Written by & under teaching.

Students have asked me on multiple occasions what it means to listen analytically/critically. Students often equate this idea with comparing one’s ability to that of another. Have you ever watched a video of someone playing a piece on your program and thought that person played it better? That’s a comparison based on an emotional response to what you’ve heard. That is also a perfectly natural response considering we are, generally speaking, emotional creatures. However, that response is not conducive to a positive listening experience. Here’s how you could reframe that listening experience into something more conducive to your musical growth: “That person played ABC piece about 15 BPM faster than I currently have it. I think that’s a better tempo than what I’m playing, so I’m going to take XYZ steps to get it up to that tempo by xx/xx/xxxx date.” Now, instead of having an emotional reaction to someone playing something “better” than you, you’ve analyzed a performance in which you found an interpretation you prefer over your own and have made a plan with actionable steps to achieve your goal. THAT is analytical listening. The secret is taking the emotion out of it and turning it into something more goal oriented.

Like anything else, this is something that takes time to master. Just like it takes time to master technique or a new piece, it will take time for you to learn how to analyze someone else’s playing (or your own) and identify positive attributes you want to incorporate or negative attributes you want to avoid. Below are a few practical steps for you to start practicing analytical listening and to stop practicing emotional comparisons.

1 – Specifically call it analytical listening or critical listening not just comparing. By this, I mean when you sit down to listen you should actually say those words aloud until it becomes your default setting. When you approach it with this terminology, you’re automatically setting a precedent of being more analytical/scientific and less emotional in your approach.

2 – Pre-determine the categories that you’ll be analyzing. This helps you stay laser focused. When you leave your critical listening sessions open ended during the beginning phases of your study, it’s likely you’ll be completely overwhelmed (especially for younger students). By giving yourself 3-5 categories to listen or watch for, you’re able to focus on a less at once, improving your quality. This also helps you realize when you’re getting off topic a little easier. Here are a few things I focus on in my critical listening sessions: Tone quality, color contrast, dynamic contrast, articulation choices, phrasing, tempi, rubato, accuracy, and technical proficiency.

3 – Apply goal-oriented practice to your analysis. When engaging in this kind of listening, make an effort to create a plan to improve on some of the limitations you’ve identified. Maybe you’ve compared your recording to that of another and found that your scales are choppy, slow, or inaccurate. Create a goal and plan for how to improve your scales. E.g. my goal is to increase my scale velocity by 15 bpm by X date. I’ll achieve that goal by daily isolation of the scales in questions and by applying rhythmic variation, speed bursts, and strict preparation in the right hand. Set a reminder to record yourself playing the same piece on a future date and have another critical listening session with your original recording to see if you’ve improved. If you’ve improved, great! You’ve achieved your goal and should be very proud. If not, repeat the process of setting new goals and creating a plan of attack. By employing this kind of behavior consistently, you’ll quickly identify not only how you learn best, but also what kind of technical and musical ideas you learn quickly or slowly. Both of which are very important qualities to know about yourself.

4 – Look for the positive attributes as well. It seems simple, but we are quick to identify our limitations and slow to appreciate our strengths. For every 3 limitations you identify you should be sure to include a positive attribute to identify in your playing. Figure out why those qualities are your strengths. Did you practice those areas more efficiently? Did they come naturally to you? If you can identify your strengths and why they are strengths, you can then apply the same kind of practice methods to your limitations and further develop your performance capabilities.

In conclusion, comparing yourself to others is not inherently bad. Comparing yourself to others within an emotional context is what you want to avoid. Analytical listening is an incredible tool to employ as a musician, but you must maintain an honest, scientific approach in your methodology. Categorize what you will listen for, create goals based on what you want to improve, and appreciate your strengths as much as you identify your limitations. Engaging in this kind of listening will be one of the best things you can do as a student of music.

Thanks for reading!

Until next time,

JB Taylor