Passive vs Active (Focused) Listening

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Tom Pulling Vinyl
Tom pulling one from his collection. Can anyone guess which album he’s holding? (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

When Frances Anderton and I visited Henry Rollins a few weeks ago at his massive man-bunker, we talked about being completely immersed in the listening experience. Henry and I are both active listeners and music fanatics…but most people aren’t as crazy as we are.

It’s like texting while someone is trying to have a conversation with you, or texting during a concert. You’re distracted and probably won’t hear everything in the same way that someone fully focused on the discussion or music would…which might not matter if you’re not particularly interested in either.

The majority of people tend to be more passive listeners. For instance, my friend Eddie will wander into the kitchen when the music comes on, looking for snacks in the pantry, etc. He refuses to sit in one place and be forced to do nothing but listen. I can tell you that when I’m in my office working with music playing on the CD player, I’ll often go through an entire CD barely having heard a thing. Multi-tasking prevents us from being fully engaged in the musical experience. And as Duke Ellington once observed in his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress“she plays second fiddle to no one.”

For people like Henry, me, and my other audiophile buddies, active listening—doing nothing else but listening—is a ritualistic experience. We don’t allow anything else to occupy our thoughts as we focus on the music. It’s a need, and for me, it’s a sort of sacrament. Putting down that needle or pressing play on our hi-fi audio systems while sitting in the sweet spot (the focal position between two speakers, from where the stereo audio mix can be heard as fully intended) is an act of utterly focused attention as we revel in our fully immersive musical experiences.

Music is powerful stuff, but you have to remain present in order for it to work its magic. Give it the time it deserves and, I promise, it’ll transform you.

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