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date: 11 December 2023

Active Listening, Music Education, and Societyfree

Active Listening, Music Education, and Societyfree

  • Dan MamlokDan MamlokMiami University, Ohio


A common definition of listening distinguishes between hearing and listening. The basic distinction describes hearing as a passive action of perceiving sounds, whereas listening involves paying active attention to various layers and elements of what one is hearing. Active listening to music, featuring the discerning of sounds, musical structures, harmonies, and the interrelations between the sounds, is akin to contemplating complex ideas. Providing meaning for this nexus of relationships requires listeners to grapple with these complex musical nuances, listening to different layers of the melody and harmony and connecting them to cultural and historical aspects. Challenging students to grapple with the complex nuances of musical pieces, to listen to different layers of the melody and harmony, and to connect those elements to cultural and historical aspects will provide them the opportunity to reflect upon the social and cultural contexts in which they live. The concept of what it means to be active (or mindful) has been examined from various perspectives and theories and holds great potential in advancing individual growth and social sensitivity.


  • Education, Change, and Development
  • Educational Theories and Philosophies
  • Education and Society


Music has played an important role in every civilization. However, until the end of the 19th century, the exposure of people to music in general, and to different styles of music, was limited. Prior to the development of sound recording technology, exposure to live music was far from being available for most of the population unless they created or played it themselves. The invention of sound recording, however, opened new opportunities for people to listen to and explore new sounds and new cultures. Reimer (1997) stresses the importance of developing listening literacy among students who learn to make music, as well as those who have no musical background and are not active in music-making. He deems that realizing the educative importance of cultivating listening habits is vital for promoting music appreciation, and he suggests that educators need to focus more on engaging students about what music they listen to, and how to listen to it mindfully. Akin to other subjects, when students read a book passionately or listen in an interesting class, they are actively engaged in the learning process, even though they are silent (Reimer, 1997). This claim is echoed by Langer (2000), who contends that mindful learning is vital for helping students to shape their abilities to see the complexities of the world through different perspectives. The basic postulate of this article is that active listening can promote mindful learning, which develops the mind (Eisner, 2002).

The discussion will focus on the importance of developing active listening to music, as well as its potential to advance individual growth and social sensitivity. The article consists of three broad parts. The first part will review some introductory aspects of the importance of active listening to student growth and its function in nurturing one’s creative and imaginative faculties. Then, it will discuss three different approaches of music education in general, and active listening in particular. The conclusion includes a recommendation for further research in light of the transformation of human experience in the age of digital media and the educational implications in the context of cultivating active listening habits.

A Brief Introduction to (Active) Listening

Experiencing active listening, as other arts activities, involves one’s development in a qualitative world. Elliot Eisner’s (2002) argument regarding the importance of the arts to one’s development can illuminate the cognitive aspects of active listening and its educational potential. This brief recapitulation of his approach will refer to the arts in general and will be followed by a thorough discussion of the pertinence of his insights into active listening. His argument is based on several premises. Experiencing the arts has a great influence on the sensory system. The sensory system is inherently crucial to humans’ development in a qualitative world. Namely, when students listen to music sensibly, they explore the quality of the sound and its nature and learn about the different modalities in which they can experience the world. This understanding of experience is congruent with Dewey’s (2005) assumption that art experience can serve as a source for stimulating the interaction of individuals with the world. In addition, the arts open new possibilities of understanding the world through imagination and develop one’s critical capacities. Eisner (2002) contends that the significance of the arts for developing cognitive processes also relates to one’s ability to inspect objects and sounds more carefully and, as a result, to shape one’s creativity. It is noteworthy that creativity does not necessarily denote composing or playing, but it also can denote the ability to become the “beholder” of the sound: “The works we create speak back to us and become in their presence a part of a conversation that enables us ‘to see what we have said’” (Eisner, 2002, p. 11).

The educational importance of the arts for this cognitive process is in providing the conditions for personal and social transformation. The arts develop our capacities to think abstractly about complex issues—unlike transferring a discrete set of knowledge, students who encounter the arts are required to continually reflect and untangle the complex objects or sounds to which they are exposed. In this respect, Eisner (2002) vehemently claims that an important role of schools is to help students to develop their thinking modalities, which should, therefore, become a central tenet of education. Tapping the potential of the arts in order to develop one’s thinking and critical capacities requires one to heed the nuances of the work of art—or, in the context of this paper, the musical piece (Eisner, 2002)—and necessitates the cultivation of active listening habits. Before delving into the different functions of active listening, it is important to clarify the meaning of listening.

A common definition of this term distinguishes between hearing and listening. The basic distinction describes hearing as a passive action of perceiving sounds, whereas listening involves paying active attention to various layers and elements of what one is hearing. A person may hear music just in the sense of perceiving sounds, but listening requires thinking deeply about what is being heard (Abramo, 2014). The composer Pauline Oliveros (2005) emphasizes that hearing can take place without attention, but listening requires one’s awareness and active engagement in the auditory experience. The case of listening to music is akin to contemplating complex ideas. Listening involves the discerning of sounds, musical structures, harmonies, and the interrelations between the sounds. Providing meaning for this nexus of relationships requires the listener to grapple with these complex musical nuances, listening to different layers of the melody and harmony and connecting them to cultural and historical aspects (Reimer, 1997).

