Scott Rogers on How Children Listen

Simply having a young audience in the concert hall is no guarantee that they will actually be listening...
08 Nov, 2022

Simply having a young audience in the concert hall is no guarantee that they will actually be listening. They will undoubtedly be hearing the sounds around them, but not necessarily listening to, or experiencing the music in a meaningful way.

How do children listen, and how can we get these young listeners closer to the music?

There is a substantial amount of research that can help us explore listening. Let us take a little time to think about what listening is.

What is listening?

Music researcher Davis Elliott at New York University describes three stages of listening, hearing, listening to, and listening for. This defines the difference between hearing (which we do all the time), and listening, which is a matter of focus and intention.

“Listening to” is a passive activity which requires a small amount of commitment on our part. We usually only attend enough to filter out most of the extraneous noise from our surroundings. Listening to music at the gym is like this. We choose music as a stimulus to help us over the boredom of 30 minutes on the treadmill, but we are not looking for (or expecting) an aesthetic experience.

“Listening for” is a conscious act focused on the music. We block out everything else and listen deeper into the music in order to “find” or discover new elements, hidden nuance, sensations or meaning.

Emotional listening

From the beginning of our lives, we listen instinctively with our emotions (Svoboda, 2006). We have a basic need to search out and be moved by the aesthetic experience. Even trained musicians must be prompted to listen analytically. Their primary entrance into listening is largely expressive.

Taetle and Cutietta’s (2002) work suggests that the traditional musical element approach, common to many music curricula, is counter to the way the mind intuitively engages music. According to Cutietta, a sounder approach would be non-elemental, beginning in helping children make holistic categorizations based in musical moods or styles. Training in analytical listening can hinder expressive listening, and cause children to lose touch with their intuitive musical sense (Bamberger, 1982).

If this is the case, why don’t we just teach expressive listening instead of trying to get students to recognize sonata form? The answer is that teaching analytical listening is far easier than teaching expressive listening. Analytical listening can be objectively evaluated and graded, expressive listening - not so much.

Models of listening

Models are an effective way for us to think about listening in a structured manner. Robb E. Dunn states that “Music is temporal, and so is listening”:

• Past: The listener enters his listening with all his previous experiences providing context for his listening. This makes past experience and musical memory important.

• Present: Listening in the moment requires arousal (something must get your attention) and attention (and it must hold your attention). Michael Posner’s “Trinity Model” of attention is an easy way to begin understanding the mechanics of this phenomenon.

• Future: In the immediate future lie the listener’s expectations. To the extent in which these expectations are fulfilled or denied, the listener will experience a strengthened (or weakened) sensation from his listening. The listening context and previous experience of the listener inform these future expectations as well.

Models of Listening

The Reciprocal Feedback Model

As a producer, I have benefitted from working with David Hargreaves’ Reciprocal Feedback Model because it is situational. The model consists of three variables that interact to produce a response. The component parts are the listener, situations or context, and music.

This model establishes relationships that help us understand specific listening situations. When a producer understands how these relationships function, he or she can refine or adjust each element to create better conditions for listening.


Let’s take a look at each individual component part of the model

1. The Listener

What do we know about the young listener?

When we focus on the listener’s role in the model, we are talking about individual difference variables like gender, age, and nationality or ethnicity. The listener is also defined by musical knowledge, training, literacy, perception, and previous experience.

Single-track Listening

Serafine (1986) describes listening in children up to about 11 years of age as single-track listening. The listener follows one aspect of the music at a time. This has consequences for the complexity of the music we will present to children in that age group and underscores the importance giving the children something to listen for.

The Magic Number Seven (plus or minus two)

People have a limited amount of visual and aural information that they can access and store in their short-term memory at any given time. This phenomenon is described by Miller (1956) in his groundbreaking paper on perceptual field theory, "The Magic Number Seven (plus or minus two)". The consequence for children's listening is that only a limited number of impressions can be processed at any one time. We can strengthen our concerts by reducing competing stimuli and increasing physical nearness to simplify the child’s perceptual field.

The Mere Exposure Effect

In the field of listening and music preference, The Mere Exposure Effect means that repeated listening to a musical example increases preference until a saturation point is attained. After this point, the preference weakens (usually after about 10 or 11 exposures). Familiarity is the single most important predictor for liking of music, and repeated listening increases the liking for music regardless of its complexity (Madison & Schiölde, 2017).

