Just Use Your Ears: An Exploration of Listening and Music

By February 14, 2018Peer Writing Tutoring

Our UCWbL’s Core Practice titled Listening and Reading Actively is one of the most important and yet least discussed of our core practices. Listening is essential to our work at The Writing Center; building rapport, creating a collaborative agenda, and giving detailed feedback are all built on the foundation of actively reading and listening. The question of “how does one read or listen actively?” seems self-evident, but I have found it hard to articulate what active listening is in the writing center scenario. For this reason, examining music, which listening is fundamental to, could make evident the implications and ideas that listening has within The Writing Center.

Listening is often overlooked in all aspects of our lives. When listening to music, plays, our surroundings, and conversations, often we don’t give enough attention or block out the sound completely. A lot of this obliviousness around how we listen comes from the idea that listening is implicit. In a way it is implicit; unless one has headphones or earplugs in, it’s unavoidable to listen to—or hear—a noise. But listening is not that simple. There is much more to listening than we realize. We as humans and as writing center tutors need to be more conscious of our listening and how we go about that task.


Active Listening

Active listening and reading are essential to our work as peer writing tutors. Yet, active listening is one of the least frequent topics of discussion in The Writing Center. We don’t always think the complexities of listening in most settings. Listening is a deceptively easy action; one will listen to or hear everything within earshot unintentionally—it is unavoidable. That can be described as passive listening, where the sound is in the background and is simply a product of our surroundings. The other side of this is active listening. Described by Glen Gillis in “Active Listening within the Performing Ensemble,” active listening requires the noise to be the sole focus of attention, with the individual interacting with the sound, which can generate interest, influence the creative process, and lead the individual to formulate ideas and broaden thought.

Listening, specifically active listening, is fundamental to all music making and production. You can’t get one without the other since musicians are both performers and active listeners. To produce quality and meaningful music, a musician needs to not only listen to themselves and their intonation, rhythm, texture, dynamics etc., but they also need to listen to those musical qualities from everyone else in the ensemble (Gillis 37). Listening is thus an organizing principle in how musicians turn sound into music (Black 292). Active listening to music also allows the listeners to “discover the intrinsic qualities” of music, and through this understanding, they are able to approach music in a deeper and more imaginative way (Gillis 38).


Aural Learning

Traditional western music learning has for centuries devalued aural learning of music by focusing instead notation and musical literacy. Unintended by these musical teachers, teaching music through notation and musical literacy causes a stunted creativity and aural ability (Campbell). Many, including musicologist Edwin Gordon, note “what is not seen in notation is far more important than what notation can accommodate” (Johnson). Besides not being able to fully represent music and its qualities, notation—and specifically learning through notation—takes freedom away from the performer by presenting something that needs to be performed “perfectly.” Aural training and learning music aurally can combat this by giving the performer freedom from notation, which allows for artistic interpretation and improvisation (Campbell). Kathy Liperote supports the idea of learning aurally by comparing musical learning to language learning. She notes that in both learning language and music, listening serves as the base for the other actions of speaking, reading, and writing. Only once a small child has listened to many words will they start to speak and then put them into sentences. This creates natural speakers of the language. Many people, such as Suzuki in his “Mother of Tongue approach,” support this model for musical learning as well. Children should first hear music, and then learn to speak it, which would create natural musicians (Liperote).



Transcriptions from jazz students demonstrate the advantages of aural learning. Transcriptions have come to be seen as a hallmark of a jazz education, with students adamant about upholding its usefulness in learning how to improvise in jazz. Students will listen to a recording, usually by established, famous, or canonical figures, and transcribe it entirely by ear. This allows musicians to learn the language of music, and the ideas they learn from these recordings are internalized and synthesized with other transcriptions and entirely new ideas to create a “unique sound” (Black 282). This aural learning through transcriptions has been replicated through the music program Musical Futures. Musical Futures undertook a study on intermediate level musicians that had them collaboratively transcribe a song of their choice. These students improved their aural abilities, increased their creativity, developed interest, and had a better understanding of music qualities, composition, and improvisation (O’Niell and Bespflug). Reading and studying others’ writing could benefit how students understand and process what they read and write.