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy provides an interesting and unusual distinction between hearing and listening. Hearing is the cognitive action of receiving, analyzing, and comprehending sounds. For example, when one hears a bird, a car, or a human voice, one understands the situation, at least partially. When a child hears his or her mother’s voice, the child recognizes the voice but doesn’t necessarily pay attention to what the mother has just said. Nancy (2007) suggests that listening is an action that aims to provide meaning beyond hearing. Unlike hearing, which refers to the ability to comprehend acoustic sounds, listening places the sounds in context. Whereas hearing refers to the process of recognizing and understanding sounds, listening signifies an open process that attempts to provide meaning (Nancy, 2007).

Nancy’s concept is unusual because it views listening as a marginal ontological condition, a constant attempt to provide meaning, which is situated in a very specific social and cultural context. In this sense, listening is a social practice. Providing meaning to music is a practice based on multiple references and sharing interpretations with peers. In this regard, listening involves a nexus of relationships between the listener and the music and the listener and the society (Gallope, 2008). Namely, whereas hearing helps us in recognizing known sounds, listening exposes us to the unknown and opens up to us a myriad of possibilities of interpreting a musical piece (Abramo, 2014).

Abramo (2014) elaborates on Nancy’s distinction, suggesting that the difference between hearing and listening poses an epistemological challenge on how one might represent musical meaning through words. When we listen to words, our interpretation is based not only by the literal meaning, but also by their conation. Namely, the literal word has its own meaning in a specific context and holds its own connotation and subtext. However, when we hear a sound, we attempt to refer it to a meaning (Abramo, 2014). For example, when listening to the last movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, one person may refer it to a beautiful landscape, another may recall a childhood experience, and yet another may refer it to a romantic scene. In a similar manner, the Indian raga is rich in gestures associated with imagery and meaning embedded within cultural conventions (Leante, 2009). The meanings may also refer to fixed references, which are contingent on a more technical language, such as referring to the style or the harmony structure of the music. Jacques Derrida coined the idea of différance in relation to the fine line between a word and its meaning and between meaning and its connotation. Words, symbols, and other forms of signs are supposed to signify meanings, but Derrida argued that those symbols cannot convey entirely the objective meaning of objects. As noted earlier, a musical phrase may signify a meaning, but this meaning will not be fully covered. For music educators, the task is to move beyond the conventional codes and to challenge students to expand the possibilities of interpretation (Abramo, 2014). The process of interpretation involves one’s ability to interconnect the musical experience with the world and requires one to use imagination and creativity (Dewey, 2005; Eisner, 2002). The following discussion will elaborate on the significance of creativity to the development of active listening.

Listening and Creativity

While creativity is commonly associated with active playing or composing, the ability to give meaning requires great creativity skills. Indeed, composing music fosters creativity and stimulates new modes of thinking. Yet one does not contradict the other. Listening carefully to music creates new perceptions and stimulates the imagination (Reimer, 1997). Drawing from Mikel Dufrenne’s phenomenological view on creativity, Reimer claims that listening requires creative skills to reorganize musical structures in a unique way. In short, Dufrenne suggests that the act of listening is an act of reconstruction of sounds. The listener, unlike the hearer, is in the position of demanding a meaning, and this demand involves a unique and deep search for meaning. This search for meaning is contingent on individuals who reconstruct musical sounds, and concurrently this process of searching for a meaning participates in forging the identity of those individuals (Dufrenne, 1973). Reimer (1997) elaborates on this concept of creative listening and points out that listening creatively is the action of making sense of the performed music, which requires imagination and originality. In addition, listening can be understood as a social practice, in which individuals share their insights and the meaning that they find with each other. For example, Bamberger (1994) contends that listening is a form of performance. Listening is a type of problem solving that involves perception and the creative action of making sense of the music. Recalling Nancy’s argument of listening as opening possibilities, Bamberger suggests that music, in and of itself, offers the listeners multiple interpretations. She describes that her everyday practices with students produce different forms of perception, understanding, and representation of music. Her analysis includes several examples, which demonstrate how students develop their listening skills. Bamberger (1994) elucidates how each student focuses on different aspects of the music (superficially, her example shows different perceptions of rhythm) and the different ways that students represent what they hear. The dialogue between students demonstrates the gradual stages of listening. Through careful listening, discriminating between elements, and sharing different views, the students revealed more layers of the music, and consequently, the way that they represented the music in the end of the process was distinctly different than at the beginning of the reflective and reciprocal process of listening (Bamberger, 1994).

If the search for a meaning is not a solipsistic process, and if the listening is a social practice, then listening to music is not only responsive, but also creative (Bamberger, 1991). Analogous to musical meaning, creativity may be exercised at different levels, but the attempt to provide meaning to music is essential in attaining a full and meaningful experience of the music. The demand for a meaning is an enduring process, in which the musical piece is gradually exposed to the listeners. In this regard, the example in Bamberger’s analysis emphasizes that sounds have the potential to provide meaning, but this meaning is contingent on a listener who organizes and restructures the perceived sounds (Bamberger, 1994). The more advanced the listener is, the more likely that he or she will be able to associate the musical piece with his or her life, to connect it to other experiences, and to get more of what the music offers (Reimer, 2003).

