The Nature of Students’ Listening Habits

2011 Symposium2

Much has been written about the shortening of attention spans. Everything from films, news reports, and political speeches to advertisements, music videos and popular fiction are designed to fit within short spans of time. All of these must grab a listener’s or reader’s attention within the first few seconds, or that listener will move on to something else. This situation sustains itself. As people are less willing to stick with any one thing for more than a few seconds to three or four minutes in the case of a song or film scene, they are afforded ever fewer opportunities to regain or develop the ability to give sustained attention to anything. We are left with two interacting variables: potential objects of our attention that are undemanding in their brevity, and a lost ability to not only sustain attention on a single object, but also to listen closely enough to hear details and subtlety that generally go unnoticed by an undiscerning or one might even say careless listener. All of this has tremendous implications for music, both as an art and in terms of music education. Today, I would like to discuss those implications, and some things music educators can do to improve the situation with which we are faced.

Listening and attention are inseparable. We physically perceive many sounds, but most of those pass in and out of consciousness, passed off as unimportant. The whirring of an air circulating system in a work place, the constant sound of traffic passing by, the ticking of a grandfather clock. We hear these things, but we don’t listen to them and don’t even notice them unless all else falls silent. This is what makes an old creaky house frightening to some at night. The house makes just as much noise during the day, but with the sounds of life active, those creaks and whistles go unnoticed.

Music is at the other end of the spectrum. Not only is musical sound constantly changing so

Emotions Formula

Events + Thoughts = Feelings

that we are naturally drawn to it, but there are usually several different sounds for us to listen to all at once. Whereas we cannot understand four people all talking to us at once, we easily understand four part harmony, or even the words being sung in an operatic quartet. We also understand two different musical instruments playing the same melody; we at once perceive the melody that is common to both, the timbres that are unique to both, and the new timbre created by combining the two. But none of this understanding occurs if we pass by the music too quickly, relegating it to a background behind other of life’s activities. It takes focused, attentive listening to draw these diverse stimuli out of a musical texture.

Were more of our listening of this focused, attentive kind, we would grow impatient and dissatisfied with quick sound bytes, and rapid cuts from scene to scene in a film. We would yearn for more detail, more to stimulate our minds and imaginations, because we would be equipped to enjoy more detail in the things we perceive in life. It is a cause worth working toward: to teach students how to escape the doldrums of superficial perception and uncover the wonder found beneath the surface, in the details. To be sure, it will be counter-cultural to insist on such focus, and to many it may even seem like a waste of time. It just doesn’t seem as productive to listen to one piece of music carefully instead of listening to many pieces of music superficially. Affluence is measured in quantity, not quality, so going for the latter at the expense of the former may seem to some foolish. But it is much needed. It is needed for the times we miss the struggles, angst, despair of those who only give us a certain kind of glance or a certain kind of tone of voice as clues as to how they are feeling. We must become better empathizers, and empathy begins with searching for, caring about, and finding how someone else feels.

This is where the arts are so important. Musicians, visual artists, poets, actors–they all express things that are out there ready to be gathered in from artistic works. So what can music educators do? Here are some suggestions.

  • Have each student in a class say the same sentence in a different way, altering inflection, tempo, articulation, and dynamics. After each student has spoken, the class tries to identify how the speaker was feeling by the way he or she spoke the line.
  • Have each student in a class sing (without words) or play the same melody in a different way, and proceed as above.
  • Play a recording of a musical excerpt, and have students make a detailed list of every melodic line, harmony part, and supporting line or rhythm they hear. Have the students share their lists, and then play the music again so they can hear what others heard and they missed.
  • Have students come up with an emotional topic of conversation or assign one, and then have the students  improvise conversations on the topic using sung and wordless musical ideas.  The class then must describe how the students felt about what they were talking about.

Activities like these give students something specific to focus their listening on, and teach students that musical ideas begin with something to express and convey that expression only to focused and attentive listeners.

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