Active Listening: Teaching with Music

by Christy Thomas

You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.[1]
-Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes’ famous words to Dr. Watson can be rephrased to reference the ear rather than the eye as the sensory organ of observation: You hear, but you do not listen. In these parallel statements, the implication is that “seeing” and “hearing” are passive, while “observing” and “listening” are active, requiring a heightened level of engagement from the observer or listener but also resulting in a greater acquisition of knowledge.

Music surrounds us everyday—it is on our playlists, the radio, commercials, soundtracks for movies or television shows, our neighbors’ stereo—yet we seem to have mastered the art of hearing without listening. Nevertheless, music has the power to enrich student engagement in the college classroom if they learn the art of active listening and how to connect what they hear with a broader conceptual network. To practice active listening, we must—like Dr. Watson—learn to observe with our ears.

While the importance of teaching with a variety of artifacts or objects is generally recognized, music may not always be the first port of call outside of music classes. But music is not just for musicians and music courses. By expanding the notion of a “text” to include any object that can communicate meaning—as in the literary theory sense of the word—then music can also be treated as an important object of study from a variety of vantage points.[2]

Musical examples can be usefully deployed in a wide variety of disciplines. For example, an American History course on the 1960s could feature iconic protest songs of the anti-war movement or a comparison of Aretha Franklin’s Respect from 1967 with Otis Redding’s original 1965 recording in order to highlight prevalent issues of class and gender in the United States at that time. An English course might examine how particular texts have been set to music, or how canonical theatrical works have been adapted for the operatic stage. A class on Shakespeare’s Othello, for example, might feature a musical excerpt from Giuseppe Verdi’s 1887 operatic setting of the play. An Art History course on Impressionism might examine various musical compositions in conjunction with visual works of art of the same period, comparing Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau with Claude Monet’s Water Lilies to better understand the principles and markers of the impressionist movement as expressed in various media.

Many university libraries are purchasing subscriptions to online streaming databases and supporting initiatives to catalogue and archive their multimedia collections, thus providing access to a rapidly diversifying treasure-trove of newly available resources for use in undergraduate courses. In order to make effective use of the music made available via these resources, we must train our students how to engage with it. Even the best-prepared activities can miss the mark, however, unless students are prepared to listen and not just to hear. However, while active learning is a frequent topic of discussion in pedagogical circles today, the notion of active listening is rarely addressed—if at all.[3]

So what is “active listening” and how can we encourage and facilitate it when using musical examples in undergraduate courses?

If active learning is generally understood as any pedagogical approach that engages students in the learning process and requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing in the context of the classroom, then active listening similarly requires students to engage with and think about what they hear.[4] In other words, active listening is listening with a purpose.

Whether employed in music courses or in non-music courses, active listening does not require advanced musical training or the ability to read music, yet it can still be used with students who can read music. Even students with years of performance training may struggle when it comes to talking about music or making salient observations about what they hear. Students may be familiar with a piece, and may even know it well, but have they thought about it? Active listening, therefore, is a useful tool in both music courses and non-music courses, and can have the democratizing effect of leveling the playing field.

In order to address how active listening can be cultivated through teaching with music, I outline three types of listening that might be mapped onto different listening goals, followed by four practical techniques that can be used during any of these three types of listening.

Three Types of Listening:

In teaching music history, music theory, and music appreciation courses, I often think of three types or tiers of listening: 1) affective listening, 2) structural listening, and 3) dialogic listening.[5] Although these categories have been particularly effective in teaching musical examples with a level of detail appropriate for music majors, they can also be usefully applied for using musical examples in non-music courses more broadly.

Affective Listening

This type of listening is perhaps the most basic. It paints a picture for the ear in broad strokes, and gives students a general sense for the affect of a piece—its emotion, its color, its stylistic or generic characteristics, its je ne sais quoi. It could also be thought of as a “sampler strategy,” a method for moving quickly through a piece or through a number of pieces in order to set the stage for more focused listening. This type of listening can be enhanced by adding a layer of commentary while the music plays to direct students’ attention to particular details before asking them to make observations on their own, as will be discussed later. Useful questions for this type of listening typically prompt students to voice their observations on a basic level: What instruments do you hear? What genre of music is this? What emotions does this evoke? How fast or slow is it? (For those with musical training, this might also include more targeted questions to draw out observations about tempo, meter, rhythm, range, etc.)