Considering listening as a creative activity also can be understood as making music (Peterson, 2006). While some scholars find this claim questionable (e.g., Elliott & Silverman, 2015), it is based on both cognitive and philosophical assumptions. The first assumption is based on cognitive theories—the natural representations of the world, life experiences, and different phenomena are contingent on varied mental levels, individual interactions, and memory structures that yield different products of musical works (Peterson, 2006). Auditory perception can be related to many types of mental processes, such as the listener’s attendance to one or more musical elements. One listener may pay attention to the rhythm, the melody, the harmony, and so on. Indeed, listeners can pay attention to more than one element and realize the relations and the interrelations between elements. Nevertheless, listeners construct their own mental listening model, in which they organize the musical piece that they listened to. This mental process of creative listening differs from person to person based on one’s musical education, experience, and contextual background. But the mental aspect of creative listening is also related to one’s inclination and conscious decision to pay heed to certain elements (Peterson, 2006). For example, when listening to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, one may pay attention to the vivid rhythms and rapid tempo changes, and another listener may be fascinated by the colorful sounds. Each listener will remember different levels of the music and construct different mental models of the music. The diverse interpretations hold a great educational importance that challenges pedagogical practices in some subject matters, which require students to provide the “right” answer. Rather than instructing a specific way to analyze and interpret a musical piece, students need to let their imaginations fly and to advance their creative faculties (Eisner, 2002).

The second assumption of listening as making music follows the concept of thinking in sound. An integral part of music education is ear training and sight-reading music. In these classes, students are asked to develop their abilities to listen carefully to music and to write down what they hear accurately based on their auditory memory (Zhukov, 2014). Consider composers who can develop a whole musical piece in their mind, without playing or singing. Some of the most famous examples are Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Berlioz, Chopin, and Wagner, and there are many more. Mozart used to compose entire musical pieces in his head prior to writing the scores; Beethoven, who lost his hearing at a relatively young age, is probably one of the most striking exemplars of auditory imagery (Deutsch & Pierce, 1992). Aside from composing, there are myriad music styles, such as jazz, tango, Irish Celtic, and Indian music, which are based on performers who play by ear (Woody, 2012). Eisner (2002, p. 4) calls these moments of creation and improvisation “an imaginative act.” Peterson (2006) argues that these examples support the claim that making music cannot be narrowed to playing, singing, or composing, and that listening is an active and creative action that constructs mental products.

Nonetheless, the idea of creative listening as making music is far from being in consensus among scholars. Perhaps one of the prominent scholars who rejects this concept is David Elliott (1995), who discerns between the cognitive and interpretive processes and music-making. Indeed, deep listening involves a complex of cognitive reactions, in which the listener compiles, processes, arranges, and revises the aural sounds. In addition, advanced listening is vital for music-making—one cannot separate the physical actions from the mental. Nonetheless, listening should be developed in relation to the other musical practices, such as performance, composing, playing, singing, and products that other people can listen to. Listening, in and of itself, cannot be separated from the other practices. Although careful listening is crucial for music-making, the fact that one may restructure music and verbally represent it in one way or another is not the same as music-making (Elliott & Silverman, 2015). Yet the importance of careful listening and the ability to provide meaning to music through creativity can help us tap the educational potential of listening to music in order to develop cultural and social connections. The rest of this article will discuss three approaches that will elucidate the connection between active listening and society, which educators and students can take into consideration as they develop listening skills.

Adorno and Structural Listening

The work of the German philosopher Theodor Adorno is probably one of the most important and influential in critical aesthetic theory. In addition to his devotion to philosophical and social critique, Adorno was a trained pianist, and his deep knowledge and love of music have been an inherent part of his theoretical work. Therefore, within the wide and innovative corpus of aesthetic essays, a large body of his work is dedicated to music and the nature of musical experience (Leppert, 2002).

Adorno examines the understanding of the arts and music in modern societies. One notable argument of his refers to the commodification and reification of the arts and the colonization of mass culture on modern civilization. His remarkable work with his colleague Max Horkheimer argues against what they call the culture industry (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002). In brief, the culture industry is marked by the rise of mass or popular culture, which is based on the capitalist motivation of maximizing profits rather than the development of creative and free art products. One of the dangers of the culture industry is that the commodification and reification of cultural products lead to the decay of creativity. The nature of the culture industry is to entertain, and as such, its products do not attempt to challenge the audience, but rather produce and reproduce entertaining products. The reproduction of cultural products leads to sameness—a lack of uniqueness. The problem is rooted in the conditions in which culture operates. Cultural products in the age of technological reproduction are perceived as commodities that sustain the social and political status quo rather than stimulating creativity, freedom, intellectual activity, and autonomous thinking (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002).

Adorno’s critique is not limited to specific musical styles. Rather, he suggests that the mass media has stifled one’s reflective mechanism and simplified the ways that music is perceived. For example, the distinction between light and serious music poses a problem—how can we determine what is serious and what is light? Can we classify some classical works as serious and others as light? And if so, what is the function of each of them? Adorno deems that different styles and genres have different social functions and cannot be treated as a simple distinction between light and serious. For instance, he shows how Mozart has become an exemplar of “light” music that can be listened to in the background—music that appears to be refreshing and comforting. The same holds for the inclination to perform, broadcast, and listen to the same known music. Analogous to popular hits, well-known masterpieces, such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, are performed and listened to again and again. Since the arts, including music, have become another product for enjoinment and amusement, the temptation is to return to the comfortable zone of familiar works (Adorno, 2002a).

