Listening Styles and Listening Strategies

David Huron
Society for Music Theory 2002 Conference.
Columbus, Ohio
November 1, 2002


Listening mode: a distinctive attitude or approach that can be brought to bear on a listening experience. Some simple possible listening modes:

  1. Distracted listening. Distracted listening occurs where the listener pays no conscious attention whatsoever to the music. Typically, the listener is occupied with other tasks, and may even be unaware of the existence of the music.

  2. Tangential listening. Tangential listening is similar to distracted listening except that the listener is engaged in thought whose origin can be traced to the music, but the thought is largely tangential to the perceptual experience itself. An auditor is engaged in tangential listening when preoccupied with thoughts such as: why did the concert organizers program me this work? Isn't that the oboist who played at the last chamber music concert? I wonder how much money the guest artist makes in a year? Tangential listening behaviors may occasionally approach what might be called metaphysical listening:

  3. Metaphysical listening. Metaphysical listening is also similar to distracted listening insofar as the listener may not be especially attentive to the on-going perceptual experience. But the listener may be engaged in thinking about questions of some importance related to the work, such as: what motivated the composer to write this work? what does this music mean? why do I find this work so appealing? etc.

  4. Signal listening. Truax coined the term "listening-in-readiness" to denote the state of a listener waiting for some expected auditory event. E.g., rather than laboriously count hundreds of bars of rest, a percussionist may recognize a certain musical passage as a cue or "alarm" -- signaling the need to prepare to perform. In effect, the music is heard in terms of a set of signals or sign-posts. Similarly, a dance couple may wait for a dance tune with a desired tempo before proceeding on to the dance floor. A more sophisticated example of signal listening occurs whe listening to a work known or assumed to be in sonata-allegro form; the listener will wait for features in the music that signal the advent of the next structural division, such as the advent of the development section, or the beginning of the second theme in the recapitulation.

  5. Sing-along listening. This form of listening is characterized by the listener mentally "singing-along" with the music. This mode of listening presupposes that the listener is already familiar with the work. Distinctive of this listening mode is a highly linear conception of the work in which a replay of memory is synchronized with an actual rendition. The listener's behavior is not unlike that of a recording which, when started at any given point in the music, can continue forward to the end of the work. Where a work is particularly well known to a listener, sing-along listening may occur as a purely mental activity without the mnemonic assistance of an actual performance. (See the work of Andrea Halpern.)

  6. Lyric listening. In music containing a vocal text, a listener may pay special attention to "catching" the lyrics and attending to their meaning. Lyric listening is possible only when the music contains lyrics in a language which is understood by the listener. Where the lyrics of a work are well known to a listener, the lyrics themselves may act as mnemonics for a form of "sing-along listening."

  7. Programmatic listening. While listening to music, many listeners imagine certain situations or visualize certain scenes -- such as rolling waves, mountain vistas, city streets, and so forth. In programmatic listening the listening experience is dominated by such forms of non-musical referentiality. Musical works that are overtly programmatic in construction may be assumed to enhance or promote such a listening mode. However, programmatic listening may arise even in the case of ostensibly non-programmatic works.

  8. Allusive listening. Allusive listening may be said to occur where a listener relates moments or features of the music to similar moments or features in other musical works. (`This reminds me of a passage in Bartók ...'). Allusive listening may be viewed as a form of referential listening in which the referential connection is made to the domain of music itself. Philip Tagg (1979) has made extensive use of allusive listening as a tool for studying musical meaning. Tagg has created musical "dictionaries" by asking listeners to construct lists of musical works of which a given work reminds them.

  9. Reminiscent listening. In reminiscent listening, music serves to remind the auditor of past experiences or circumstances in which the music was previously heard or encountered. The reminiscent listener's primary focus of attention is on the remembrance of past events -- or more particularly, on the remembrance of emotions experienced in conjunction with the past events.

  10. Identity listening. A listener engaged in asking any "what is" question regarding the music is engaged in what might be called "identity listening." Typical "what is" questions are: What is this instrument I am listening to? Is that a Neapolitan sixth chord? What is the meter signature? What language are the lyrics in? Who might the composer be? What is the style of this music called? etc. Identity listening often employs allusive listening as a problem-solving tactic.

  11. Retentive listening. The goal of "retentive listening" is to remember what is being heard. Retentive listening is most commonly encountered when music students perform ear training or dictation exercises. Unlike many other modes of listening, retentive listening is very much a problem-solving behavior. A composer in the process of improvising might use retentive listening skills to recall a fleeting passage or an appealing juxtaposition of notes.

