Active vs. Passive Listening

What does it mean to listen actively?  I’m not just talking about your best friend or spouse or mother harping, “You never listen to me!”  Although that may be true.  No, what I mean is actively listening and absorbing sound.  Plain, pure sound, in the case of music, and what is usually a complex, intoxicating sound in the case of good jazz.  So often in our day and age I see people continuously listening to music, which is more available now than ever before.  People can listen to music any time, any place they choose thanks to iPods, iPhones, iPads and iWhatevers.  But I question whether that’s really listening.  Maybe it’s just hearing.

To really listen, you have to be fully paying attention to your music.  You can’t be driving a car, or having a conversation, or reading a novel, even a trashy one that’s got you only halfway engaged.  Now, before I go on, a full confession is in order.  I am as guilty of inactive listening as anyone.  I may even be worse than the average person, because I’m such a music addict that I have to have it on all the time.  And I mean: All.  The.  Time.  Do I like hearing music around me in that context?  Yes.  But am I fully enjoying it, appreciating it and analyzing it?  Not really.  I can only do that when I’m focused, and usually the only time you can catch me sitting in one place and doing nothing but listening is at a concert.

And I wish, in some ways, that wasn’t the case.  Music deserves our full attention, and while we can’t all stop our lives to continuously devote ourselves to manmade sound, we could perhaps set aside a little time to try to appreciate it more fully, more thoughtfully.  Personally I find I can discover layers of texture and detail and meaning when I take the trouble to actively listen to a great piece over and over again. We could probably discover more, and educate ourselves in the process, if we would only take the time to really listen.


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