Structural Listening

This type of listening approaches a musical example almost like a sculpture or a painting, in which you point students toward particular moments and see the ways in which those moments are the culmination of particular trajectories. As such, structural listening often means comparing different moments from within a particular piece. Questions might include: How does the artist or composer move from one idea to another? Why? What underlying questions does the piece pose and how does it answer these questions, if at all? How does the text relate to the sounds?

Dialogic Listening

This type of listening is perhaps the most complex and time-consuming, yet also the most fruitful and potentially rewarding. As the name implies, this type of listening places a musical example in dialogue with external elements—generic conventions, other musical pieces, artwork, texts, objects, etc. Teaching with music does not preclude using texts or visuals as well. If your piece has lyrics, include them (and if those lyrics are not in your students’ native language, provide a translation as well). It often helps to complement listening with other ways of engaging with musical examples by using other types of media. Questions that promote dialogic listening might, for example, entail comparing a piece of music to another piece by the same artist or composer, to a later reworking or different recording of that piece, to a painting or sculpture engaging with similar concepts or coming from a similar period, or to a newspaper article or review from the same era; it could even involve tracing the piece’s reception over time.

Four Practical Techniques:

Teaching with music can be challenging—especially because we as a society have developed the habit of hearing without listening. In playing a musical example in class, the risk is often one of losing control of student attention. Too often, the moment the music starts playing, eyes begin to glaze. These techniques are designed to help students engage productively with what they hear, to engender active rather than passive listening.

Model good listening

Your students look to you as the model for how to listen well. Body language is important. If you use this time to shuffle through notes, you appear disengaged. If you look like you’re just waiting for the example to be done before you can start speaking again, you appear disengaged. Try closing your eyes. Smile. Frown. Laugh. Be expressive. Show that the music affects you.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Sometimes it takes multiple hearings to grasp a musical selection. When reading written texts or analyzing visual objects, students can move back and forth between different elements and can look back and refresh their memory on a point or a detail that has already been covered. But you can’t “listen back” in the same way as you can look back. When listening to music, you can only hear one moment at a time, moving sequentially from moment to moment without the ability to jump backward and forward. Playing examples multiple times allows students to better absorb the music and to make more informed assessments and observations of what they have heard.

Highlight salient points

Talk over the musical example to point out important features that you want your students to notice. This can be especially helpful when your students are less confident about their own ability to listen effectively, and to demonstrate your expectations in terms of what to listen for. The last thing you want is for students to tune out and lose focus during a musical example. The point is to engage students, not to use this time for other unrelated activities (Facebook, email, Twitter, homework for other classes, etc.). Providing an on-going commentary essentially provides students with a road-map for listening, helping them not only to understand the relevance of what they hear in a given moment but how that moment relates to other moments in the piece.

Give listening directives

Students should always know what to listen for. Because everyday musical engagement often does not involve critical thinking, it is helpful to point students in the right direction. Ask a question before playing the musical example. Tell them a particular aspect of the piece to focus on. Clarify your expectations for what you would like your students to do, listen for, or understand as a result of listening to a particular musical example.

Active Listening: Beyond Music

The principles behind active listening can be extended and applied to more than just using music or multimedia in the classroom. The practice of active listening cultivates transferrable skills for how to listen carefully and critically in other situations both inside and outside the classroom—listening to lectures, to political speeches, to TED talks, and even to one another. For example, in her recent op-ed for The New York Times, “Lecture Me. Really.”, Molly Worthen argues about the validity of the lecture course in the midst of today’s debates about active learning.[6] All too often, such pedagogical debates condense lecturing and active learning into an oppositional binary, with the implication that lecturing only results in passive learning, if it engenders learning at all. Yet I would argue that the underlying principles of active listening—critical engagement with aurally received information—challenge the foundational assumptions for such a binary. Although Worthen does not specifically use the phrase “active listening,” her argument is essentially built upon the notion that lectures require—or should require—students to listen rather than just hear. As Worthen points out, in 1869 former president of Harvard University Charles Eliot cautioned that “the lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves. The water may be wholesome, but it runs through. A mind must work to grow.”[7] However, for Worthen—as well as for myself—an alternative to abolishing the lecture is to teach students how to listen, to hone the sieve instead of turning off the water. Thus, whether applied to teaching with music or to other situations, active listening is a useful pedagogical strategy for teaching the principles of critical inquiry.