  12. Fault listening. Fault listening occurs where the listener is mentally keeping a leger of faults or problems. A high-fidelity buff may note problems in sound reproduction. A conservatory teacher may note mistakes in execution, problems of intonation, ensemble balance, phrasing, etc. A composer is apt to identify what might be considered lapses of skill or instances of poor musical judgment. Fault listening tends to be adopted as a strategy under three circumstances: 1) where an obvious fault has occurred, the listener switches from a previous listening mode and becomes vigilant for the occurrence of more faults (this is a type of signal listening); 2) where the role of the listener is necessarily critical -- as in tutors, conductors, or music critics; or 3) where the listener has some a priori reason to mistrust the skill or integrity of the composer, performer, conductor, audio system, etc.

  13. Feature listening. This type of listening is characterized by the listener's disposition to identify major "features" that occur in the work -- such as motifs, distinctive rhythms, instrumentation, etc. The listener identifies the recurrence of such features, and also identifies the evolutions or changes which the features undergo. The "feature listening" mode may be considered superficially to be a creative union of two other listening modes: retentive listening (identification and remembrance of features), and signal listening (recognition of previously occurring features).

  14. Innovation listening. A variant form of allusive listening is one based, not upon the recognition of similarities to previous compositions, but upon the identification of significant musical novelty. Innovation listening is characterized by a vigilant listening-in-readiness for a musical feature, gesture, or technique that is unprecedented in the listener's experience. Composers may be especially prone to engage in innovation listening.

  15. Memory scan listening. When an auditor knows a work by memory, a special type of signal listening called scan listening is possible. An auditor may approach a memorized work with a question concerning the occurrence of a certain event: For example, the auditor may be interested in knowing whether the composer has used timpani in a given work; or does the word "but" occur in the lyrics to "Row Row Row Your Boat?" The scan listener will mentally execute a speedy rendition of a work in order to answer a given question. What distinguishes scan listening from signal listening is that the auditor tends to be impatient: the tempo of the music can be doubled or quadrupled to advantage for the scan listener.

  16. Directed listening. Directed listening entails a form of selective attention to one element of a complex texture; the listener purposely excludes or ignores other aspects of the music. For example, the auditor may attend to a single instrument for a short or prolonged period of time. Directed listening may ensue as a result of a listener's special interest, or may result from suggestions made by others. When a listener is concurrently viewing a notated score, it is possible that a visual attraction or interest in a particular aspect of a score may cause the listener to selectively attend to the corresponding sounds. The Norton Scores use a highlighting method to draw attention to various parts in orchestral scores. These scores thus dispose listeners to adopt a directed listening mode.

  17. Distance listening. Distance listening is characterized by an ongoing iterative recapitulation of the music up to the current moment in the work. As the music unfolds, the listener attempts to thread together past events and to build a complete scenario or over-view of the entire work. The distance listener is apt to make mental notes of the advent of new "sections" in the work. Distance listening may be likened to the task of memorizing a list of words. Beginning with a few words, the memorized words are iteratively repeated, each time adding a new word to the memorized list.

  18. Ecstatic listening. The term `ecstatic listening' is meant here in a very concrete and technical way. On occasion music will elicit a sensation of "shivers" localized in the back, neck and shoulders of an aroused listener -- a physiological response technically called frisson. The frisson experience normally has a duration of no more than four or five seconds. It begins as a flexing of the skin in the lower back, rising upward, inward from the shoulders, up the neck, and sometimes across to the cheeks and onto the scalp. The face may become flush, hair follicles flex the hairs into standing position, and goose bumps may appear (piloerection). Frequently, a series of `waves' will rise up the back in rapid succession. The listener feels the music to have elicited an ecstatic moment and tends to regard the experience as involuntary. Goldstein (1980) has shown that some listeners report reduced excitement when under a clinically-administered dose of an opiate receptor antagonist, naloxone -- suggesting that music engenders endogenous opioid peptides characteristic of pleasurable experiences. Sloboda (1991) has found evidence linking "shivers" responses to works especially loved by subjects.

  19. Emotional listening. Emotional listening is characterized by deeply felt emotion. The music engenders feels of sorrow or joy, resignation, great satisfaction. Occasionally there will be overt signs of emotion, such as the sensation of a lump in one's throat, imminent or overt weeping, or smiling. The emotions may be related to current events in the listener's life, but the feelings are more apt to seem non-specific and to arise `from nowhere'.

  20. Kinesthetic listening. This form of listening is characterized by the auditor's compulsion to move. Feet may tap, hands may conduct, or the listener may feel the urge to dance. The experience is not so much one of `listening' to the music, as the music `permeating' the body. Kinesthetic listening is best described as `motivation' rather than `contemplation'.

  21. Performance listening. When performers listen to works that are part of their own repertoire, they may experience a form of vicarious performance. For conductors, instrumentalists, and vocalists, arms, fingers, and vocal cords may subliminally re-create the gestures and performance actions involved during actual performance. In such cases, listening may be mediated by an acute awareness of the listener's body. For example, musical passages that are difficult to execute may evoke a heightened sense of tension -- whether or not the sonic gesture conveys some musical tension.

N.B. This list is not intended to be exhaustive.