By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org 

Not too long ago, I found myself at a concert carefully watching the woman seated next to me.

Right before the opening notes were struck, she pulled out a book from her purse and did not look up once from the novel except to politely applaud at the appropriate moments.

I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on. Was she bored? Was she running behind on this week’s book club assignment? Was having the music wash over her with the aid of an intellectual distraction her preferred method of listening? Or was Stephen King her silent protest to the man sitting next to her who brought her here against her will?

Active listening — a phrase coined by clinical psychologist Thomas Gordon — is most often used in relationship counseling. But active listening and its opposite, passive listening, also apply to the way we consume music. An active listener is intellectually engaged and might be processing the musical decisions involved or singing along to lyrics. For a passive listener, music is a background activity and often complementary to another task on which the listener is focusing their attention.

Musically the difference between active and passive listening is the difference between sitting down and having a waiter explain each course versus scarfing down a sandwich at your office desk while returning emails.

There is an assumption, though, that passive listening is the junk food version of consuming music. It is usually assumed that art music requires active listening and careful contemplation, which is part of why when bop era jazz musicians wanted the public to consider their music as art and not popular entertainment, they moved away from danceable tempos of the swing era. This music wasn’t meant to be accompaniment for a social activity like dancing. It was something for an audience to focus on and contemplate.

But that does not mean passive listening can’t also serve a role in appreciating art music. Take for example a new work by composer Max Richter, which is intended to be listened to by an audience in the most passive state possible — when they are asleep.


Richter calls his piece Sleep an eight-hour lullaby, which will be performed to a live audience between the hours of midnight and 8 a.m. The audience is invited to sleep during the performance, which will certainly invite the question of whether snoring is appropriate concert etiquette.

Richter said the work is an experiment in understanding how we experience music in different states of consciousness. A shorter, one-hour version will also be recorded for a more attentive, active listening.

While Richter takes the idea of passive listening to an extreme, passive listening regularly has had a place in the concert hall. Even the most devout Wagnerite is likely to mentally zone out for a few moments in a performance of The Ring Cycle to contemplate dinner plans or an unsent email before focusing back to the action on stage.

Audiences for Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach were invited to come and go as they please over the course of the five-hour, intermission-less opera. Christopher Koelsch, of the L.A. Opera who revived the work in 2013 said the idea of letting audiences go to the lobby where the music is piped in and buy a snack connected to our contemporary on-demand culture. In practice though, it might serve another purpose. Shifting between attentive listening — where the audience might be paying close attention to subtle variations in Glass’ musical repetitions — to passive listening allows the listener to step back and see the grander macro structure.

Particularly for something like so-called “minimalist music,” shifting back and forth between active and passive listening might help a listener appreciate both the trees and forest of a musical style that goes through great transformations over its duration, but gets there very slowly.

Koelsch is correct about contemporary culture experiencing music in a different way. Music was once rare enough that it always demanded close attention, but as its availability proliferated, we have the luxury be disengaged. A 2014 study by Edison Research found that the average American listens to four hours of music a day. Of that, 52 percent came from listening to radio, usually in the car. For some of that time, a driver might be actively listening either singing along to lyrics or air conducting at stoplights (everybody does that, right?). However, the majority of the time we listen to music either in the car or while working or studying falls under passive listening.

As music becomes more and more prevalent in our lives, a greater share of the listening we do is passive. But passive listening can serve to complement active listening. It can plant seeds of familiarity in our subconscious that reap rewards in a later, closer listen.

That is part of the charm of an increasing trend of alternative-venue concerts put on by groups like Baltimore’s Classical Revolution. First time attendees to a classical concert at a bar often look around nervously for clues from other concertgoers before they realize they are free to carry on their conversation and eat their dinner. The greater musical experience is earned by those who listen actively, but if a less-focused listen creates familiarity and positive associations with the music, it can not be a bad thing.

Passive listening is great as long as it doesn’t become a default that prevents us from mindfully engaging with music. The important thing is to remember that we all participate in both active and passive listening and we have a choice of when to do each. But as long as we remain aware of the difference, there is no harm in having your Stephen King with a side of Strauss.