Some Thoughts on Listening

by Kit Eakle


In Music Composing/creating, Performing, and Listening, these three; But the greatest of these is Listening. - Paraphrase of Bible - I Corinthians 13.


Many years ago I attended a concert by the then controversial composer, John Cage. In a question and answer period after the performance Cage described what he called the most gratifying compliment he had ever had for his music: When he walked outside the hall after a performance and two young people were standing on the steps. One cocked his ear and reached over, touching his companion on the arm saying" Sh! Sh! listen!"

We music teachers have found it is useful to think of music as having three major skill areas which we need to consider in our teaching: 1. Creating/composing; 2. singing/playing/performing; 3. listening. These aspects of the music experience are, of course, hopelessly intertwined and cannot exist totally independently of each other. However, the more experience I gain in performing and creating music myself, and in teaching, the more convinced I become that listening skills are the most crucial and basic of these three.

Yet we often limit our understanding of listening and what that means in ways that may limit the effectiveness of our teaching. We have seen our job in regards listening to involve getting our students to listen to classical music and appreciate various aspects of our musical heritage that this body of music reveals. This task is vitally important. We must continue to open our children's ears to the joys and beauty of all the greatest composers have to offer. But listening is far more basic, even, than that. Before children can open their ears to complex music, they must learn how to listen.

What is listening? What is its role in the musical experience? And what does music listening have to do with the broader notions of listening and learning outside of music? The following article will attempt to outlines three elements of music listening:

1. In all music making, listening is the first order of business.

2. Listening requires a focus.

3. Listening to examples of good and precise music and performing with the lessons learned from your listening is the best way to learn music.

This article will illustrate the elements outlined with classroom activities that can be addressed in a single lesson or over a series of lessons. Any or all the activities here might be used in a first lesson when you go back into new classes in the fall.


1. In all music making, listening is the first order of business.

In some ways this is an obvious fact. In order ever to begin making music with others we must listen to pitch and beat before we can even begin. In music the conductor keeping the beat or a leader counting the group in must be listened for and carefully attended to in order to even begin playing together. SO many great musicians and performers say that the most important part of their success is due to their ability to listen to their fellow performers, both in actual performance and in getting new ideas.


To introduce children to the idea of the importance of listening read them a story or show a video that focuses on sounds and listening to them. Many stories are available which do this. Each is aimed at a different aged audience. Good to use books include:

For young kids:

Indoor Noisy Book, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, 1942 Harper & Row,

The Noise Lullaby, by Jacqueline K. Ogburn, John Sandford (Illustrator), Lathrop, 1995 (out of print but still available)

Good Night Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, Harper & Row, - point out the things in the illustrations. What sounds might you hear?

The Nursery Quiet & Noisy Book, by Rich, Scharlotte, Tish Tenud (Illustrator)Published by Questar Publications, Publication date: October 1995


For a little older:

Carolina Shout, by Alan Schroeder, pictures by Bernie Fuchs, published by Dial Books for Young Readers, 1995

i see the rhythm, paintings by Michele Wood, Text by Toyomi Igus, Children's Book Press, San Francisco. Just pages 4-7 and/or page 21

Canada NFB Film: A Sense of Sound, 1986, 6 min. 00 sec


Activity: Discuss how carefully one has to listen for sounds. try having everyone listen for their own breathing. Have students count the their breaths and raise their hands when they have counted eight deep breaths. Have the whole class be absolutely quiet so each can hear their own breathes until all hands are raised.


2. Listening requires a focus.

Finding a focus for students' listening is the first step in teaching music. This is NOT an easy or small thing. In the previous exercise focus is provided by the need to COUNT the sounds. That is the beginning of real listening. I think of listening as having everything to do with what is focused on. It can be described to kids as being like tuning in television stations. You can listen to words, and their meanings, but you can also listen to the SOUNDS of words, and their pitch and rhythm. Music listening and listening to what is told are related, but not identical. The difference is FOCUS.

a. The first focus in teaching listening and in musical practise is beat and rhythmic feel.

