Updated: Nov 9, 2020
First let's start with the basics - what on earth is Intentional Listening?
A simple definition is “listening with intention”. Go deeper. As a listener, start by getting out of your own head and away from your perceptions, biases, and ideas. Focus completely on the speaker, or singer. Notice their words, phrasing, and verbal behaviors. Notice also their emotions, energy, and level of thinking. Be aware of their perceptions and possible biases. Consider whether they are primarily emotional or logical. Observe whether they are talking about what they see, what they hear, what they do, how they feel, where they are, what they smell, what they taste, and most significantly, what it all means to them.
Intentional listening meets a very basic human need of the speaker: to be heard and understood. As much as this is sought, the irony is that the majority hear far less than they realize. According to the Harvard Business Review, “It can be stated, with practically no qualification, that people in general do not know how to listen. They have ears that hear very well, but seldom have they acquired the necessary aural skills which would allow those ears to be used effectively for what is called listening.”
What does that have to do with being a Musical Theater Performer?
Music analysis is a critical component for a musical theater performer in preparing for a role. Much can be learned from following a few basic strategies for intentional listening. Here are five things you can do to get your intentional listening skills honed!
Set aside time and headspace for active listening.
Nowadays, we tend to listen to music in a largely passive way. We sing along as we drive our cars, as we work out, and as we complete chores around the house. This osmotic way of experiencing music is important, and we don’t want to let it go. But as a professional performer (or professional in training), it’s also particularly critical to block out time that’s dedicated to active listening. Even if you don’t read music notation, sit down with your sheet music in an environment free from distraction, take a few deep breaths, and press play. Then, move on to number two!
Think about the music’s function.
Consider the question “What purpose (or purposes) does the music seem to serve in this song?” Does it seem to function as a reflection of the character’s inner psyche in this moment? Or perhaps it appears to be playing its own separate character altogether? Maybe it’s less complex than that and simply serves to lay down a groove. The possibilities are practically infinite, and there’s usually no right or wrong answer. Try not to get too intellectual about it all, but do have fun considering the various ways in which the music seems to play a role unto itself.
Consider the lyrics.
Not only are lyrics the dialogue of songs; they’re also musical elements in their own right. How do the lyrics seem to interact with or go against the grain of the music that accompanies them? Are there touches of alliteration, onomatopoeia, or approximate rhyme sprinkled throughout? Does the character seem to have specific language “-isms” with which they express themselves? Although lyric writing can be similar to poetic writing in many ways, lyrics by their very nature possess a unique musical quality, and it’s important to keep this in mind when listening analytically to a piece of music.
Delve deep into the instrumentation. When you perform a song at an audition, chances are you’ll be accompanied by a solo pianist. Even in the context of a cabaret performance, the norm is often piano, bass, and drums. But it’s important, when applicable, to be readily familiar with a song’s original orchestration beyond these instruments. Let’s imagine you’re working on a number from a splashy Golden Age musical for your audition. Chances are good that the song was orchestrated for a large number of musicians, giving it lots of different tone colors and hues. How would you describe the individual moments in the song from an instrumental point of view? Bright and brassy? Dark and reedy? What do these observations suggest about characterization?
Familiarize yourself with a new (to you) musical each week. Choose a musical with which you’re unfamiliar and play it on repeat each week. This is a great way to become familiar with stylistic tropes and references, individual writers, performers, and their influences, and the musical theater repertoire in general. While you’re at it, don’t forget to listen to the original versions of songs by popular artists whose stories are told through jukebox musicals. It’s important to go to the source in addition to the cast album in these cases. Once in awhile, compare a revival cast recording with the original cast. What do you notice that’s carried over, and what’s changed?
It goes without saying that there are so many more things you can be doing to improve your intentional listening. While one couldn't possibly cover all of them in the span of one article, these tips will get you started on the road to becoming more familiar with scores of...well, scores.