Active listening is also used to communicate to other musicians performing through what is described as a Meta-communicative. Steven Black in “Creativity and Learning Jazz: The Practice of Listening,” describes jazz students and musicians as communicating the structure and ideas of the music while performing and improvising through the practice of listening. Listening facilitates group interplay and enables interaction between musicians through music (Black). By listening to other performers and their ideas, a jazz musician is able to shape their sound as a reaction to the other parts of the music. These musicians are constrained by the other ideas in the music; they can’t play whatever their heart desires—it must fit in, react, and interact with the other lines of music occurring in the ensemble. Relating to The Writing Center, the idea of a meta-communicative could be used both in writing and feedback. Just as jazz musicians need to listen and react to one another while improvising and playing in general, each component of a written text needs to build off and support the text before and after it.  This idea can help a tutor explain to a student the components of an argument and how each component complements and builds off one another This could give the writer ideas about how to augment and improve their own writing by being conscious of the components and construction of a successful argument. This idea is very similar to the transcription’s relation to The Writing Center, and it might be possible to use these ideas in tandem with one another. In an appointment, we could “transcribe” an established writer’s work and deconstruct and compare it with a deconstructed version of the tutee’s paper for comparison.


Recording and Playback

Listening to a recording of yourself perform can be educational. By listening to their own performance, students are able to notice both good and bad aspects that they didn’t recognize while playing. This allows the student to fix those deficiencies, continue emulating what they thought were good qualities, and to be more vigilant listening to what was made known through the recording (Merrill). I have encountered this tactic myself a number of times in large orchestral groups as well as in individual practice sessions, and it has been a helpful practice that has improved both my own playing and the larger ensemble’s playing. But, one shouldn’t become too reliant on recordings or a “mechanical ear” to inform the musician on the state of their performance. A musician must develop real-time listening skills, what Murray McLachlan describes as “self-listening.” These ideas could be applied to conversation partner appointments. It would be interesting to see if a recording of a non-native English learner speaking could assist them with locating problems with their speaking and noticing places to improve.


In The Writing Center

I will personally provide a definition of active listening, reflecting what I believe active listening should be rather than reflecting a definition that should be applied to everyone indiscriminately. Active listening in The Writing Center is listening to your writer and understanding what they say, and then using that knowledge to provide detailed and specific feedback. Actively listening in The Writing Center should incorporate some amount of “meta-communication,” or consciousness of the functions of each component and the organization within the written piece. This also includes being critical towards the writing, but not the writer, a distinction that is critical to not inciting a harmful emotional response.

These ideas could be employed in the writing center in a number of creative ways. Transcription could be used to deconstruct and locate each part of an argument, understand how they work together, build off each other, and function as a whole. I also wonder if simply copying and transcribing a “master’s” work could have benefits for the student. A meta-communicative could also be used during appointments to help notice and locate components of an argument and how each idea works together. It would be interesting to see how the combined ideas of transcription and meta-communication could be applied in The Writing Center, which is something that probably is better suited for real-world experimentation rather than theoretical discourse. I also suspect that non-native English learners would benefit from analyzing their speaking through listening to recordings, and real-world experimentation would be needed for this as well.

This analysis of music, listening, and its relation to The Writing Center is not nearly finished. An analysis of how reading music is alike to reading language could potentially uncover interesting things about how we read writing. I also think the methods we learn in music and language could uncover an array of techniques about how to teach writing to students.


Works Cited

Black, Steven P. “Creativity and learning Jazz: The Practice of ‘Listening.” Mind, Culture, and Activity, 15 (2008): 279-295. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Oct. 2017.

Campbell, Patricia Shehan. “Orality, Literacy and Music’s Creative Potential: A Comparative Approach.” Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 101 (1989): 30-40. JSTOR. Web. 1 Nov. 2017.

Gillis, Glen. “Active Listening within the Performing Ensemble.” Canadian Music Educator (2012): 37-39.  Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Oct. 2017.

Johnson, Daniel. Rev. of “The Aural/Visual Experience of Music Literacy: Reading and Writing Music Notation,” by Edwin E. Gordon. Music Educators Journal, 91.4 (2005).  Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Oct. 2017.

Liperote, Kathy A. “Audiation for beginning Instrumentalists: Listen, speak, read, write.” Music Educators Journal, 93.1 (2006): 46-52. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Oct. 2017.

Merrill, James D. “Take 1: Record Your Ensemble for Better Learning.” Teaching Music, 11.3 (2003): 34-37. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Oct. 2017.

O’Neill, Susan, and Kevin Bespflug. “Musical Futures Comes to Canada: Engaging Students in Real-World Music Learning.” Canadian Music Educator (2011): 25-27. Academic Search Complete. Web. 30 Oct. 2017.


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