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A Listening Guide to Classical Music

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.

Listening to Music

Music can be complicated and difficult to listen to at times. This is a listening guide to classical music. It 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.

How much do you know about the music you like to listen to? The name of the group? The clothes they wear? The lyrics to the songs they sing? Even the style of music they perform. But - not much about the music!

For the average person attending a concert by Earth, Wind, and Fire, Taylor Swift or even Journey go for the experience and nothing more. Which is great!

I never want to go to a concert with less than high expectations of having a great time. But, being a trained listener of music gives me a different perspective of the performance. I listen to music like a musician.

And do you know what? So do the musicians performing!

Active vs. Passive Listening

There are distinct differences 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!

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 concept of passive and active listening.

The first is a basic level that encompasses the awareness of sounds and/or music around us. This level requires a very small amount of brainpower. 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, people's voices, and music examples that we have stored in our brains. 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."

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These three levels of listening can be learned by 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—the full commitment to analysis, high level of active listening.

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, from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
  • Have a preset listening list on your computer or in a notebook.
  • I always have a notebook ready with a pen or pencil to jot down notes about what I am listening to.
  • 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.

Improve Your Music Listening

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 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' The White Album.

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 with why you are listening.

  • Please listen to the different combinations 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).
  • The 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.



  • The Music of Johann Sebastian Bach
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  • The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll
    One of my passions is music, past and present. During the years as a middle school and high school teacher, my favorite topics would be about music history and rock music was very fun to teach.
  • Why Not Listen to Classical Music?
    With all the choices in music to listen to today, it's no wonder that many people shy away from music that they don’t understand.This article will give you helpful information so that you might say - Why not listen to classical music.
  • Listen to Music Through Form
    Form in music is the structure or “blueprint” of the composer. This article will show you how you can listen to music through the form and understand it better.

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 improve by the end. Feel free to comment on this article and if you enjoyed it, please like it on social media.

© 2018 Reginald Thomas

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