Extractive Listening

It’s never possible to pay attention to everything. Instead, most of the time, we pay attention to a few things (that we are hearing, seeing, feeling, etc.), and our brains fill in the rest of what’s going on with their best guess.

Certain cognitive principles affect what our brains most naturally pay attention to: for example, in sound, we’re more likely to pay attention to something loud, high, or unusual rather than something quiet, low, or common. But as musicians, there are times when we want to pay attention to something in particular whether or not it’s what our brains default to. For example, when leading an ensemble in rehearsal, we might hear that there’s a mistake in an inner part near the beginning of a phrase and want to listen closely to that part rather than the melody to figure out what’s going on. The ability to control our attention and manage what we remember in this way is called extractive listening.

We’ve already talked about the attentional skills needed for extractive listening, in the chapter on attention. But we need our memory skills, too, because we want to retain whatever we’re listening for so that we can act on it. This is a challenge, though, because sometimes there’s a lot of memory interference. For example, if we’re listening for something that happens near the beginning of a melody, our brains will be tempted to forget it as we hear the rest of the melody.

The best way to preserve our memory of something in the face of interference is to build as robust a representation of that thing in our memory as possible. That means not just paying attention to raw sound (though it is important), but pairing that inner sound image with other representations: an understanding of how that portion of the music might be chunked, its solfège syllables or scale degrees, how it would feel to play it on an instrument or sing it, etc.

Activity: Extractive Listening

Goal: Practice using instrument-based kinesthetic imagery, solfège, chunking, and attentional focus to retain a portion of a melody in memory despite interference.

Before you start: Choose some excerpt of music (at least melody; accompaniment/harmony optional) that is too long to remember as a whole. If you are working with a group, this could be a song that another student knows that you are unfamiliar with. If you are working alone, it might be a recorded song that you’ve never heard before. You don’t need the whole thing; ideally, it is just a little too long to remember; perhaps 25–45 seconds of music, depending on how fast it is.


  1. Before you listen, set an intention to listen to the first phrase or sub-phrase of the melody. Keeping in mind that you will need to retain this music in memory despite listening through the rest of the music, plan how you will reinforce your memory in the face of this interference. Will you focus on paying attention to chunks? Imagining what it would feel like to play the music on an instrument? Describing it on solfège?
  2. Listen through, doing your best to remember that first phrase or sub-phrase, then see if you can sing it back. If you have difficulty, think about whether other methods might have been more helpful, then repeat this step.

If you are having difficulty, you can scaffold this activity by making the interference more or less prominent. For example, if you cannot seem to retain the music in memory, try turning the music down once that phrase has played. As you get more comfortable, return it to its original volume.


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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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