As described above the first aspect of music that all musicians must hear and respond to is the BEAT.

Activity: Have children find their pulse. Have them press their right thumb on their left wrist in the soft spot on the thumb side of the hand. Ask one student to vocalize a sound (e.g.: thump, thump, or boom, boom) on the beat they feel. Have the rest of the class join in when they can do the beat exactly like the first student.

When this activity is easy, try subdividing the beat of the pulse first in twos and then threes.


b. The second most basic focus of music listening is pitch. Without listening to each other, singing will always be out of tune.


John Cage, again, describes going an experience of listening he had: "It was at Harvard not quite forty years ago that I went into an anechoic [totally silent] chamber not expecting in that silent room to hear two sounds: one high, my nervous system in operation, one low, my blood in circulation."

Activity: Challenge the students to experience what famous composer John Cage heard: Listen carefully enough to hear these sounds, which are always present with us. Can they hear a high or low sound? Can they hear their own heart beat? While they are listening, what other sounds do they hear? Discuss and try an to imitate some of the sounds. Try and make them musical!

On the Kodály listserv in a response to recent questions from a beginning teacher about intonation in singing, music teacher Don Garrett said:


" would be good to delete some discussion and dissection of the musical passages in favor of just doing beautiful singing and singing games... children often will sing better in tune by listening to each other (rather than the teacher); ... just think how well they know street games and other things they learned in their neighborhood play by listening to each other!"


And we would do much better as teachers to listen carefully to students, when they speak or perform.


Activity: To focus on listening for pitch, have students listen for sounds in the classroom. Almost all schools have lights which hum a 60 cycles per second. Ask the students to listen for this sound as well. Either ask a student hum the tone (60 cycles is close to a B natural, two octaves below the children's singing range. As teacher, therefore you may have to hum the tone up the two octaves). Have the whole class hum the tone together - try hard to hear the 60 cycle buzz as you hum. If the students can do this successfully - or even work well at trying to, give great praise and let them know they are learning how to really listen closely. They are truly beginning to focus!


Once focus is achieved, it is important to provide musical listening examples that help focus listening, Hence the third principle:

3. Listening to examples of good and precise music and performing with the lessons learned from your listening is the best way to learn music.

The following song which culminates this article focuses on dynamics. Have the kids listen to you sing the song once focusing on where it is loud and where soft.

Remember - If a picture is worth a thousand words, music is worth a million (i. e. it's more important to listen to the music than to the teacher telling about it!)!

Activity: With this in mind learn the following song, beginning on the B natural from the lights you heard above!.

The teacher should know it well before teaching. After singing it through for the kids, teach it in 4 bar phrases. Have kids fill in blanks with sounds they heard while listening above.

MAKE A NOISE by Kit Eakle

Another aspect of getting kids to listen is keeping their ears open. Be sure to introduce kids to lots of great music with timbres unfamiliar to them and discuss and describe them BRIEFLY together. Encourage kids to bring in, NOT there old favorite rock bands, but music they find they like which they have never heard before.


Try listening to some music with the kids that even you find unfamiliar. Music I have heard lately that have opened my ears to new sounds include the Czech violinist/singer's Iva Bittova self titled CD on Nonesuch Records, and some wonderful new releases of old field recordings by noted ethno-musicologist Alan Lomax of southern folk music now available on Rounder Records' Alan Lomax Series. Many of these songs are classics you will know, but in surprising versions. Keep opening your ears - and encourage your students to do the same!


Don't stop playing great classical repertoire for your students listening pleasure, but do open your ears and the kids' to new sounds and use them in your classroom music making! And as kids learn how to focus their listening on a new musical wave length, you will be opening their ears and minds to listening and learning more from what they hear, reaping benefits in music learning and far beyond for your and your students' listening pleasure.


Kit Eakle May 27, 1998