A small group of people sit nestled together in a room. Some are concentrating, eyes closed; others are diligently writing or drawing in notebooks. A select few carefully bounce in place. Nobody speaks, but everyone is connected by a common thread—the music that fills the room. Together they are practicing the Art of Listening.
Growing up, I fell in love with the rituals I had to go through to listen to music. I’d flip through my growing collection of cassette tapes, assessing my options based purely on album artwork. Selecting a tape meant that I’d found the perfect companion of mood, time, and place for the present moment. As the music started playing, I’d follow along with the lyrics and analyze the liner notes so that I could try to understand just a little more about what it was I was hearing.
As preferences for personal music collections shifted from analog to digital, convenience overtook curation. Cassettes and CDs were dethroned by the $0.99 iTunes single and, eventually, the killer Spotify playlist. Today, I myself am a diehard Spotify user who eagerly awaits a fresh “Discover Weekly” playlist. But over time, something special was lost. For many, the act of listening to music was no longer reserved for a particular time and place. Now it was everywhere, on-demand, all the time.
This is how the idea for Art of Listening was born. I’d been reflecting on the fact that much of my time was spent with music playing in my ears. Whether during my commute, throughout the day, or simply as I was winding down at home, I had been using music as background filler. Artists hadn’t stopped making albums with deliberate progressions, so why had I chosen to stop listening to them that way?
I wanted to find a way for others to join me in honoring the full-length album as an art form. For each listening, I transform a casual gathering space into a fully curated experience. I put the album artwork on display so that guests see it upon arrival, preparing them for the coming event. Once inside, they’re greeted by a playlist of previous albums, former bands, collaborations, and b-sides from the artist. A screen alternates between quotes pulled from past interviews and snapshots from their social media lives, giving life and character to the people behind the sounds.
We sit and listen to the album all the way through, without any interruptions; after it's finished, people share their reactions as well as anything it may have prompted them to write or draw.
Illustration of Milo’s album “who told you to think??!!?!?!?!” by Sarah Klearman
Illustration of Cornelius’s album “Mellow Waves” by Sarah Klearman
For the attendees, each event is just a short exercise in active listening. For me though, preparation includes several days of collecting and organizing all of the small things that will make up the event. The process isn’t unlike a design project—it can sometimes be all too easy to get wrapped up in the minutiae of day-to-day tasks as you’re working through them. Just as I’d been focused on individual songs rather than the album they were a part of, it’s important to take a step back from your work and try to look at the whole. Now, I try to keep an eye on the larger goal, and ask myself whether the things I’m diving into are in support of getting me there.
Discussing reactions after a recent listening. Photo by Geoff House.
As I’ve continued developing Art of Listening, I’ve learned a few lessons that apply to other projects I’m working on:
1. Use subtle cues to guide behavior
By the time guests enter the space, seating has already been carefully arranged. I want to make sure there’s enough room for everyone, but I also want to encourage people to meet their neighbors.
2. People are human, leave room for the human stuff
At the first event, I was so excited for the listening that I didn’t leave room for a break before starting the music. Once the album finished, people ran out of the room, disrupting a key moment for discussion and reflection.
3. Build in opportunities for reflection and feedback
After the music had finished playing at the first event I was nervous to leave people sitting in silence. I resumed the ambient playlist from earlier in the night, only to find that it prevented people from freely sharing their reactions to what we had just heard.
4. Measure by more than just content alone
For me, Art of Listening is much more than just listening to an album in silence. It’s about the moments of surprise and delight as people learn more about the artist, and the connections that form when people physically come together in one space. I don’t measure a successful event by how good the album was, but by the experiences that people have.
5. See the forest from the trees
My goal with Art of Listening is to provide people an opportunity to pay attention and appreciate music in the format the artist had intended. To get there, I had to realize that the art form itself hadn’t changed, but that I had changed how I’d chosen to experience it.