Paying Close Attention

Auditory Awareness Test

The optional video below demonstrates the power, and the importance, of how we direct our attention.

How much did you hear? How much did you miss? Note that by focusing on some things, you may miss others. Controlling your focus of attention is important, because it shapes our experience of listening and affects what we can and cannot do with what we hear.

Our first goal is simply to build the skill of paying close attention. Unfortunately, our attentional capacities are limited: we simply cannot pay attention to everything available to us. Fortunately, there are strategies we can use when we want to maximize our ability to use the attentional capacities we have.

For example, we can use stress-reduction and centering techniques to make sure we are as “fully present” as possible with what we are listening to. These include deep breaths, closing our eyes, and other mindfulness techniques. You may already have some idea of which of these work well for you when you are feeling stressed; if not, we encourage you to look around on the internet or elsewhere to find more ideas.

There are, however, more music-specific techniques we can use. These rely on our ability to become invested in and engaged with what we are paying attention to.

First, it can help to imagine yourself making the music you are hearing—singing or playing it on your primary instrument or the actual sound source/instrument. You may not know the exact notes, but if you can imagine making an analogous sound, this can involve you more deeply in what you hear.

Second, the more you get yourself making predictions and reacting to the music you hear, the more deeply you will be involved in it.

Activity: Follow sound with intention

Goal: Develop habits of close listening to music.

Instructions: Optionally, center yourself by taking a few deep breaths and closing your eyes. Then listen to the song embedded below, with a focus on the oboe melody from 0:48–1:25 (though you may have a hard time turning it off at this point). Follow this melody with your attention, involving yourself in the sound: hear when it is more intense and when it is more at rest, and predict at each moment where it will go next. It may help to imagine yourself singing along with the melody.



Activity: Follow changing sound with intention

Goal: Develop habits of close listening to music, including directing attention to new sounds.

Instructions: The song embedded below builds slowly from just a few sounds to many layers of sound. The order in which these layers enter is described in the list below. Optionally, center yourself by taking a few deep breaths and closing your eyes. Then listen to the first minute-and-a-half of the song. (If you have less time, the first 30 seconds already have many of the layers.) As you listen, direct your attention towards each about-to-enter layer, anticipating what it might sound like and where in the musical “texture” you will hear it, involving yourself actively in the sound as it unfolds.


  • 0:00: Sounds of a car starting
  • 0:06: Piano octaves
  • 0:08: Piano triads and vocal melody
  • 0:24: Bass (two quick notes)
  • 0:28: Downward slide (end of Verse 1)
  • 0:31: Claps
  • 0:52: Downward slide again
  • 0:54: Sustained low bass and high synth line
  • 1:14: High synth choir, increasing volume
  • 1:21: Sudden drop to just voice and piano triads
  • 1:24: Just an octave in the piano, with the voice


Activity: Listen closer in your own recreational listening

Goal: Develop the ability to listen with intention and focus when desired

Instructions: There’s almost always more to hear in a recording than what you’d get on a first listening. As you learn to listen with intention and focus, you will find new ways to listen to recordings that you were already familiar with. For example, listen to the different layers included in a song. In addition to identifying these (bass, vocal melody, etc.), you might listen for the quality of each sound or layer of sound. Does it sound like it was recorded in a large or small space? Is there echo or reverb on the sound? How much does it blend into, or stick out from, the overall sound? You can also bring these habits of listening with intention to live music.



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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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