The critique of the fetishism of modern culture scrutinizes the attempt of the enlightenment to formulate instrumental rationality, which determines definite categories of knowledge and entails modes of control, domination, and subjugation. The arts, including music, have the potential to go against the predetermined categories of knowledge and to serve as emancipatory vehicles, striving for individual and social freedom (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002). In his aesthetic essays, Adorno (1997) demonstrates his motivation to challenge the enlightenment ideals of reaching a priori and universal truth. Rather, he wishes to formulate what he calls the nonidentity—a critical rationality that is based on one’s awareness of the social and cultural context. This type of rationality requires one to discern multiple modes of reality and to live an authentic life, which is not governed by fixed, habitual modes. In this sense, music should challenge the status quo to break forms, conventions, and dogmas, as well as to create new forms that require listeners to heed the new possibilities of music expression, which forge new possibilities of humanity (Bowman, 1998; Paddison, 1993).

In terms of music education and music listening, Adorno’s critique is highly important when considering the ways in which one develops taste. The problem of understanding music as a commodity is that it shapes the habits of musical experience, as well as musical preferences; if music becomes a product for amusement, then the same principle is apparently applied when considering the repertoire for children and the ways of mediating the music for them. In this regard, Adorno rejects the attempt to create music for children and to distinguish it from other types of music. He argued against exposing children only to so-called childish sounds, while avoiding having them encounter music that would help them in developing authentic experience and knowledge (Adorno, 2002a).

One can think of many examples of youth concerts, including short versions of famous music, and this also may include entertaining performances. This temptation to soften children’s encounters with music is congruent with the distinction between “light” and “serious” music and with the common understanding of music as a commodity. Conceiving music as a product for amusement involves passivity, and this is perhaps one of the focal points related to music education, active listening, and society. In order to develop active agency, one needs to develop authentic knowledge.

Authentic knowledge goes against familiar, banal, and conventional knowledge and probes for new modes of understanding. In music, challenging the status quo can be related to new forms, structures, sounds, tonalities, harmonies, and musical colors that resist the common musical structures that are associated with the ideology of the bourgeoisie—ideology that cherishes sameness, the comfortable, and the familiar and wishes to perpetuate the status quo rather than developing forms of cognition that may reveal the contradictions and tensions of the social structures (Bowman, 1998). In this sense, modern music composers, such as Arnold Schönberg, denote new possibilities of music expression and music experience. The search for new forms, structures, and sounds is the context in which the concept of nonidentity comes into play. Music education ought to resist the fetishist mode of perception and realize the dialectical tension between music in its historical and cultural dimensions. The authentic experience of listening to music is defined by Adorno as structural listening, in which the listener is fully aware of the musical elements and nuances and realizes the immanent dialectical tensions of the musical piece. Namely, meaningful listening is based on “reactive perception,” (Adorno, 2002b, p. 320) in which the listeners discriminate the different levels and layers of the music and develop critical interpretations of the music rather than relying on the preestablished forms and musical structures (Adorno, 2002a, 2002b; DeNora, 2000).

The notion of structural listening can go beyond music classes or one’s tendency to be familiar with new possibilities of musical styles. Students who are able to discern intricate layers of music, explore new possibilities of sound colors and patterns, and critically reflect upon social and cultural connections through music inevitably will develop a different understanding of the world in general. Structural listening is not the only approach of listening that aims to help students to develop the connection between the arts and society. Aesthetic education has been one of the most prominent understandings of arts education, which generated the idea of appreciative listening.

Listening and Music Appreciation

The concept of appreciative listening refers to aesthetic theories and, specifically, to aesthetic education. Aesthetic education has been understood in many ways and has been interpreted in different manners by theoreticians. One view of aesthetic education follows the ideological stances of the enlightenment to create a set of judgment criteria upon the work of art. This type of understanding aims to cultivate one’s understating of art and music and involves a separation between subject and object; the judgment of the art of music is supposed to include evaluating the quality of the art, regardless of one’s experience (Regelski, 2016). Another view of aesthetic education refers to the attempt to “enhance people’s ability to gain the meanings available from culturally embedded expressive forms” (Reimer, 2003, p. 203). In addition, aesthetic education aims to provide meaning through active reflection upon one’s intellectual, emotional, and contextual reflections. Attaining aesthetic experience requires knowledge, understanding, and “sensitivities education” (Reimer, 2003, p. 11), which will nurture intimate and deep interaction with the work of art. In this regard, Greene (2001) defines the concept of aesthetic education by clarifying the meaning of the words aesthetic and education.

Aesthetics is a field of philosophy dealing with the amalgam of perceptual, sensual, and imaginational responses, in the context of one’s knowledge and understanding of and dispositions about the world. Education is related to the process of nurturing one’s identity by opening multiple perspectives, possibilities, and alternative ways of understanding the world (Greene, 2001). Namely, education aims to support the process of self-realization (Dewey, 1998). Hence, aesthetic education wishes to intentionally develop students’ interactions with the arts by stirring awareness and reflective action that will promote their understanding of the arts, as well as to deepen their understanding of the world (Greene, 2001). Any of these concepts can be found in aesthetic education. But for the purpose of this article, which considers the relationship between active listening and music and its social and cultural dimension, the following section will focus primarily on the work of Bennett Reimer and Maxine Greene.

