What does listening mean? I’m not talking about putting music on and hearing it in the background. I’m talking about the concentrated — sometimes tiring — act of listening.

Sometimes, when studying a work I’ve never played, I pull out my part and follow along with a recording. Sometimes I listen, and sometimes I realize I’ve stopped paying attention. I have to backtrack and pull my attention back to the task. It’s really work to listen carefully.

I know that the person who wrote the following has good intentions, but can one really listen while washing dishes?

Some listen to classical music while painting. Others have the radio on in the background at work. I’ve also talked to people who listen to classical radio programs while on the treadmill.

At concerts, we all sit and listen and watch the performers, but listening to recordings or the radio is often an accompaniment to other parts of our life.

As for me, I spend Saturday afternoons listening to the opera while washing dishes and catching up on housework. Of course, I also listen at work, but since it’s my (happy) duty to be listening to the radio. And like many others, the radio in our car is constantly tuned to West Virginia Public Radio. But Saturdays at home with the opera are some of my favorite times. If I get the housework done (what a wonderful feeling!), I just sit and relax, listening to the rest of the opera, and maybe reading a few pages of a book.

So, how about you? What do you like to do while listening to classical music?


I read the above blog entry here in case you want to visit and answer the question.


  1. As the husband of the person who made the cited blogpost, I thought I could offer some insight in to her thinking and a response to ‘what is listening.’

    Firstly, I wished she’d worded things a bit different, but I think she is getting at the same point – She is essentially asking HOW DO PEOPLE LISTEN, which is easier to answer than what is listening. Can someone really listen to Opera while they wash dishes? Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but its almost easier to ask if she can wash dishes while she listens to the opera; While I teach piano lessons on Saturday afternoons, I can here her caterwauling along with every aria, and when lessons are over I sometimes have to go back and rewash some dishes that she didn’t pay enough attention to.

    She was a bit surprised you didn’t single out the later point of reading a book while listening to Opera. Even that has some thinking behind it though – she rolls her eyes at the various Sorbetto aria’s and fluff pieces that take up space between more substantive musical moments, and it is common place to see her flipping through pages during recicative she already knows, killing time until something she likes comes on again.

    Back to what listening is though. Listening for me is a many layered experience, sometimes necessitating active concentration on my part and other times it would be difficult for me to stop listening even if I wanted to. When the Alcott’s movement of Ives’ concord sonata comes on, I’m often immobilized, unable to do anything else as I just sit back and get lost in the climactic moment of the 40 minute piano work. This is interesting to me because I find my ear wandering at other times.. This movement is the third movement of 4 and is followed by a 10 minute haze of tone clusters, symbolically representing that moment of post-transcendence. It seems the last movement is designed to be experienced more than directly listened to as it stirs my imagination into whispy daydreams.

    I don’t think I can come up with a single definition for daydreams, but I think it is a more nuanced experience than simple active vs. inactive. There are times where a piece of music beckons me to pay strict attention to its formal design, where is the first theme the second and the development and recapitulation. Other times, a work lulls me into an inner world where I don’t follow the individual twists and turns of notes in lieu of imaginations, be they specific images or just planes of colors. (A good example of the latter is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, which is not Linearly programmatic but each movement as a whole seems to paint an image. The story doesn’t ‘progress’ over a moment, but a singular image becomes more and more vividly realized)

    So, now that I’ve posted a long non-answer, do you have any specific and explicit answers as to what Listening is? Or is it an ambiguous blob of thought for you too?

  2. I do wish I could edit things. 2nd to last paragraph should obvious be a ‘I don’t think I can come up with a single definition for listening’, not daydreams, but thats what you get when typing while a kitten is jumping at the window behind your head to get at the pigeons, forever just out of the reach of her little paws.

  3. Thanks for writing, Mr. Pollok!

    Please know my comments weren’t meant to be seen as harsh, and I did understand, I think, what your wife meant. Sometimes I put on music as background music (I believe she used that word too) and of course that kind of “listening” isn’t the focused listening (Hah! I typed “lustening” first … wonder what that means!) that I’m required to do at times.

    I read Scott Peck’s rather popular book ages ago that talked about true listening and it really helped me … but I’m older now and can’t quite remember what he said. Sigh. (I think the book was “The Road Less Traveled”.)

    Hmmmm… which might cause me to wonder, as well, “What is true reading?” Reading is something, too, I fail to do well sometimes. I’m a skimmer. I know that.

    And perhaps my inability to truly listen is only my problem. For me it requires such concentration, and I just don’t find it a breeze to do.

    So no, I don’t have a specific, explicit answer to the question. Which is why I put it up at the blog; I also don’t like to work terribly hard and was hoping someone else would answer. 😉

    (My readership is small, so who knows if anyone else will jump in.)

    OH … and I do wonder what a composer would do if he/she walked into my house while I was vacuuming. I often put on music and then get distracted and go vacuum. Sigh. What the heck does that say about me?! :-/

    Anyway, I hope I wasn’t insulting. If you knew me you’d know it wasn’t meant to be that way. And I kind of hoped I’d give the article some hits, but it appears that didn’t work.

  4. I didn’t realize folks couldn’t edit their own posts … shows how much I know, eh?

    I’m never error-free. Sigh.

    Maybe someday. In another life.

  5. I wasn’t insulted, and Mona wasn’t either I don’t think. She was worried that she’d made herself look dumb in her post, so I thought I’d put in a word about it.

    (Extra rant below. Maybe it ties in to listening?)
    I’d add myself to the list of people not sure quite what it means to read too, btw. Mona can read a 300 page book in a couple hours, while I seem to take a week or two. I can force myself to read hard and fast and remember what I have read, as if I were studying for an examination, but it is exhausting and can make the material I am reading difficult to enjoy. When I am free to take my time, I read as slowly as I read out loud – which is what I am doing, in a sense. I like to sound out the words in my head, and take pleasure in the way words rhyme and roll together.

    I enjoy reading and re-reading certain authors because of this, such as chunks of Joyce’s ulysses – the narrative doesn’t always hold my interest, but I find myself going over a single sentence several times, just bouncing the words in my head to enjoy the way they rub up against each other. (take a look at Sirens. Try reading it out loud once, and if you’re brave, go back again and add a thick Irish Accent. http://tiny.cc/EhskA ) Do people who read fast go through this process as well, at a much faster pace?

    What are the parallel’s to listening? I don’t know.. They are in there somewhere.