Listen and Learn

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Advocates for music education often highlight the side benefits of formal training, even for students who do not aspire to perform professionally. Among the reported non-musical cognitive advantages are improved reading skills, higher standardized test scores, and increased spatial-temporal reasoning. The scholastic value of simply listening to music is not as clear and certainly not as dramatic. Despite the popularity of the Mozart Effect and other research purporting a link between listening to certain types of music and augmented mental capacity, they mask a mixture of fiction and fact. Yet, while quantitative benefits reside overwhelmingly with those who study an instrument, conscientious listening does have qualitative rewards.

Thoughtful listening opens up a unique avenue of self-awareness. This is not to be confused with “good listening,” or the identification of technical aspects such as rhythm, dynamics, meter, melody, harmony, and form. Such knowledge is an essential part of musicianship and undoubtedly amplifies cultural appreciation. But there is more to musical reflection than memorizing Italian terms or recognizing stylistic indicators. Basic curiosity about why we even care about music can open the mind to deep discoveries.

From the moment we wake up, our lives are inundated with musical sounds. Daily activities unfold to a partly selected and partly random musical soundtrack. Some music is intentionally heard from the car radio, mp3 playlist, or headphones at the gym. Other music invades the auditory system through advertisements, a neighbor’s stereo, or loudspeakers at the grocery store. In most cases, the music stirs a certain, if not always conscious, response. The type and magnitude of that response can teach us much about ourselves.

The listening experience encompasses a potpourri of individual and environmental factors. How a person reacts to a single selection is determined by his or her disposition, personality type, peer group, generational grouping, geographic location, access to resources, education, cultural heritage, past history, socio-economic class, personal associations, momentary temperament, physical setting, recording quality, volume level—just to list a handful. Peeling off any one of these layers and contemplating its impact on musical perception is an enlightening exercise.

Music is as ubiquitous as it is taken for granted. Because it is so omnipresent and tightly woven into everyday life, rarely does one pause to ponder its profundity; and since intellectual involvement is not a prerequisite for musical reaction, music seems more apt for experience than examination. True, music affects us whether or not we understand what is taking place, and musical opinions are formed with or without introspection. But as soon as we scratch the surface, we begin peering into ourselves.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

2 thoughts on “Listen and Learn

  1. John Morton

    I hope you don’t mind my constant queries. If it becomes irritating, please let me know. Until we have theories of consciousness and perception we can’t avoid subjectivism. I’m left with a vague sense that I don’t entirely agree with what you’ve said but another educated and considered – and well written – blog! I write music almost every day of my life, as I have done since my first (awful) attempts in 1958 and I still seek answers.

  2. jlfriedmann Post author

    I enjoy your comments. We may be on the same wavelength, vague disagreements notwithstanding. Subjectivism is the key point. All I’m suggesting is that music is an autobiographical experience. I don’t think that’s too controversial.


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