Do not be satisfied with simply hearing and seeing. Strive instead to listen and observe.


Yale Library Resources

Yale’s links to audio streaming databases:

Yale’s links to video streaming databases:

Yale Music Library:

CDs and other recorded formats are searchable through Orbis


[1] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (London: George Newnes, Ltd., 1892).

[2] For more on using multimedia in classrooms, see, for example: Janice Marcuccilli Strop and Jennifer Carlson, Multimedia Text Sets: Changing the Shape of Engagement and Learning. Winnipeg: Portage & Main Press, 2010.

[3] Although there is a considerable amount of literature on the use of music in elementary education classrooms (often in the vein of using music as a memory tool or a means of drawing students together, or even “how playing classical music in the background helps children focus”), as well as a number of pedagogical resources for teaching music history and music theory (perhaps most notably the Journal of Music History Pedagogy and the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy), there are fewer resources on effective practices for employing musical examples when teaching broader concepts in undergraduate classrooms more generally.

[4] For more on active learning, see, for example: Michael Prince, “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research” Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 93 No. 3, 2004: 223-231.

[5] I am indebted to James Hepokoski for these particular terms and ways of thinking about different types of listening.

[6] Molly Worthen. “Lecture Me. Really.” The New York Times, 17 October 2015.

[7] Charles William Eliot, Addresses at the Inauguration of Charles William Eliot as President of Harvard College, October 19, 1869. Server & Francis, 1869: 42.

Mindfulness of the Mind


Jared Rovny

I. Mental frameworks

The brilliant French mathematician and Einstein’s contemporary, Henri Poincaré, was mid-vacation in the town of Coutances, mid-conversation, and mid-stride — one foot stretched to step into his bus — when the solution to his problem suddenly appeared in his consciousness and seared itself in his mind. He had no time to write down and verify the mathematics, but also no need, so he continued his conversation. Without working on his problem or even actively thinking about it, his subconscious mind had presented him with the solution in a single moment.1 Controversial and perennially misunderstood, occurrences like these fascinated the earliest students of human academic thought, and help motivate the broader goal of this piece: to take a step back and ask “What can we learn about effective teaching by thinking about the minds of students?”

And so I want to briefly explore: what constitutes a framework of knowledge, how is it built, and how can we be more effective teachers by thinking about these things?

Inspired by a series of lectures by Poincaré in 1937, Jacques Hadamard (also a renowned French mathematician) wrestles issues like the above in his short work The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field. While a powerfully thought-provoking piece in its own right, I am particularly interested in his questions to prominent scientists of the day, including Albert Einstein, as to how they “did their thing.” Did they think in words? Imagine mathematical symbols? Interestingly enough, Hadamard notes that “practically all of them… avoid not only the use of mental words but also, just as I do, the mental use of algebraic or any other precise signs; also as in my case, they use vague images.” [i] Einstein reports the following famously fascinating observations:

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced or combined… The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type.” [i]

The “muscular type”? Yes, Einstein could “feel the abstract spaces he was dealing with, in the muscles of his arms and fingers.” [ii][iii]

I love reading things like this, both because I myself rarely think (scientifically) in words or symbols, and because I wonder at the possibilities— how many ways are there to think?2 How can I improve my understanding of the world around me by exploring modes of thought? But back to the point: what implication does this have for our students?

