How to Get Better... Without Even Practicing (Active Listening)

How to Get Better… Without Even Practicing

The most fundamental skill musicians need to develop is listening.

Spending time practicing the harmonica isn’t the only way to improve on the instrument. An equally important activity is active listening.

When you learn to active listen you’ll find this happens:

:+1: You play the right thing because you hear how your playing fits into the whole.

:+1: You start to be able to grow your musicianship anytime you hear music.

:+1: While playing along with a song, you don’t get lost as easily.

:+1: It becomes easier to learn songs by ear.

:+1: You get better at improvising.

There are LOTS of ways to LISTEN ACTIVELY.


The most challenging, and rewarding, thing is to transcribe something to memory, which is what people often refer to as “learning by ear”. I’ve already written about learning by ear, but here’s a quick recap:

:arrow_right: You can learn anything, as long as you can slow it down enough. So if you want to transcribe to memory, your first order of business is to find a tool to slow down your audio.

On the desktop I use Transcribe!, and on my phone I use the Amazing Slow Downer. Next, you have to make sure you have the right key harmonica to learn the song you are wanting to learn. If you’re a total beginner and you’re unsure how to do this, just post a question in the forum and we’ll get you sorted!

:arrow_right: Next, play the first note on your device, press pause, sing it, and play a note on the harmonica. If it’s lower than the note you sang, try a higher note on the harmonica, and vice versa, until the note you are singing and the note you are playing match.

It might take you many minutes to find that note on the harmonica, but I assure you it’s time well spent!

:arrow_right: Next, play the first and second note on your device. Sing them, and then try to play them on the harmonica.

This might sound overwhelming, but it’s the real deal. This is how all of our harmonica heroes learned the instrument (except we have better tools to slow down audio now).

Transcribing 3 notes to memory this way,


learning 3 entire songs looking at tabs.

And like anything, the more you do it,

the better you will get at it!

That’s why I’ve often said that the best way to take my Beginner to Bosscourse is with your eyes closed!

But besides transcribing, there’s TONS of other ways to listen activelywhich you can do anytime, anyplace that music is playing. Here’s a few ideas to get you started:

:point_right: Hear the time signature. Tap your foot or your hand to the beat, and count. Most popular songs you’ll find that you count to 4 over and over again, but some you might find 3 or 6. Note: beat 1 of each bar naturally feels the strongest accent.

:point_right: Hear the form. Here are a few common forms:

:small_blue_diamond: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus

:small_blue_diamond: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus

But some songs start with the Chorus. Some songs start with an instrumental or have a solo. The 12-Bar Blues has an AAB form. Noticing the form of the songs is a great form of active listening. Write down the form of your favorite song. Soon you’ll start hearing forms naturally.

:point_right: Count bars. How many bars are in each section of the song? Is the chorus 8 bars or 16 bars? Maybe the first verse is 16 bars, but the second verse is only 8 bars. If the song has 4 beats / bar, simply count to 4: “1, 2, 3, 4” and then replace “1” with the bar number, like this:

:small_blue_diamond: 1, 2, 3, 4

:small_blue_diamond: 2, 2, 3, 4

:small_blue_diamond: 3, 2, 3, 4

:small_blue_diamond: 4, 2, 3, 3

:point_right: Hum the Bass. Can you hum the root note of the chords being played? If you’re in the process of learning/memorizing the 12-Bar Blues form, this exercise can work wonders! But it’s a great exercise to practice on anytune.

:point_right: Hear instrumentation. What instruments are in the mix? Is it an upright bass or an electric bass? Acoustic guitar or electric guitar? As you practice this, you will notice certain instruments only appear in certain sections of the song. Maybe an electric guitar, a tambourine, or an organ only appears in the choruses, but not in the verses. Maybe the drummer switches from playing the hi-hat to playing the ride cymbal.

:point_right: Map the Sound Stage. This exercise takes hearing instrumentation to the next level. Place instruments where they exist in the sound stage from left to right and from front to back. Louder instruments closer to the front and quieter instruments further back, and where do they sit in the mix from left to right.

Typically, bass, kick drum, snare, and vocals are right up the middle, and other instruments are panned off to one side or the other. This kind of exercise is much more difficult to do with dense mixes with lots of instruments like large orchestras or big afro-cuban ensembles.

:point_right: Hear the Harmonica. As a beginner this is difficult, but the longer you play, and the more you learn the easier it becomes. If you’ve been playing for a while you can probably at least recognize the -45 trill. Are they playing chords, single notes, or splits? Are they bending?