Mental Health Matter: “Passive vs. Active Listening: Music Therapy in Mental Health”
By: David Ko, MM, MT-BC
Music is a universal form of communication. Through the art of writing and performing music, musicians are able to communicate some of their deepest emotions and most significant experiences in a way that is simultaneously expressive, creative, and entertaining for the listener. We listen to music nearly every day, whether from the radio, on our phones or computers, or live at a local venue. But despite all of our time spent listening to music, there are countless moments in songs that are very likely escaping our attention, things we may not even be aware of.
You probably know the words to the chorus of your favorite song, whether it’s that Top 40 hit that won’t get out of your head or a song by your favorite artist that you’ve been listening to since you were six years old. You’ve listened to music while doing the dishes, while driving to and from work, while studying. When you’re “hearing” what’s being said, you are practicing passive listening. With passive listening, we understand the general idea behind a song, such as how we can tell the difference between two songs from the same artist, or between a modern pop song and a piece of classical music. But even though you know how your favorite song goes on a casual listen, the specifics can escape us. It’s harder to focus on the bass or the drums, or even the rest of the words. Musicians put as much time into these elements of their music as everything else, and therefore they deserve just as much of our attention.
When we put our full attention into a piece of music, focusing on everything that we can from the instruments being used to the lyrics and message of the song, it is called active listening. When we actively listen to music, it becomes more than a singer or a rhythm or a catchy chorus. Focusing on everything that’s happening in that moment forces us to start looking at the message the singer or composer is trying to communicate. That obnoxious pop song that “sounds the same as everything else these days” suddenly clicks in your head as a piece about redemption and moving forward. Lyrics become more relatable, and the artists that make them become more human.
Just like in music, we communicate everything about ourselves in a myriad of ways. Language is not always based on just what we say, but how it is said and how we present ourselves while saying it. It takes an active listener to notice the subtle tension when someone says “I’m feeling okay,” the clenched fist beneath the smile, or the particular words a client chooses to express themselves. While we may not always fully understand a client’s experiences or emotions, practicing active listening with our clients lets them know that we are focused and attentive on what they have to say. This can help in building positive rapport and resolving conflict.
Communication is a complex and difficult thing to understand, especially when a client does not have the means to clearly communicate their intent. It can be easy to fall into the trap of passively listening to a client, or even ignoring them outright. However, if we are able to recognize how our clients communicate and actively pay attention to what is being expressed (both verbally and nonverbally), we are better able to assess the client’s emotional state and how the current situation may unfold, which helps us to respond accordingly.
We listen to music nearly every day. The next time you find yourself listening to a song, whether something new or an old favorite, take the time to practice active listening. You might just discover something you didn’t know before.