The work of Bennet Reimer is one the most notable in the philosophy of music education. For him, aesthetic education and listening are inherent components of music education. But while the work of Reimer covers all types of music activities and may be understood as addressed mainly to music teachers and students, he emphasizes that the importance of advancing mindful listening should not be limited to music students. In addition, for advancing and accomplishing aesthetic education and mindful listening, Reimer suggests that general philosophy, as well as the philosophy of music education, should be included as part of the K–12 curriculum, or at least as part of teacher education. The bulk of this claim is based on the nature of philosophy and the goals of music education. The nature of philosophy is to explore conceptual questions concerning everyday life through reason. In addition, philosophy deals with a wide array of domains, including ontological, epistemological, ethical, and aesthetical issues, that are encountered in any aspect of human life. With respect to music education and music appreciation, philosophy is the foundation of music exercise, since one’s predispositions, beliefs, and preferences emanate from one’s aesthetic experience (Reimer, 2005, 2009).

Fostering aesthetic education and mindful listening requires teachers and students to discuss the nature of music, the differences among various types of music, and the nature of great art and great music. Therefore, Reimer’s understanding of aesthetic education can be described as follows: (a) music education ought to follow the nature of music—namely, any consideration of developing music curricula needs to consider the nature of the musical pieces that students are going to perform or listen to; and (b) the value of music education should be considered with respect to the general goals of aesthetic education in school (Colwell, 2015). Reimer has insisted that working toward achieving aesthetic education requires addressing philosophical issues not only in relation to music education, but also with respect to sociocultural issues (Reimer, 1991, 2006).

Reimer (1997, p. 35) suggests that developing “mind-on learning” is vital for helping students to realize the complexities of a musical piece and to reflect upon them. Mindful listening can cover many aspects of music, such as analyzing musical details; developing critical responses and judgments; connecting musical pieces to historical, cultural, and social issues; comparing musical pieces, performances, and versions; reflecting upon personal experiences and personal preferences; developing aesthetic appreciation of the music; and using one’s imagination to deepen personal interpretation and understating of music (Reimer, 1997). Indeed, a major challenge is in providing a meaningful experience and determining what counts as meaningful listening.

These examples of providing meaning to music experience involve language. However, as previously noted, the nature of music experience or music meaning is evidently different from linguistic meaning. Whereas music experience is embedded within aesthetic and artistic structures that aim to stimulate emotional and cognitive responses, language is based on semantic structures and syntactic rules for human communication (Aiello, 1994). The meaning of a word or a sentence can be generally understood. If I say, “I play the guitar,” people can understand what I mean by that (or at least can have a general notion of what I do). They still may not know what type of guitar I play (classical, acoustic, jazz, electric) or what style I play (classical, folk, pop, rock, jazz), but they will be able to provide a meaning for the sentence that is not wholly dissimilar to the meaning that I intend or hope to convey. Nevertheless, when I play a chord on my guitar, this chord, in and of itself, has no particular meaning.

As Leonard Meyer suggests, when a chord or melody is part of a whole piece and is related to specific style or culture, then the listening becomes meaningful. Meyer (1994, p. 31) explains that our musical experiences are conditioned on what he calls “past experience,” which refers to (a) the stimulus of the chord or the melody, which the listener can associate with a similar gesture in the particular musical piece; and (b) past experiences in a broader sense, which connect the gesture to the knowledge of the musical genre (Meyer, 1994). This process of making meaning of music can be understood as a form of communication, but unlike common lingual communication, music is not created by determining the suitable signals for communicating direct meaning, but rather by promoting musical growth—the attempt to find aesthetic forms of expression and musical meaning, such as musical motifs, forms, and sound quality, and through opening new vistas of musical expression (Colwell, 2015).

The relationship among the music, the performer, and the listener can be understood as a form of communication. Yet this assumption merits a caveat. As in the example given here, language is a form of communication that can transmit direct information, whereas music experience is supposed to provide myriad possibilities of meanings and should not be reduced to a specific meaning or interpretation (Reimer, 2003).

As Maxine Greene (2001) insists, aesthetic experience always holds more possibilities of understanding and new things to explore. Yet language has a significant role to play in enhancing students’ musical understanding, reflecting the meaning of music in its historical and cultural context and pervading its multiple views, ideas, connotations, emotions, and many more cultural and historical interrelations.

Finally, one of the most interesting aspects of conveying musical ideas through language is the amalgam of technical and vernacular forms of expression regarding music. For example, we may use technical terms such as major, minor, adagio, and so forth, or vernacular description, such as dolce, forte, piano, and so forth. Herein, the language helps to clarify the music experience and enables both the music-maker and the listener to reflect upon the music and make the experience more meaningful (Reimer, 2003).

The concept of aesthetic education in music education, and specifically the work of Bennet Reimer, has had a great influence on the field of philosophy of music education. His work on developing a systematic philosophy of education has inspired many other educators to consider the assumptions of music education in general, and specifically the importance of listening in music classes and in general education. Yet over the years, the aesthetic theory of music education has been criticized for overemphasizing the aesthetic qualities and the attempt to reveal intrinsic meanings in the immanent organization of the music. This type of conceptualization realizes music listening for its own sake and as a separate domain from its political, cultural, historical, and social elements; sociocultural aspects may be taken into consideration as indirect and auxiliary values (Elliott & Silverman, 2015; Regelski, 2016; Woodford, 2014).

