how music is put together opens many new genres for listening. Read on to learn more. | Source

Listening Guide for Music—A Listening Guide to Classical Music

Music can be complicated and difficult to listen to at times. This listening guide is designed for those who have favorite pieces of music, styles or composers but don't understand why.

Music stimulates the pleasure center of the brain and your understanding of what you are hearing will provide a great deal more from the music you love. As you increase your listening skills, you will most likely get turned on to other genres or types of music.

Active vs. Passive Listening

There is a distinct difference between hearing and listening. Remember the days growing up, when your mom or dad was explaining something to you or giving you instructions to do a chore? The only thing you heard, was; “Are you listening to me?” The short version of this story is that there are two types of listening called passive and active.

Passive listening is hearing as an involuntary auditory response.This could be where the expression, “In one ear and out the other”, came from. On the other hand, active listening requires us to receive and interpret information. Better said, hearing is through the ears requiring little effort. Whereas, listening requires us to take what we are hearing and process it through the brain.

We Hear With Our Ears! We Listen With Our Brain!

Listening to Music


Levels of Listening to Music

Aaron Copland, was a famous American composer, writer and conductor. In his book, “What to Listen for in Music”, he explains the concept of three different levels of listening in music.They also apply to the aspect of passive and active listening.

The first is a basic level which encompasses the awareness of sounds and/or music around us. This level requires a very small amount of brain power. We usually associate this level with “background music“.

The second level is where the brain kicks in and it is able to help us identify sounds that we recognize. This would include: environmental sounds, peoples voices, and music examples that we have stored in our brain. This level requires some concentration, as we can feel some sort of emotion from the music, even if we can’t identify it. But we do know it’s there. Most people listen to music at this level. No commitment to analysis.

The third level of listening to music falls in the category of “analysis mode“. Many people do not reach this level because it requires the brain to analyze all aspects of the music. This could also be called the - “musicians listening mode”.

These three levels of listening can be learned buy the non-musician if we simply learn to “Listen To Music like a Musician”.

  • Level One—awareness, passive listening.
  • Level Two—more awareness, some breakdown of the music, active listening.
  • Level Three—full commitment to analysis, high level of active listening.

Listen to Some Rich Vocals

Listen to Music Like a Musician!

Getting the Most Out of Your Listening!

In order to get the most out of your music listening experience, you need to set up a good strategy for yourself.

  • Dedicate a space for your listening. (Den, Music Room, Basement, Office) The special place for you and your music should be an area where you will not be interrupted or distracted.
  • Equipment - have a very good sound system or a professional set up stereo headphones. In order for you to have the best experience, you should be listening to your music on the best equipment possible.
  • Have a good and comfortable chair to sit in while you’re listening to your music. Your body wants to be relaxed and once again, free from any distractions.
  • A designated time is necessary for your listening. No distractions. You should try to schedule the same time so that it becomes a good routine. Example: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, at 7 PM to 8 PM.
  • Have a preset listening list on your computer or in a notebook.
  • Keep a log of your listening sessions so that you can keep track of what you have listened to. In a very short time you will begin to notice a change in what you are listening to. This will be due to the fact that your listening skills are improving.

Listen to Music Like a Musician!

We can learn a lot about music and how to listen better if we learn to listen like a musician. We don’t have to have the instrumental or vocal skills to do this, but by thinking on this level will allow us to learn and appreciate what a musician goes through every day. It is second nature to them.

Musicians listen and perform music using the five basic elements of music.

  • Rhythm—organized sounds and silences in time.
  • Melody—a series of notes (pitches) that move in time, one after another.
  • Harmony—two or more notes played at the same time.
  • Form—musical blueprint of a piece of music. The different sections.
  • Timbre (pronounced Tam-ber)—the tone color or quality of the sound.

Active Listening Exercise #1

This first active listening exercise features the song Blackbird, written and performed by Paul McCartney. The song was written in 1968 and it comes from the Beatles White Album. You will need this Music Listening Worksheet to go along with this exercise. On the worksheet will be the video of the song Blackbird.


Active Listening Exercise #2

In this exercise, we will be listening to a piece of music called: “Fanfare for the Common Man”. This composition was written by American composer Aaron Copland. It is a very vibrant and ceremonial piece of music and a relatively short performance.

To make this an easy exercise, I have provided a video example for you to click on, accompanied by a chart below it to follow along why you are listening.

  • Please listen to the different combination of instruments. Brass and Percussion
  • Listen for the blend of the four different brass instruments: Trumpets, French Horns, Trombones, and Tubas. This is the element of music called—Timbre (Tone Color).
  • Rhythm in this composition is very simple. Quarter and eighth notes.
  • As you listen for the melody, you will find that this is not your regular type "melody", but often referred to as a "theme".
  • Harmony in this fanfare is simple but powerful.

Fanfare for the Common Man

Fanfare for the Common Man—Listening Exercise

Gong, Timpani, Bass Drum
Timpani, Bass Drum
Timpani, Bass Drum
Trumpets, French Horns
Timpani, Bass Drum
Trumpets, French Horns
Gong, Timpani, Bass Drum
Trombones, Tubas
* after this point all brass and percussion are playing together.

In Closing

I hope you had a good experience with both of these exercises. If you followed the instructions, I will almost guarantee that your listening skills improved by the end. Feel free to comment on this article and if you enjoyed it, please like it on social media.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Reginald Thomas


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