Passive And Active Listening

To be a musician you need to do two things:

  1. Play every day.
  2. Listen every day.

You can listen either passively or actively. Both approaches are useful and necessary.

Passive listening

Passive listening happens while you’re doing another activity such as cooking, cleaning or driving. Just let the music play. Don’t try to think about it. Just listen and continue with your other activity. The music is sinking into your consciousness.

Maybe something will jump out. What was that? How did they do that? I love this tune, wonder if I can learn it? Either take a mental note or write it in whatever place you like to write notes. Then let the thought go and return to listening passively to music while cooking dinner or whatever activty you were engaged in.

Listening assignment #1

  • List all the tunes you have learned, and all the tunes you want to learn. Learn more about creating a master tune list in this lesson: How To Track Your Progress.
  • Create a playlist on Spotify, Youtube, iTunes or however you listen to music. You can create separate playlists for tunes you know and tunes you don’t know, or just make one big playlist. Try to keep it somewhat focused so that you are sure to listen to key tunes on a weekly basis. Here’s a lesson on How To Create Youtube Playlists.
  • Listen to your playlists a little bit every day.
    • Try to do some listening when you’re not practicing fiddle (work, waiting).
    • Listen to a tune before you start to practice it. Strengthen the mental model.

Active listening

Active listening happens when you are completely focused on listening and engaged with musical questions, learning and challenges. It will greatly help you to pick up tunes more quickly, memorize them and to remember them later. And it will help you to pick up tunes in jam sessions.

Here are two active listening strategies: Analysis and Practice.

What is going on with this tune?

If you understand a few details about the tune you are learning, it will help to learn and remember it more easily. When learning something new, ask yourself, What is going on with this tune? What is the form? What is the arrangement? What genre is the tune?

Thinking about the music can deepen your experience of both listening and playing. But don’t get too caught up in analysis! If answering these questions sounds boring to you or is killing the joy of playing, then don’t do it. I’m just encouraging you to nurture your curiosity, keeping in mind that the practice and playing of music is really what matters.

Listening assignment#2

  • Listen to a tune all the way through.
  • Take a few minutes to analyze the tune. Use this as a guide: Tune analysis worksheet.
  • See if you can switch between listening analytically and then just listening without thinking.

Practice with active listening

Here are three ways to practice active listening:

  • Learn new tunes.
  • Review older tunes.
  • Develop your sense of pitch with interval training.

We can use active listening to learn and practice music, with or without an instrument.

If you’ve already learned a tune, listen to it just before you start to practice. Before you’re done practicing it, take a break and listen again. Your ear needs more input than your brain realizes. Have faith that if you return to listening, your fingers, hands and ears will learn what they need to do.

If you’re learning the tune entirely from the recording, I recommend using an app like the Amazing Slow Downer, which allows you to change the speed, pitch, and to loop on small sections. The basic idea is you slowly loop on a 3-5 note section of a recorded tune until you can play it on your instrument. Then you move on to the next bit, and when you’ve learned that you assemble the small bits into bigger pieces. It’s a pain-staking but rewarding process. I created a whole lesson on this: How To Learn Tunes From Recordings.

You can also practice without even playing the fiddle. Learn a tune by singing or humming the small bits until you can sing or hum the whole thing. I recommend trying this! I’ve learned and memorized entire tunes while sitting in the band van on tour. This is a form of deliberate practice in which you are working on a specific thing to develop a mental map of the piece. It will help you to pick up tunes more quickly.


On a related note, you can use active listening to practice ear training without an instrument. You can listen to intervals and then try sing them. Here’s an example:


If you can hear intervals well, you will be better able to hear when you are playing in tune with the fiddle.

Finally, you can listen to tunes as a way of reviewing tunes you’ve already learned. This will also help you decide what tunes you want to remember so that you can continue to practice them. Learn more about this in How To Remember Lots Of Fiddle Tunes.

The body and mind are easily adaptable. You just need to get a routine going. Make listening a habit that happens at the same time and place each day. Listen to current tunes while driving to work. Or every night while cooking dinner. Soon, you won’t have to decide whether or not you should do your daily listening, or wonder when would be the best time to do it. Like brushing your teeth, you just do it at the same time every day in the bathroom (or wherever you like to brush your teeth).

Ok, hope that’s helpful. Now go fiddle with it…

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4 responses to “Passive And Active Listening

  1. I spend a lot of time listening to different versions of the same tune so I can find the ones that fit my style of playing. Sometimes, players add so many grace notes that it makes it really hard to hear the basic melody to learn from. I stay away from those versions since I’m a beginner.
    The Amazing Slow Downer is one of my best tools, and I’d be lost without it! I’ve tried learning from recordings, but now I just tape them onto my tablet and run them through the ASD to learn slowly and it has made all the difference to me! Fiddlehed is a Godsend though – I would have probably quit had I not found Ja’son and his perfect teaching style. Gotta go now – time to practice!