It is noteworthy that while in his early works, Reimer tended to distance musical experiences from its political dimensions, in his later works (as shown in this article), he recognized the sociopolitical aspects as contributing to the reflective process of aesthetic experience. Nevertheless, some scholars contend that while Reimer’s contribution to aesthetic experience is valuable for developing individual experience, the goals of fostering social, ethical, and democratic values through musical education and active listening have not been well promoted in his work (Woodford, 2014).

Yet the potential of aesthetic education and active listening can be reached by recognizing the social and political enrichment of aesthetic experience. This idea follows Dewey’s (2005) understanding of the interrelations of the arts and everyday life. The intrinsic cognitive and emotional aesthetic experience should not be perceived as a solipsistic process, but rather as stirring awareness and supporting student growth by realizing the relations between the music and the world. As with other subject matter, Dewey contends that subject matter must be related to the world and rejects any type of indoctrination. Music, like any other art, is not neutral, and galvanizing awareness of the sociocultural contexts of a work of art is essential for developing critical skills that will help listeners to provide deeper meaning to their experience and to recognize the power of music in everyday life (Woodford, 2014).

Maxine Greene (1978, 1988, 1995, 2001) has made a significant contribution to recognizing aesthetic education as a means for developing social awareness. In her notable book The Dialectic of Freedom, Greene explores the ideas of freedom and democracy, shows how aesthetic experiences can stimulate freedom, and suggests that the pursuit of freedom involves self-awareness—the realization of human conditions and the rejection of any type of oppression. In this sense, her view of education and social transformation aligns with that of Paulo Freire (1990). One of the conditions for attaining freedom is developing autonomous thinking through education. If it was noted earlier in this discussion that some versions of aesthetic theories realize the autonomy of the music, then for Greene (1988), the focal point should be the individual’s autonomy and capability of making reasonable decisions. In terms of music education, active (or mindful) listening can release imagination and go beyond perception. Imagination, as described earlier regarding active versus passive listening, is an important component of the aesthetic experience (Parr, 1999). But imagination is not perceived merely as a means for pure appreciation of the music, but rather a means for the exploration of alternative and possible realities. Imagination stipulates the action of praxis and transformation (Allsup, 2003).

If imagination is part of social transformative action, then imagination should not be understood in relation to the individual, but with respect to the social conditions. Hence, social imagination has the power to ignite one’s sensitivity to social issues, to be exposed to other realities, and to think not only of what life is, but rather what life could be (Baxter, 2007). For example, Greene (2001) points out that listening to jazz music can be related to the history of transformative movement and the long struggle for freedom. In addition, reflecting upon the relations and interrelations among styles and the varied influences of one style to another is important for realizing the power of music as transformative action. Moreover, Greene (2001) emphasizes that different styles and genres not only reflect the artistic structures of the music, but also help in recognizing different cultures, contexts, and social habits.

The phase of imaginative action is the extension of one’s capacity to reflect upon perceptions (Dunn, 2006). Sounds are not only structures and not only connotations. Rather, when one develops an alternative reality through the action of listening to music, then the meaning of aesthetic experience can come into play. Reflection refers to an enduring process of examination of one’s assumptions, knowledge, and understanding of everyday life (Allsup, 2003). This understanding resonates with Eisner’s (2002) argument regarding the vitality of imagination and its importance to the creation of a thriving society in which people can see, dream, and make sense of different possibilities for the society. Conversely, a decay of imagination entails a parochial and hopeless society.

Such an understanding of education aims to go against passivity and to ignite one’s imagination to become an active agent (or, in our case, active listener). The contribution of Maxine Greene to aesthetic education, including music education, has been extraordinarily important, specifically regarding the potential of aesthetic education to promote social change. In this regard, an important component of aesthetic education is emphasizing the significance of guidance and instruction. For listening (or any other aesthetic experience) to become active and potentially transformative, teachers need to support students’ development of their cognitive and imaginative faculties (Colwell, 2015).

The next section will discuss the last approach reviewed in this article: praxial music education (Elliott, 1995; Elliott & Silverman, 2015). Unlike Greene, whose focal point is the relationships among the self, the work of art, and the society, praxial music education suggests that accomplishing praxis must include all types of music activities (playing, singing, composing, performing, listening, and so forth). The following discussion will elaborate on this concept.

Praxis and Music Education

Praxial philosophy follows Aristotle’s concept of praxis. The notion of praxis signifies an action that is intertwined with reflection upon everyday action and practices. That is, the concept of praxis aims to stimulate awareness upon action. Aristotle’s concept of praxis comprises four elements: theoria, poiesis, techne, and phronesis. Theoria refers to the intellectual aspect of knowledge. But for Aristotle, theoretical knowledge is not sufficient for attaining praxis. One also needs to connect the theoria with practical reasoning—phronesis, which is related to one’s ability to make ethical judgments. While theoria is vital for understanding basic concepts, phronesis requires having an acquaintance with the world and the practical aspects of the theoria. Techne and poiesis are two elements that refer to the actual or physical action that will yield the outcome of the praxis. Techne refers to the required skills to execute an action, and poiesis is related to the action itself. Attaining praxis and social transformation requires balancing the four elements (Elliott & Silverman, 2015).

In terms of music education, the idea of praxial philosophy suggests that reaching individual and social transformation requires more than just theoretical knowledge or musical techniques of playing an instrument. Rather, it is essential to realize that, in addition to basic skills or required musical information, praxial education attempts to ignite one’s awareness of actions and to galvanize one’s creativity, curiosity, interests, and critical skills.