II. Synthesis as a context for learning

If we agree that our students mentally work in unpredictably unique ways, how can we introduce them to a subject in a way that they can build a useful framework in their own minds, according to their own way of thinking? An answer to this, in many regards, is what Hadamard calls “synthesis,” and by which I mean the active process of discovery, or of actively incorporating new ideas into one’s own mental model. In the classroom, by actively working to understand or apply a new concept, the student builds a mental framework organically consistent with his or her own mode of thinking.3

How do we teach in a way that promotes this active synthesis for our students? This can be especially difficult since in mathematics (and possibly in other fields) we often have to communicate in a language foreign to our own — or our students’— actual mode of operational understanding. Here’s an example: a well-known law in physics and mathematics is called “Gauss’s Law.” I know this law well, but like the scientists mentioned above, it exists in my mind only as a sort of image or impression. Even though the law is elegant and simple, I cannot convey it as such. Instead I have to conjure my mental image, and interpret it into a series of mathematical relationships, which is a common language between my students and myself. Is it then sufficient to derive a mathematical law by simply presenting a series of individually consistent steps?

According to Poincaré (who we started with), this is necessary, but is not usually sufficient. As he puts it:

Context is everything. [viii]

Context is everything. [viii]

To understand the demonstration of a theorem, is that to examine successively each syllogism composing it and ascertain its correctness, its conformity to the rules of the game? … For some, yes; when they have done this, they will say, I understand. For the majority, no. Almost all are much more exacting; they wish to know not merely whether all the syllogisms of a demonstration are correct, but why they link together in this order rather than another…Doubtless they are not themselves just conscious of what they crave…but if they do not get satisfaction, they vaguely feel that something is lacking. [i]

Teaching by simple progression, one abstract idea to the next, leaves a student missing something; Hadamard more clearly states exactly what’s missing:

In this way of working, which seems to be the best one of getting a rigorous and clear presentation for the beginner, nothing remains, however, of the synthesis… But that synthesis gives the leading thread, without which one would be like the blind man who can walk but would never know in what direction to go. [i]

The missing piece is synthesis, the original context by which the idea came to fruition. Of course, this is commonplace. We discover something through a particular thought-process, then rewrite and rework our logic a dozen times before presenting our work anywhere else. The advantages are concise and logical publications; the disadvantages are the production of learning materials that can leave us feeling led, but blind. This is a pitfall for textbooks especially, which are as rigorous as reference manuals, but are often lacking in synthesis, context, or motivation.

A further example to conclude: suppose this week you become fascinated by a close relative of “Gauss’ law”, called “Stokes theorem” (we use this in introductory Physics, so naturally you are enthralled). You look it up on Wikipedia only to read:

“In vector calculus, and more generally differential geometryStokes’ theorem is a statement about the integration of differential forms on manifolds… Stokes’ theorem says that the integral of a differential form ω over the boundary of some orientable manifold Ω is equal to the integral of its exterior derivative dω over the whole of Ω.” [iv]

Well good luck sipping knowledge from that fire hose. It is logical, concise, defensible, and largely useless, links and all (exactly 6 clicks deep into the first links will lead you to the “philosophy” page anyways—again, good luck) [v][vi][vii]. But Hadamard’s point is deeper than this— he claims that even if you “understood” the above statement, meaning you could verify each part yourself, you are still lacking the synthesis, the ideas and thoughts and problems that could lead a person to such a formulation as a whole.

So both Poincaré and Hadamard claim that synthesis is an important ingredient in the teaching process: by presenting the topic in the fullness of its historical or logical context as much as possible (the context in which the idea was synthesized in the first place), the mind of the student is automatically set to contextualizing and reframing that problem according to their own mental processes as they search for a solution.4

III. Application: lessons from my own teaching

To incorporate synthesis in my teaching, I have borrowed from the examples of my own teachers, who were an unbroken chain of great mentors, especially my undergraduate advisor and friend at the University of Dallas, Dr. Richard Olenick. With them in mind, I try to make synthesis a habitual practice in my teaching, using the following two methods:

