Paying Attention and Musical Learning

Louis Armstrong playing trumpet, with focused expression
Musical skills such as improvisation require enormous amounts of focus. Photo of Louis Armstrong (Library of Congress collection)

I’m not sure when I first learned to pay attention—or, in fact, whether at age 83 I am truly paying attention to the extent I would like to. I certainly learned as a child that, if I wanted to play even a simple piece on the piano, it was important to be able to hear in advance, in my own imagination, how the piece proceeded.

I remember being put off in the 10th grade when my English teacher declared to the class that I wasn’t very intelligent but that I compensated by working hard. Really, I decided, anything worthwhile can only be accomplished by learning to work hard and to pay attention.

In graduate school I once watched with alarm how a colleague in the class before mine fell to pieces during the first day of his comprehensive examinations. He had concluded, on scanning the list of questions, that he was unable to answer any of them, losing control of himself and unable to proceed. As a result I concocted a scheme designed to avoid worrying about falling into a similar trap. In the event of total memory failure, I decided that I would admit my shortcomings, then devise and answer a set of questions I could deal with. In the event, this strategy gave me the needed confidence positively to answer the questions that did appear the following year in the exam booklet.

Paying attention is a skill we can learn and use throughout life. At present, living in a retirement community, I am focusing on mealtime conversations with my octogenarian colleagues. Perhaps those conversations will contain real information nuggets to be used in some future admissions interview with St. Peter! If not, at any rate they help me to continue to build new relationships of meaningful substance.

It is the thesis of this brief essay that learning to pay close attention provides a lifetime advantage for those able to develop the skill while young and to nurture it as they grow older. And, further, I maintain that the thoughtful study of music from an early age is of strong support to the continuing development of such skills.

The sort of musical study I refer to is not a matter of remembering where to put each of the ten fingers and in which order. It is rather the ability to conceive, in advance, what is coming five, ten, and fifteen seconds in the future, all while the performer listens carefully to the sounds produced in the moment, clearly a rather complicated neurological process.

Little Magdelene is making commendable progress on her sight reading skills, very important for any musician, even pianists!

Piloting an airplane, performing brain surgery, or commanding an army are all quite different skills that depend on being able, in an emergency, to react without undue nervousness (as my unfortunate classmate did) to a developing crisis, on the ability, that is, to pay attention and keep a steady course.

We live in a great nation in which, according to the New York Times, fully 17 percent of the population suffers from some form of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Building students’ abilities to pay attention, then, is a worthy goal of music courses aimed at both majors and non-majors.

MITA’s 160+ Listening Guides help learners begin to make the connections that form more cohesive and rewarding concepts of musical works. Whether or not you use MITA, you can start to integrate attention-building exercises into your course (you may be doing so already).

How does learning to listen to music relate to paying attention? In being able to listen to the cello part of a string quartet—especially in its unfolding relationship to the other three parts. In the ability to compare what one has already heard three or four minutes ago to what is now being played or sung. In determining whether the music is building towards a climax or gradually releasing the tension that a climax has already achieved. In recognizing Wagnerian Leitmotivs and detecting from the music the composer’s efforts to imply change in the dramatic situation. In anticipating closure as a piece of music reaches its conclusion, often a game in which the listener’s expectations are thwarted several times before the end is finally achieved.

These skills, and others like them, are in fact similar to those needed to follow and to synthesize conflicting pieces of advice, offered aurally in a meeting, or outlined in a prose presentation. If you nourish such skills, then the next time a future CEO-turned-politician lands in your music appreciation class, perhaps she will vote in favor of preserving music education budgets, because she will have learned to pay attention.

Finally, I’d like to invite you to join the conversation. Are there any musical projects that made special demands on your focus? Any high-pressure non-musical situations where you felt your musical background helped you to pay attention better? Post a comment in the space below.

Visit our Educators page here to get the free MITA Sampler or just learn how MITA’s unique, integrated design promotes engagement among students.

What do you think?