The nature of the praxial approach is social, and as such, it attempts to encourage students to expand their musical knowledge, experiences, and practices. In this sense, Elliott (1995; Elliott & Silverman, 2015) follow Dewey’s view of education and society. For Dewey, a key principle of education is growth, a process that is not predetermined, or a priori designated. In addition, growth is not merely about content, information, and skills. Rather, the aim is to help student on the process of “self-realization” (Dewey, 1998, p. 238), to relate among knowledge, skills, experiences, and the world. In a similar way, praxial music education views the interaction of the student with the music as a social action. Recalling the distinction between active and passive listening, praxial music education urges teachers, students, and anyone who is involved with music to recognize its praxial potential (Regelski, 2016).

If praxial music education understands music as a social practice, then listening is inherently an active process that is intertwined within the other practices. Listening, in this sense, is an inclusive action, in which the listener reflects upon and connects with the music and its social, cultural, and historical contexts. For instance, when listening to music, students can discuss the context of the musical piece, or even the context of the performance or the performer.

Elliott and Silverman (2015) provide the example of Herbert von Karajan and Erich Kleiber, two of the great conductors of the 20th century. During World War II, each of them made a different decision about his future career. Herbert von Karajan decided to stay in Berlin and secure his career, while Erich Kleiber decided to leave Germany, since he refused to cooperate with the brutal and anti-Semitist dictatorship. In a similar vein, Elliott and Silverman (2015) give the example of Ray Charles, who publicly supported the campaign of Martin Luther King, Jr., against any type of racism and segregation. An intriguing demonstration of his commitment to this campaign was manifested as he canceled a concert in Augusta, Georgia, after finding out that the white and black fans were seated in different, segregated zones of the music hall. Having a discussion of such background contexts can help both teachers and students to move beyond analyzing and interpreting musical pieces to reflect upon the different situations in which music happens (Elliott, 1995, 2005; Elliott & Silverman, 2015). This example can be elaborated on in many layers: the political function of music, the ethical decisions that musicians must make, and the ways in which music can be abused, but at the same time, its potential to be a force of change.

When music educators understand ethics as an essential component of social life, then connecting the music with its social and cultural context is crucial. Music in all genres serves as a means to express ideas, feelings, and ideological tendencies, and in turn, they “confirm or negate the beliefs, feelings, and other dispositions of certain listeners” (Elliott & Silverman, 2015, p. 260). Music styles such as rock, hip hop, and folk music may express the dispositions and beliefs of certain groups.

Clearly put: the praxial approach suggests that considering a wide array of musical aspects has the potential for promoting individual growth and social change. But this change cannot be achieved unless teachers, students, and musicians realize the multidimensional nature of music. Listening to and making music are not panaceas for social problems. Nonetheless, when students engage in a democratic educational process, they may realize that music is embedded into society—and as such, it is a social action. Recognizing music education as a social action enables one to balance achieving a mastery of playing, performing, composing, listening, and learning about the historical and cultural background of music. Only by careful balancing of all components of music-making and listening can praxial knowledge be achieved (Elliott, 1995; Elliott & Silverman, 2015).

The claim that praxial music education can be accomplished only by balancing all forms of music-making and listening merits a further consideration of inside and outside listeners. Inside listeners are those actively involved in making music (soloists, ensemble/band members, singers, etc.). Outside listeners are those who listen to a concert or to recorded music. Another level of distinction refers to musicers and people who are not involved in musicing. The concept of musicing refers to the action of music-making. Elliott (1995) points out that music-making is not limited to specific ways of music-making, nor to composed music, but rather to the multiple ways in which people make music. Musicing can include performing, improvising, playing, composing, and other music-related activities. Active listening, in relation to any of these forms of listening (inside or outside), requires listeners to pay attention to providing meaning. However, this distinction among different types of listenership suggests that the listener who is involved in music-making has an advantage, at least to some extent, over the novice listener, or the listener who is not involved in music-making.

Namely, music listening is a cognitive action that can be associated with different levels of knowledge and forms of learning. This understating entails another important distinction that Elliott (1993, 1995; Elliott & Silverman, 2015) makes between verbal and procedural musical learning. Procedural (or nonverbal) learning includes the practices that students learn through musicing. This type of learning is what enables one to engage in musical activities and interact with other people through music. However, in verbal learning, music is mediated by language (Elliott & Silverman, 2015). As explained earlier, one can learn theoretical aspects of music from the genre and its sociohistorical and sociocultural aspects. Yet the praxial philosophy urges that mediating music through words can provide only a limited musical experience. Akin to other fields (such as skiing, scuba diving, or horse riding), there is a great difference between knowing about and knowing how. Reading a lot about skiing does not make one qualified to ski. The same holds for knowing about music and knowing how to make music. Therefore, language, in and of itself, cannot function as a substitute for music listening or musicing. Procedural learning is a prerequisite for developing a full and meaningful musical experience that will yield a praxial experience (Elliott, 1993, 1995; Elliott & Silverman, 2015; Cutietta & Stauffer, 2005).

