The art of listening


Could listening to long works of music be a cure for our time’s restlessness?

There isn’t a single formula for the way we listen to music; some drift away, some fall asleep, some see colours while others again associate. As adults, thought processes also take up quite a lot of space in our brain. An associate told me how she used to think of problems she wanted to solve while attending concerts with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. As such, music may also be reduced to a beck-drop for our personal thoughts. Why is it so difficult to pause our thoughts and simply listen to longer works of music?

The modern, collective unrest implies we should always be somewhere else. We should always be a step ahead, always check our phones, always be up to date. When we are constantly visually overstimulated or get used the phone demanding our attention, restlessness and inattention become part of everyday life. What does this constant interference do to us a human beings?

Use it or lose it.

In 2018, the Guardian published an article demonstrating the connection between the ability to read long texts and the development of empathic abilities. The fact that we simply don’t have time to take in complexity makes us lose the ability to understand each other’s emotions as well.

Gradually, we lose the ability to imagine other people’s situation and produce longer chains of thought that in their turn will enable us to solve a problem. In today’s digital society, have we lost the ability to remain focused over time? “Use it or lose it” is what science says about the neurons that are active during reading or listening. Consequently, we may lose the ability to listen to long works of music if we don’t maintain it.

I believe the generation growing up now longs for real, meaningful experiences; the kind of experiences we need for life itself to be meaningful. Today, it is as if we constantly walk around with an unfulfilled need for internal healing. Statistics Norway’s cultural barometer shows that far more people than before seek deeper cultural and musical experiences.

Music offers something no other artform possesses. Music cannot be seen or felt, the notes disappear as soon as they’re played. Still, it holds an opportunity for us to not simply listen from one moment to another, but to experience a sense of totality, of the music’s narrative structure. Applying such meaning to music demands presence from us as listeners. Research shows that music can activate the brain’s reward centre. This can, however, only happen when we’re connected with the music and are active, not passive listeners.

Does music exist if no one listens?

Some years ago, I was attending a concert with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. As I glanced down the row of seats, I noticed that many people started to read the programme just minutes after the orchestra had begun playing. How can you grasp the music’s narrative if you don’t catch the opening of the work? Listening is an internal activity where you reach out – it’s a deliberate activity.

As a listener, you take part in producing the musical rewards. One could ask: Does music exist if no one listens? Experiencing involvement as active listeners and not a mere passive audience has also to do with humanity’s need for storytelling – gathering around the bonfire, the collective feel of belonging, where the listener is part of the story from beginning to end and through this obtains new, self-expanding insights.

When we experience music, we are taken back to familiar places within ourselves. Music should have the ability to be calming and affirmative – the familiar paths are important. For instance, we observe this within music therapy for people suffering from dementia, where music can awaken their experience of having an active memory.

Though, if we simply get our previous references confirmed, we stagnate in our own development. Those who aren’t willing to expand their comfort zone, miss out on numerous occasions for discovering new sides of themselves. But if you have to invest energy in something, choose some new paths, listening can be a way of discovering some new sides of yourself.

Classical music offers some special treasures for us to discover, as long as we don’t get lost in intellectual questions or are inhibited by old-fashioned etiquette in the concert hall.

Through listening to music, we can obtain a tool for strengthening our attentiveness and presence. This may affect our ability for reflection and humane understanding – which may, again, give us a richer life.

About the author

Annabel Guaita is a concert pianist with a PhD in music. She has developed the concept listener’s pilot, a method for presentation and exploration to help the audience discover their own potential as a listener.

Translator: Jannecke Flem Jansen