Aesthetic Maturity

Abigail Housen’s research defines different stages of aesthetic maturity. These different stages can access different aesthetic levels of an artwork. One of the most interesting points in her findings is that age does not necessarily translate to increased aesthetic maturity. It is possible for parents and children (or teachers and students for that matter) to be at the same level of aesthetic maturity. This has consequences for how we present our concerts, how we form our educational materials, and the assumptions teachers make about their students.

Music Preferences

Sometime around 11 or 12 years of age, “liking” specific songs or genres becomes more than a personal preference, it is part of a larger and growing sense of “self”.

By the age of about 16 or 17, most people have established music preferences that will follow them for the rest of their lives. The exception to this is children who actively perform music. Their musical preferences remain open much longer, sometimes well into their twenties.

One of the hallmarks of a good production for children is that it speaks to the world in which the child lives. Adult preferences often sneak into productions for children, weakening their relevance for the intended audience. If you are producing a concert for children, and having a little too much fun, take a step back and evaluate the relevance of what you are doing and who you are doing it for.”


A child’s ability to attend over time increases with age. Experts estimate that our ability to concentrate over time can expand by as much as three minutes per year. We have a peak in our attention during the first 3-7 minutes of a task, before our attention begins to quickly decline. When we know the length of the task, our attention rises again as we anticipate the ending.

Our attention is affected by external factors such as: intensity, size, movement, novelty, change and contrast. There are also internal factors at work: interests, emotion, effort required by the task, state of mind and train of thought. Because of these many variables, there is little solid empirical evidence about attention span. There is, however, a consensus that children and adolescents can (when properly motivated), stay on task for about 15-20 minutes. As any good classroom teacher can tell you, the lesson plan must change task after about 20 minutes.


Contrast in music is a primary mechanism to arousing attention and renewing the listener’s focus. There is a correlation between listening example length, amount of contrast, and listener attention over time. It is also important to think about the contrast that occurs between pieces of music at a concert. Many a fine concert has self-destructed because the transitions between pieces were not as thoroughly prepared as the music.

2. The Context

Each concert situation represents a unique context, and many of the elements that create the context are things that we can control or modify. Here we are talking about contextual elements like social, cultural, and physical contexts.

Social Context

Every concert has its own social dynamic. Good communication can establish a strong social contract between the performer and his audience. If there is no connection with the stage, the audience is left to develop its own internal social dynamic. There is going to be a show someplace, just not necessarily on stage.

A child at a concert with his parents is a different type of listener than when he is at a concert with his classmates. This is because his self-identity and social role is different in these two situations. Differing social contexts place different expectations or demands on the listener. But we can also create social contexts that strengthen our concerts.

Physical Context

Where are you listening? There is a difference between a string quartet in Wigmore Hall, and that same string quartet performing at the local shopping mall. The difference lies in the perceptions of the listeners and the expectations they attach to a specific arena.

  • Proximity
    is an essential part of a concert’s physical context. The music faces competition for the listener’s attention, and proximity makes the music more important.

  • Entrainment
    Entrainment happens when an external stimulus creates sympathetic rhythmic movement. It is a phenomenon demonstrated almost exclusively by human beings. Since entrainment is a sign that the listener has connected with the music, it is important to allow for entrainment during the listening process.

  • Ownership of the physical context
    Students who have concerts in their schools have an existing feeling of ownership and much previous experience with the rooms in the school. To turn a gymnastics hall into a concert hall, we need to find ways to change the existing perceptions of the space and the student’s feelings of ownership.

Perceptual or Sensory Context

Some concerts present music together with movement activities or visual stimuli. Studies show that when these activities are carefully crafted, it is possible for children to link them to the music. However, often the children concentrate so hard on performing the movements correctly that it weakens their perception of the music. Something like this can also occur if children strongly associate with visual stimuli, the music fades into the background as the visual stimuli becomes more dominant. In these instances, elements that are meant to strengthen the concert can become competition to the music.

3. The Music

Here we need to consider reference systems like genres and idioms, and collative variables like complexity and familiarity.


Programming for young listeners is challenging. We don’t want to present music that is beyond their reach, but we also don’t want to be patronizing. A good concert must do more than follow its audience. The music must meet them and challenge them on an appropriate level.

