I remember my grandfather telling me that when he and my grandmother would plan to go out on a date, they would put a particular Ella Fitzgerald album on as they were getting ready and sipping their Balvenie 12 during happy hour. I remember thinking that this was quaint and sweet and also completely unfamiliar to me. My grandparents also shared with me that, when they were younger, listening to an album was something they did on any given evening. They’d put the record on, sit down on the couch, and listen to the music. When was the last time I did that, I asked myself the other day? When was the last time you did that? In our day to day lives I think it is important to ask ourselves: Are we just hearing… or are we truly listening?

I credit my dear friend Sarah Daniels for her Grammy-Award winning listening parties: a weekly Sunday get-together where, each week, we listen to a different Grammy Award winning album from start to finish over Zoom (this started in the pandemic, of course). I’ve attended just two of them, but listening to something from start to finish gives a completely different perspective than just listening to one song from an album or artist. One of the fun parts of these evenings is that every person on the call has a relationship with a different song (or two or three). They share not only the stories of the artist, the other musicians, the lyrics, and the making of the album, but stories about when they listened to each song for the first time, memories that the melodies bring back to them, or even events or circumstances that haven’t happened yet that would pair perfectly with this music.

Listening vs hearing

When I host our virtual music tasting events, I always encourage people to “switch off to switch on,” meaning that I hope they will turn off the notifications on their phones and computers, allow themselves to detach from work, and truly switch on their senses.

The songs and pieces of music we share in our events are rarely longer than 4 minutes and sometimes much less. And yet, it is still a huge challenge to sit down and listen, without interruption, to a three-minute song. Even I struggle.

Why is this? Well, no surprise here, but our world is full of distractions, and we are absolutely terrible at calling them what they are – distractions – and continuing to focus on our tasks at hand. I’m amazed that so far while writing this I haven’t once strayed to go check email or respond to a text message. But I suppose if I’m writing about this, I should try and walk the walk, right? From pings on your work computer to Instagram notifications, from texts from your roommate asking if you can get some milk on the way home, to news flashes about injustices around the world (and in your backyard), it sometimes seems too much to ask of ourselves to simply stop for a few minutes. 

However, doing so is truly one of the best ways to reconnect with ourselves and re-energize our senses and therefore our ability to take in new information. I would argue that music is the perfect tool to help with this because there is no active engagement required of us through the mere act of listening. By committing to actively listening to a piece of music, by allowing the chords, melodies, and lyrics of a song to wash over and penetrate us, our other senses quieten down, and we can internalize to ourselves:

“I give myself permission to stop and to focus.”

Julian Treasure, one of my favorite scholars on the art of listening, speaks a great deal about hearing vs. listening. Hearing is most often a passive act. Right now I can “hear” the traffic whooshing by my house, some far-off garden implement  (that, honestly, is incredibly ear-splitting), and the occasional bump from next door. Listening, however, is completely different. In opposition to hearing which does not demand that we commit to the sounds that pass through our ears, the act of listening does. Listening is active. Listening is purposeful, directed, and a complete activity all on its own. That is not to say that one’s mind might not wander: certainly listening to someone tell a story may invoke other memories in our own mind or set us off on a creative thought process. 

I think back to my grandparents sitting on their couch and listening to an album back in the 50s or 60s. I’m sure their minds wandered as they went over the actions in their day, perhaps a problem at work, or an issue at home. And I think about how much of a struggle it is to do this myself today. The nagging voice in my head that tells me I’ve forgotten to do something, that I could be doing something more “productive” or “useful” is loud and persistent, and the urge to be up and about “taking care of something” is strong. 

I hear a lot of music in my daily life as I customize our programs, but I need to reflect and ask myself each time: am I listening, too?

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