Listening - the Easy Way to Learn Music

Written by Shalini Saxena on 05 November 2016

"Listening to music is about experiencing the joy of music. Learning will definitely come along."

-Chaitra Sontakke, Hindustani Curriculum Coordinator, Shankar Mahadevan Academy


Ever wondered why some people have the innate ability to play or sing anything they’ve just heard, while others struggle to decipher? Are they the chosen ones or blessed with some magical powers? Of course not! In fact the ability to ‘play by ear’ or ‘sing by ear’ can be developed by anyone in a very short span of time, probably quicker than learning from a ‘sheet of notes’ or trying to read music. Even a 3-year-old can start humming or singing the song he listens to again and again – it’s nothing but ‘exposure effect’. Listening literally means ‘hearing a sound with attention’. How can a language be best learnt? Is it by teaching alphabets formally? Well, it’s just a part of the process. The process of learning is effective only when the learner has constant exposure to the environment where the language is spoken and the conversations can be heard. Eventually, this listening initiates learner’s participation in a conversation. Similarly, ‘Listening to music’ starts when a child listens to the mother humming tunes! ‘Listening to music’ starts when music is played at home. ‘Listening to music’ initiates the process of learning the language of music. Music learning needs to be nourished by constant encouragement and listening material.


Shinichi Suzuki, a Japanese violinist who revolutionized music education across the globe, introduced a new approach on the belief that -  “Musical ability is not an inborn talent but an ability which can be developed. Any child who is properly trained can develop musical ability, just as all children develop the ability to speak their mother tongue. The potential of every child is unlimited.” The Suzuki method of teaching music advocates that children should actually learn to play music by listening first and then learn to read musical notes. Legendary musicians like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and many more did not receive any formal music education but still created great music. Humans are born with the potential both to learn language and to make music. It’s all about the right exposure and kindling the love for music in them to develop a better sense of musicality.

Develop your listening ears

Listen. Sing. Listen. Do a lot of listening! Listen to others, listen to yourself and listen to the whole group. Grab a recorder and listen to yourself. There’s a big difference between active listening and just hearing! Active listening means paying attention to every detail – the notes and the pitch. The key is to start with a simple melody and slowly when you catch hold move to the complex ones. "Musical repetition gets us mentally imagining or singing through the bit we expect to come next" says Professor Elizabeth Margulis (Author - On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind) explaining why people listen to their favorite songs on repeat (Source: Mic Network Inc.). Believe it or not, listening to music is more than 50% of learning music!

Learn like a kid

The correlation is simple - How does a kid learn his/her mother tongue without any formal training? - By simply imitating what he hears around him. Listening and Singing (The NATS Journal of Singing) explains the analogy as “In the early steps of language acquisition, children receive sound from the surrounding environment (the process of hearing). Then they begin to “pick out”, auditorily speaking, those sounds that are of significance such as “mom, dad, milk, juice” (the process of listening). Children then re-shape these sounds with their own voice modeling them on what they have heard (the process of self-listening). This same process operates in the acquisition of singing, which most children master with ease and grace. For many children, singing is acquired earlier and faster than speech.”

Aural not visual!

Music is an aural medium then why use only visual methods for learning it? To achieve perfection, it is necessary to combine the right balance of aural and vocal skills together. As most performances are not solo, understanding the musical harmony is essential. It’s not just about listening to your own voice, it’s important that you understand all the other (musical or vocal) parts and thus improve the overall sound. Thus listening is an extremely important aspect of singing to get things ‘just right’. Simply put - listening is a passive act, singing is an active action.

Practice. Practice. And practice more!

There’s no alternative route or shortcut. Nothing can replace practice! Record what you sing, hum in your head, listen to your recording, get your teacher to record and listen to that and then practice with these resources - practising helps you gain confidence. Making transitions between two notes becomes smooth by having a listening ear – when you are sure how it should sound you’ll be able to take those leaps confidently.

Indian Music and ‘Listening’

The famous Gharanas of Hindustani music - a family of musicians, a school of music or a musical lineage also advocate ‘learning by listening’. Though different Indian Gharanas largely varied in their ‘style of presentation’ they all emphasized the importance of the ‘Shishya’ listening to ‘Guru’. A Shishya immersed in Raga theory learns primarily through oral means, by listening and learning the tradition passed down from the Guru.

The list of musicians with musical family background includes popular names like: Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar, Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan, Annapurna Devi, Shiv Kumar Sharma, Lalgudi Jayaraman, Malladi Brothers, Nithyasree Mahadevan and many more.

A legend worth mentioning in this context is Pandit Kumar Gandharva, a great Hindustani classical musician who regained his fame through his conviction that all ‘classical’ music is an outgrowth of folk music. From the age of ten to twenty, the musician from Belgaum rose like a star in Mumbai. But at the peak of his career, he had lung ailment and doctors told him singing could prove fatal for him. He moved to Dewas in Madhya Pradesh, where he often heard the wandering folk singers of Malwa whose Kabirian singing mesmerized him. This led him to create his own style by simply listening carefully to more and more folk songs.

Listen to Learn Music

To become a better singer or even to get started as a singer, ear training is a must! By developing the sense of relative pitch, singers can:

  • Analyze their voice if they are singing in the right tune and correct their pitch.
  • Cultivate appreciation of musical melody which will help them perform better in a group (with other musicians or singers).

The ‘Listen to Learn Music’ app from the Shankar Mahadevan Academy provides ‘Listening materials’ for the students that are appropriate for their course levels. With the app, you can choose the song you want to practice, simply add it to the playlist and start practicing anytime, anywhere – even if you are offline! The app ensures that learner listens and appreciates the aspects like melody, time & place, expression, etc. This app combines the age-old method of ‘learning by listening’ with the latest tech.

“To write one must read first, to sing better listen more.”

No matter how good you are, there’s always scope for improving. Download the Listen to Learn Music app now! Get better! Strive for excellence! Start Listening to music to be a better student of music.