Preparing children for active concert listening

How to help children make each new listening experience richer and more meaningful than the last.
1. “We hear with our ears. We listen with our brain”

Many concert productions for children use visual or dramatic techniques to create focus, sustain interest and supply context for the music. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and there are many fine productions that use any number of extramusical techniques to great effect. But, sometimes they get in the way of (or replace!) a more direct experience of the music, and the concert becomes less about the music and more about something else.

There are any number of reasons for this, but primarily it has to do with the special nature of music as an art form. Music is invisible, it does not appeal directly to our strong visual sense. Music is also temporal. It reveals itself over time. This means that music demands both concentration and memory to be perceived as an artistic whole. For children, these characteristics result in music being often overwhelmed by stronger visual aspects, or by the social context of the concert program. 

Does it get us any closer to the music to know that Sergei Prokofiev was a famous composer? That he was born in 1891? Was a practicing Christian Scientist? Has an airport named after him in Donetsk Oblast, Russia? That Peter and the Wolf is his opus 67? That the bassoon plays the part of Peter’s grandfather? No. Fun facts. Nice to know. Provides context. Doesn’t help us actually listen, because we are listening for the bassoon in the hopes of finding the grandfather. The actual music becomes subservient to an auditive story. 

When does a concert stop being about the music? It is not surprising that it is easier to entertain several senses than it is to present a pure listening experience. The truth of the matter is that music (for all its simplicity) is difficult. Listening without something to look at, a storyline to follow, or a catchy lyric demands skill. But if we are to present music as an independent art form, and not merely as a component part linked to other forms of artistic expression, we must help our audience to develop their active listening skills. 

We have some traditional tools to help children understand their concert experience. None of them especially effective. “Dumbing down” musical content for young audiences is taking the easy way out. A good concert must do more than meet the audience, it must also challenge them. Factual preparation like composer information, instrument names or style periods creates an academic framework, but brings us little closer to the actual music. Superficial evaluation ("Did you like the concert?") reveals something of our existing music preferences, likes and dislikes, and social context, but doesn’t help us to explore the music we are actually listening to. Classroom discussions after the concert have a certain function in that they can confirm or validate the groups’ concert experience. But, such discussions are often unstructured and overly simplified simply because most children lack the vocabulary to describe their experiences, the maturity to identify and label their feelings, and the metacognitive skills to reflect upon their own thinking. 

The ways in which we have learned to listen can also get in our way. Listening is traditionally taught as functional listening. Students learn to listen for timbre in order to identify instruments, to repetition in order to identify musical forms, and to contrast in order to identify musical concepts such as dynamics, tempo changes, or changes in meter. Music researcher David Elliott describes the skill path of a listener as, “hearing - listening to - listening for.” What lies beyond this kind of functional listening? What kind of listening can get us even closer to the music? 

Functional listening has its place, but what about purely sensory listening? What about listening completely free of a dependency on pre-existing concepts, specialized terminology or previous experience? Unconditional listening. This kind of "pure" listening has been explored by composers such as John Cage in his book Silence: Lectures and writings, and Pauline Oliveros in her Deep Listening projects. Unfortunately, the techniques and ideas of both Cage and Oliveros demand a level of intellectual and perceptual maturity not present in most children. 

There are, however, easy and effective techniques for young students to develop their active listening skills. These techniques are simple enough to be used by a grade school teacher who is not a music specialist. 

Some of the most interesting research into building listening skills in children is being done by Robert E. Dunn at Brigham Young University and by Abigail Housen at Harvard University’s "Project Zero".

Photo credit: Christian Brandt

2. Mapping

Dunns’ “mapping” technique has the students drawing the music. Not making drawings about the music, or pictures inspired by the music, but (compensating for the child’s lack of descriptive vocabulary) describing what they hear with color, line and form. Since most children under the age of eleven demonstrate so called "one-track listening" (Seraphine, 1988) where they fixate on one aspect of the music at a time, their pictures describe different and personal perceptions of the music. By having each child explain his drawing to the group, the children define their own experiences and at the same time share listening strategies with their classmates. These new tools are then used for their next encounter with music.

