How Important is Listening to Recordings, Really?


When I was just starting out on the violin as a young child, my mom made listening to music a priority.

There was music playing when I woke up. Music playing in the car during the 10-minute drive to and from school. Plus the 45-min drive to and from lessons. There was even music playing in the house, and as I was going to bed at night.

It’s easy enough nowadays to stream music anywhere, anytime. But back in the 70’s and early 80’s this took a lot more effort!

For instance, my mom likes to tell the story of all the times she had to run up and down the stairs to place the needle back to the beginning of the record so I could listen continuously to the Suzuki pieces I was learning. And given how short most of the Suzuki songs are in the early books, she’d get in a pretty good workout most days.

Cassette tapes weren’t much better. I mean, having to sit there and wait for the tape to physically rewind was a pain. And then you’d have to guess how long to press the rewind button for…hold it down too long and you’d overshoot the beginning of the song.

Listening to music is a core part of the Suzuki philosophy of course, but how important was all of this listening really?

Is there any research on how (or whether) listening to recordings affects music learning?

Research on learning by ear

A team of researchers led by pianist-turned-neuroscience researcher Amir Lahav (Lahav et al., 2012) put together a study to answer this very question.

They recruited 36 non-musicians, and set about teaching them how to play a 15-note musical passage by ear, on an electronic keyboard.

Each participant practiced the passage until they reached a point where they were no longer making mistakes. On average, it took less than a half-hour or so for most participants to get to this point.

Three listening groups

Then, the participants were split into three groups and asked to return to the lab for three additional training sessions during the week.

One group – the passive-listening group – did three twenty-minute listening sessions over the next week, where they sat in a restful position with palms up, and listened to the passage over and over.

And why palms up? That was to discourage them from fingering along with the music, and getting in some additional “air piano” practice.

Another group – the distracted-listening group – also did three twenty-minute listening sessions. But in their case, the music just played in the background as they were asked to focus their attention on solving a challenging jigsaw puzzle.

A third group – the nature-listening group – did listening sessions of a very different sort. Instead of hearing the music they had learned, they listened to nature sounds, while seated in a restful position.

No more practice sessions

Keep in mind that after the initial ~30-minute training session, none of the participants were given a chance to do any more practicing on a piano.

The most some of them got was an opportunity to simply listen to (or hear in the background) the passage again.

So when tested a week later, would there be any difference between the listening groups in their ability to play this passage without even having touched a piano for a week?

A test on the piano

A week after their initial learning session, everyone returned to the lab for a surprise test. With no warmup, they were given one single chance to give their best (i.e. most accurate) performance of the passage they learned the week before.

The researchers then evaluated their performances on three basic criteria:

  1. Pitch (did they play the right notes?)
  2. Rhythm (…at the right time?)
  3. Dynamics (…with the target dynamics that were established in the learning phase?)

And the results of their test suggested that…

Listening test results

Yes! Listening to music had a clear impact on the participants’ level of performance.

In terms of note accuracy, the passive-listening group (listening while sitting still) played significantly more notes correctly than either the distracted-listening group (hearing music in background while working on puzzle) or the nature-listening group.

And with regards to rhythm and dynamics, both the passive-listening and distracted-listening groups outperformed the nature sounds group.

Passive listening vs. distracted listening

And interestingly, there was no significant difference in performance between the passive and distracted listening groups when it came to either rhythm or dynamics. The only difference was note accuracy (and speaking of note accuracy, if you’ve ever wondered how many of our missed notes other musicians in the audience actually notice, you might be surprised by the results of this study).

And playing the right notes obviously does matter, but it’s cool to know that we may be able to gain something from listening to music even if we’re not actively paying attention to it.

Why does listening help?

It’s true that these were untrained musicians learning relatively basic passages on a keyboard. However, there are some related studies which suggest that there really may be something happening in the brain when listening to music, that helps to consolidate learning.

For instance, a study of professional musicians (Bangert et al., 2006) found that listening to music also does seem to activate the motor-related regions of the brain responsible for that movement (and vice versa).

So while more research on musicians would be nice, it does seem that listening to music could be a helpful practice aid!

Playing devil’s advocate

Could there be any downsides to this? Or is it possible to do too much listening?

Well, it depends.

At certain points of the learning process, especially if the primary goal is to formulate your own interpretation of a piece, then yes, listening over and over to the same recording could certainly be a hindrance rather than a help (as pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein explains here).

But at other stages of learning, listening to a wide range of recordings (as cellist Mark Kosower speaks to briefly here), or listening more intently so as to “steal” elements of other musicians’ approaches (as flutist Keith Underwood explains in more depth here) can also potentially help with solving technical issues or cultivating one’s own unique musical style and interpretation.

Takeaways

So maybe you’re preparing for a big competition or audition and have a ton of rep to keep in your fingers and memory?

Or maybe you just need to learn a lot of rep in a short period of time?

Try putting on some recordings of these pieces in the background when you’re driving, going for a run, or cooking dinner.

Or if you’re not in the mood to practice, or physically fatigued and need a break, or recovering from an injury and need to limit your physical repetitions, put on a recording and just listen instead.

Because whether you’re sitting still, or tapping your fingers along with the piece (aka dynamic imagery), it may not replace your physical practice (darn it!), but Dr. Suzuki does seem to have been on to something! 😁

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References

Bangert, M., Peschel, T., Schlaug, G., Rotte, M., Drescher, D., Hinrichs, H., Heinze, H. J., & Altenmüller, E. (2006). Shared networks for auditory and motor processing in professional pianists: Evidence from fMRI conjunction. NeuroImage, 30(3), 917–926. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2005.10.044

Lahav, A., Katz, T., Chess, R. et al. Improved motor sequence retention by motionless listening. Psychological Research 77, 310–319 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-012-0433-0

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