Listening to good music can accelerate learning like little else.
It's so effective that it almost feels like cheating. Do you need to memorize something this week? Listen to it 10 times and witness how quickly that eases your assignment. Need to learn your orchestra part? Same thing: listen. Need to figure out a new piece? Listen. In fact, some teachers argue that listening to learn your music IS cheating!
Well, it's not. And also, it is. Allow me to explain:
Here's how listening helps: If you look at musical learning as mirroring language learning, listening is absolutely crucial to early learning. Does one learn to read before one learns to speak? No, the sequence goes: one is immersed in hearing language, then one learns to form words, then one strings phrases together while speaking, then one strings together sentences. And after one learns to speak, then....one learns the alphabet, phonics, words, phrases, sentences. Long process! One starts speaking words around the age of one; one reads them around the age six.
That's a long lag time, and usually it doesn't take quite as long in music. But the sequence is instructive, and so is understanding the volume of language that a person hears and internalizes, before beginning to read it.
To have a good feel for various kinds of music, you need to hear it and internalize it as well. That takes a lot of listening. But once the music is in your ear, it is much easier to match pitches, to know when you are playing a wrong note, and even to feel the groove of various musical styles.
When does listening becomes a problem?
I'll tell a story that some teachers may find familiar: I once had a student come to me after finishing the Suzuki books -- she played her solo repertoire beautifully. And she couldn't read well enough to prepare an etude every week or to figure out her orchestra music; she wanted a recording, she needed to know "how it goes."
This is less a problem of listening and more a problem of neglecting reading. It was a criticism in the early days of the Suzuki method, which uses listening extensively, and has been largely addressed by Suzuki teachers, most of whom now start to teach reading very young.
But it's not just Suzuki students who sometimes avoid reading; it's anyone with a good ear. And sometimes the problem isn't an inability to read, it's just neglecting to look closely at the score.
In a recent interview with Philippe Quint, he related an amusing story from his younger days, about learning to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto after having listening to the piece since early childhood. When he finally got to play it, he excitedly learned the whole thing in one week, after which his furious teacher sent him back to the practice room with instructions to stop listening and study the score! So even in the finest players, the ear can't always decipher all, and the score is essential to the process.
Listening may be the crutch that people use when they can't read (or don't), but that doesn't mean that listening itself is a bad thing. It just means that students need to work on reading, away from listening. Listening is not a way to learn reading, reading is a way to learn reading. The early phases of reading require some pain-in-the-neck "figuring it out." Like playing, reading takes practice: one first has to figure things out slowly many times before figuring them out quickly, and to do so without the "cheat" of someone telling you how it goes and carrying you along.
Beyond the reading question is the question of interpretation. Beginners will imitate their teachers and the recordings they hear, just as beginner-speakers will imitate their parents' speech patterns (for better or for worse!) This is a healthy and natural part of learning. But the more advanced student or artist will try to avoid over-listening to any specific recording, so they don't "ape' any particular artist. Listening to various recordings, instead of just one, can help in this regard.
But back to the benefits of listening: I'm convinced (without scientific evidence, I'll admit) that if you are learning a piece and listening to it simultaneously, the sound prompts the brain to work out specifics of fingerings, bowings, string crossings, etc., away from the instrument. Even having the music repeat in your mind as an earworm can prompt your brain to work on the playing aspects as well.
I tend to think that it's a rare student who listens too much these days, honestly. Listening takes time, and in the fast-paced, over-booked, multi-tasking, noisy environment that is today's world, listening is a slow and singular process. So don't take my word for it; try it for yourself. Seek out a recording of your current piece, or the piece your orchestra is playing. Find a a new artist who inspires you, or an alternate interpretation. Listen to the period baroque version, a differently-orchestrated version, or a popularized version. See how listening works on your mind and on your playing.
I welcome your thoughts in the comments below.
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