There is a choice to be made. If we only have one journey to take our audience on, are we going to take children on a return trip to something they know from before, or are we going to take them on a journey of discovery?


Extremely simple music quickly becomes uninteresting, and preference grows as the examples become more complex. At a certain point the music will become too complex, and the amount of preference will begin to decrease (Berlyne, 1970).

It is theorized that this Wundt Curve, or Optimal Arousal Model and the Mere Exposure Effect” work together to produce developing listeners. The “sweet spot” on the top of the curve moves over time towards increased complexity.

Complexity Curve

As the curve moves forward, familiarity causes the original music example to lose complexity and weaken as a musical preference. This may help explain why the MEE increases until about 10 repetitions before beginning to gradually decrease.

4. The Response

The contexts, music and past experiences of the listener generate responses to the music. These different types of responses are documented in a number of different studies: Bundra, 1994. Dunn, 2008. Ellis, 1999. Rodriguez and Webster, 1997.

  1. Extramusical responses. Associations that are not music related can attach themselves to the music.
  2. Imaginative responses. More than passively experiencing the music, the person co-creates the experience along with the performers, making it come to life for him or herself. (air guitar and hairbrush vocals fall into this category).
  3. Cognitive responses. Formal or factual noticing or responding to specific or overall aspects of or about the music.
  4. Feeling responses. Affect or feeling is aroused, created, or remembered.
  5. Physical/kinesthetic responses. The body responds to the music through outward motion, internal physiological response.

The listener usually modulates through a variety of these responses as he or she experiences the music. The result is an inner mental representation of the music, embodied with meaning known only to the listener. This forms the basis for reflection, remembering, and differentiating listening experiences.

Listening Strategies

There are effective learning strategies available for working with expressive listening: Kate Hevner’s, Adjective Circles help children to develop an expressive vocabulary so that they can better describe the music and their listening experience, Rob E. Dunn’s Mapping Activities have the children draw the music and then share their drawing with the group. This helps children describe their listening experience through visual tools, and then share their listening strategies with others. Abigail Housen’s Visual Thinking Strategies help children to discuss their listening experiences in depth through mediated discussions that reveal their thought process. All these learning strategies can be important tools to opening a world of art to children and are well worth investigating.

So, that’s all the theory. How does all this help us in practice?

Knowing what we do now, how do we set the stage for good music listening at our concerts? Here are 10 important points:

1. Proximity. Get them physically close to the experience so that the music can win out over other sound sources or distractions. Make the music the most important thing in the room.

2. Make the audience feel welcome. For young audiences, a large concert hall is foreign and intimidating. Make them feel at home from the moment they enter the building.

3. Choice. Choice increases listener motivation and receptiveness. What about playing three short excerpts and letting the audience choose which piece they will hear all the way through?

4. Program for attention. Design your concert to capture and hold the children's attention through musical means. Program carefully for 'single-track' listeners. Keep in mind the complexity of the music in relation to the listening history and the attention span of the audience. Use contrast and variation to keep your audience engaged.

5. Create context and references. Prepare the children for the music, with the music.

6. Teach listening. Use the Dunn, Housen or Hevner strategies to explore short musical examples. Give children a vocabulary to describe, share, and think about their musical experiences.

7. Build expectations. Consciously build listening expectations through devices like repetition, contrast, and a clear dramatic structure in your concert form.

8. It’s always our fault. There are no bad young audiences. There is, however; poor planning, repertoire choices that lack relevance, too much distance between the stage and the back of the hall, indifferent playing, poor communication, faulty logistics, and a slew of other areas where too little effort might be made. These choices may result in unwanted behavior from the audience but make no mistake – it is on us.

9. Have meaningful discussions after the concert. Don’t ask the children whether they 'liked' the concert or if they had fun. These are loaded questions with a clear bias towards liking, and they are useless as evaluation since they do not establish any criteria for what 'liking' and 'fun' actually are. In addition, these are also “closed-ended” questions that do not invite further discussion. It is much better to use open-ended questions that facilitate reflection and discussion. 'What did you hear?' "What was going on in the music?" What makes you say that?” “How did the music make you feel? “Why?” Do not feel obligated to conclude. The point is to discuss in-depth and explore.

10. Trust the music. Don’t underestimate the audience. Don’t patronize. Don’t feel obligated to entertain. Just trust the music.

How Children Listen 2


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