3. Methodology – “Mapping”
  • Divide into groups of 3-5 students. Ideally, each group should have a moderator to steer the discussion, keep the group on task, and sum up each discussion.
  • Provide each group with paper and colored pencils, markers or crayons.
  • Play short, instrumental music examples that vary in style and complexity.
  • After listening to each music example, the students should draw the music. This should result in a kind of a map showing what the music did, where the music went, and how it got there.
  • Students in each group should show their map to the rest of the group and interpret their drawing for the others. Questions and comments should be allowed, but kept on task by the moderator.
  • The process should be repeated several times (3 is usually a good number of times for this activity).
  • At the end of the activity, each student should compare all of his or her maps. How do the maps change? Does the last map have more information about the music in it than the first map? If you were to draw a map for the first music example again, would it be any different?
  • The moderator should sum up the activity with a few questions:
  1. Can you see any differences in your drawings?
  2. How do you listen differently now than when we started?
  3. Have you become a better listener?
  4. What new words have you learned to describe what you hear?
4. ​ Visual Thinking Strategies

Abigail Housen has her main research focus on visual art and aesthetic maturity, but her techniques are equally applicable to music. Her Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) use each student as a resource for exploration and discussion suitable to the student’s own level of aesthetic maturity. VTS-discussions should be open, but structured, and require a skillful moderator. The point is not to come to a definite conclusion about the artwork, but to explore a myriad of perceptions, ideas, and opinions about art. The strength of this technique is that is helps students to externalize their internal feelings and thoughts, and to have them challenged and refined through group discussion.

5. Methodology - VTS

The methodology is centered on small group discussions steered by a moderator, and is based primarily on just three important questions.

  • What is going on in the music?
  • What do you hear that makes you say that?
  • What more can you find?

The central question for young listeners is: “What is going on in this music?” (Housen & Yenawine, 2001a). It is the first question Housen uses in the Visual Thinking Strategy. By using the active phrase, “is going on,” we encourage beginners to do what they do naturally: enter into the music and then create a list or tell a story. This question focuses the listener’s attention on the music. When a group of beginner listeners responds to this question, everyone starts listening longer and more intently, discovering new details, and being exposed to multiple points of view. As listeners present their different viewpoints, everyone in the group is able to access new interpretations and strategies.

To keep a group of beginner listeners (Housen’s Maturity Stages I and II) focused on the music, the question, “What do you hear that makes you say that?” (Housen & Yenawine, 2001a), asks that listeners support their interpretations. This question concentrates the group discussion on the music, prompting everyone to listen longer and harder, hear more complexity, interact with one another, and revise and expand their initial interpretations. Listeners learn to reason by citing evidence found in the music. A third question: “What more can you find?” revitalizes and renews the process of listening and ensures that the group continues to listen intensely, discovering that the more they listen, the more they hear. The openness of the discussion has the added benefit of assuring the students that there can be more than one correct answer, or indeed no “correct” answer at all.

Housen has found that the most effective experiences for stimulating aesthetic development are:

  • Question-based
  • Give the learner repeated opportunity to construct meaning from different points of view
  • Take place in an environment that supports looking in new and meaningful ways
  • And are inspired by rich, varied, and carefully chosen works of art.

6. How to get started?

By learning from the work of Dunn and Housen, we can guide children to develop and expand perceptual and learning strategies in their music

listening, helping each new experience to be richer and more meaningful than the last.  At the same time, we assist them in acquiring new
vocabulary to assess and describe their experiences with music.

Want to get started? Find sheet for download to print and bring along below.

Grab and go - How to improve children's listening skills

Good luck and have fun!

7. Literature

Cage, J. (1961) Silence: Lectures and writings. The M.I.T. Press; First MIT Paperback edition (1966)

Dunn, Robert E. Life Music as a Beginning Point: Connecting with the Intuitive Listener. In P.R. Fra Webster and J.R. Barrett (Eds.), Rethinking Education and the Musical Experience. Currently under consideration for publication by Oxford University Press. 

Dunn, R. E., (2005). Lifelong listening: Enhancing the intuitive ways we listen to music. International Journal of Community Music, (2) 1. Retrieved June 10, 2005, from 

Dunn, Robert E. (in press). Is Listening to Music a Creative Act? Utdrag fra: Contemporary Research on Music Listening: A Holistic View. In R. Colwell and P. Webster (Eds.), The MENC Handbook on Music Learning, Volume 2: Applications. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Housen, A. (2001) Aesthetic Thought, Critical Thinking and Transfer. Arts and Learning Research Journal. Vol. 18, no.1, 2001-2002. 

Housen A., & Yenawine, P. (2001a). Visual Thinking Strategies: Understanding the basics. Retrieved November 2, 2006, from

Oliveros, P. (2005) Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice. iUniverse, Inc.

Seraphine, M. (1988). Music as cognition: The development of thought in sound. New York: Columbia University Press.


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