  1. Provide the context for synthesis. To do this, I always try to connect, contextualize, then motivate the material. Connect: Each and every student sits down in class with something different on their mind: food, sleep, relationships, intimidation, excitement, and more. I’ve found it highly effective to allow the first sixty seconds or so be content-free. Discussing the course, upcoming assignments, or their current course load gives each mind time to adapt and settle in to their surroundings, and build attention towards you and the class. Only a few seconds are needed and provide a very high return on investment. Contextualize: I can then easily discuss a background to the topic and properly motivate it. In the sciences particularly, history has been my friend; a short background to your topic is a powerful incentive, human and logical. Motivate: With some background, however brief, the material is ready to be motivated: why is this interesting? How does it impact your life? Why did it fascinate the people who came up with it? Reasons and goals are great allies.
  1. Provide tools for synthesis. Even with the proper context and motivation, you can’t actively search for answers (synthesize) if you don’t understand the question. With complicated material, I’ve found it helpful to first provide simple overviews of the topic, verbally and visually. This reduces intimidation and clarifies the topic, allowing students to be more receptive to the material itself. With a basic overview and understanding of the relationship among different aspects of a topic, students have a mental “scaffold” on which to place the more complicated material as it arises, providing mental space and the prerequisite knowledge to begin active problem-solving and synthesis.

To frame this according to modern research: “To develop competence…students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application” [xii]. That is, competence requires knowledge, in a framework and organized. So, to restate: with complicated material, I find that first exposing students to a clarifying framework5 of a topic can help them retain the knowledge itself. Students are then better equipped to synthesize and create mental organization as they internalize the knowledge. To accomplish this, I first discuss the larger framework (“how are all these ideas connected?”) using simple versions of the ideas, only then to follow through with more detailed explanations.

IV. Conclusion

Innovative thoughts about metacognition from over fifty years ago provide insights into thought and pedagogy that remain highly relevant today. The sources referenced here gave me important mental models for understanding active learning and backward design as a teacher, but student metacognition has also been shown to produce learning gains [xiii]—so as your students learn and synthesize, have them think about how ideas fit into their own broader understanding. Everyone benefits from being mindful of the mind!

By looking into the foundations of education research, we can continue to find innovative ways to relate current research to our own teaching. This innovation “is highly important for the further development of educational professions… and for our development as a knowledge society.”6 In our rapidly accelerating information era, we can foster effective pedagogy by applying research old and new. I hope you find ways to apply mindful teaching in your own discipline, and I hope you tell me how you do it! I’d love to hear.


1 “At the moment when I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidian geometry. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On my return to Caen, for conscience’ sake, I verified the result at my leisure.”

2 Some would say there is only one way to think. I would refer them to the broader discussion on [i] and documentation on alternative mental processes such as synesthesia.

3 For more on active learning, a good starting place is the CTL’s overview [ix].

4 Ever had a student reach the “a-ha” moment, and then explain the concept back to you in a strange way? “OH! So it’s just like [insert unanticipated or confusing analogy here].” But you realize their analogy does make some sort of sense. That’s the concept being adopted and adapted into their particular mental framework, and being re-expressed.

5 While the full meaning of a “knowledge framework” is the subject of much discussion, here I simply use “framework” in the very specific sense discussed in the prior paragraph: a basic overview of a topic with stated relationships among its various components.

6 This importance was recently emphasized in Review of Educational Research [x].


[i] Jacques Hadamard, The Mathematician’s Mind: The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ. 1945. Pages cited: 84, 143, 104-106.

[ii] L’Enseignement Mathematique, Volumes 4 and 6. International Committee on the Teaching of Mathematics.


[iv] (subject to change without notice, especially after publication of this article)

[v] (subject to change without notice, but less likely)





[x] M. Thurlings, A. Evers, M. Vermeulen, “Towards a Model of Explaining Teachers’ Innovative Behavior: A Literature Review.” 2015. Review of Educational Research, Vol. 85, No. 3, pp. 430-471. DOI: 10.3102/0034654314557949.

[xi] For further thoughtful commentary about Hadamard’s book (and other topics), see

[xii] M. Donovan, J. Bransford, and J. Pellegrino, How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice, National Research Council. 1999. Page cited: 12.

[xiii] K. Tanner, “Promoting Student Metacognition.” 2012. Life Sciences Education, Vol. 11, pp. 113-120. DOI: 10.1187/cbe.12-03-0033.