The concept of praxial music education provides an eloquent framework for teachers and students to understand music as a social practice. Yet one should take into consideration some of the critiques of this approach and its limitations. Cutietta and Stauffer (2005) problematize the hierarchical continuum of listeners that the praxial approach suggests. They contend that the presumption that an active musician has an advantage over a nonmusician can be flawed. If praxial music education suggests that praxis is contingent on music-making, then for a large part of the society, the praxial philosophy cannot come into play. They argue that listeners who are embedded in the culture and have a deep knowledge of music and its context are not necessarily less capable than music-maker listeners (Cutietta & Stauffer, 2005).

Their argument is supported by several studies that have not found a significant difference between musicers and nonmusicers in the ways in which the listeners perceived music. In addition, in studies that examined the preferences of listeners to repeated music, there was no difference between the two types of listeners. Nevertheless, repeated listening to music influenced listeners’ preferences, regardless of their level of expertise. Finally, listeners who regularly listen to music develop musical skills that help in discriminating various musical elements. Cutietta and Stauffer (2005) question the assumption that music-making is a prerequisite for developing listening skills. Indeed, music-making can improve listening, but that does not mean that the curious and reflective listener cannot reach a similar level of listenership.

Another issue of concern regarding the prevalence of procedural learning lies in the assumption that music experiences are multidimensional. As such, there are different experiences of music, and people in various places will have different ways to make and listen to music. Bowman (2005) contends that such a multidimensional understanding of music is undeniably reasonable. However, privileging one form of music experience over others and suggesting that music-making is a prerequisite for attaining praxis entail a new form of hierarchy.

Critique and Possibilities

Active listening to music has great potential to develop critical skills, individual growth, and social transformation. Nevertheless, the differences and disagreements between the theories of music education and music listening show the significance of developing active listening as an inherent part of music. The introduction of this article explored Eisner’s (2002) argument regarding the importance of the arts in developing the mind and helping one to cultivate a critical and reasoned understanding of the world. Langer (2000) comments that while people tend to agree that keeping the mind active and in the present is a good idea, most people do not realize when their minds are not in the present or when they are unaware of nuance. Therefore, mindful learning has an important part to play in ensuring “that our minds are active, that we are involved, and that we are situated in the present” (Langer, 2000, p. 222). This article has argued that realizing the potential of active listening can help both teachers and students to develop a deeper understanding of social, cultural, historical, and political issues through music.

Recognizing the relationship between music and society invites research from varied disciplines in addition to musicology, such as philosophy, sociology, history, and psychology. In the age of digital technology, when the formats of listening and the accessibility of music has been widely changed, further research is required to achieve a better understanding of how global changes influence listening and what possible ways exist to advance active listening through digital media. Although the literature about this topic is relatively limited, in the last few years, research concerning this issue has increased.

For example, Egermann, Kopiez, and Altenmüller (2013) conducted a study in which they examined how listening to music online affects one’s emotional reactions. Their study focused on listeners who experienced music through online networking platforms such as iTunes or Amazon. In these platforms, listeners can share their feedback about songs, albums, and performers and recommend music to others. The more that listeners were exposed to others’ feedback, the more their emotional reactions were affected (Egermann, Kopiez, & Altenmüller, 2013). Ančić (2016) analyzes how online listening has created new virtual spaces of listening and opened up new possibilities of music experience. One of the dominant transformations of music consumption is that, unlike the predigital era, when people listened to albums consisting of a limited, specific number of songs or musical pieces, the playlists that one creates on a digital device are no longer predetermined. She posits that online listening has enabled people to become the curators of their own music, which concurrently, dramatically changes the ways people understand and experience music.

Her argument echoes another study conducted by Bull (2000), which examined how listening to music in public areas with personal devices has become an inherent part of urban life for many people. In this sense, Denora (2003, p. 97) suggests that Bull’s study is important in elucidating the new modes of listening through technology, and it “illuminates the way in which music’s ability to ‘channel emotion’, as Adorno put it, is linked to the material cultural accoutrements of music hearing.” A possible implication of this argument is a shift in the relationships between the performer and the listener, as well as new modes of mediating and reproducing music, which inevitably entails different meanings of active listening.

The performer-listener relationships in the online era have been further explored by Bennett (2012), who examined how social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have created a new phenomenon of an audience that shares its live experience in concerts. This challenges the meaning of the live experience, as confined by discrete boundaries (whether it is the concert hall, the stadium, or the park). While radio and television allow nonattendees to experience live events on special occasions, the informational revolution has allowed anyone to instantly share live concerts with nonattendees around the world and to provide them with the opportunity to experience the live concert, at least to some extent.

Nevertheless, when considering the concept of active listening, digital media have dramatically changed the nature of human experience. Bennett (2012) points out that, alongside the new possibilities of digital technologies, some people have become more engaged with social media during the concert than with actively listening to the music in real time. In this respect, Turkle (2011) astutely comments that digital devices have transformed human communication to such an extent that people are prone to be always online. The concern and the educational challenge are how to nurture reflective and mindful listening habits while harnessing the benefits offered by new technologies and not allowing them to be a distraction.

The studies discussed in this article reflect some of the timely research concerning the ramifications of digital technology on listening. In light of these examples, educators need to consider the changes in the human experience during times when everything is sped up through technology (Wajcman, 2015). Active listening can be a means for securing one’s feelings and paying attention to detail. As Eisner (2002, p. 24) notes: “[The] arts help students learn how to savor qualities by taking the time to really look so that they can see.” They also reinforce the importance of helping students to recognize the complex layers of musical pieces; the connections and interconnections among music, culture, and society; and the significance of cultivating active listening habits.


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