Illustration by Dhabia Al Mansoori

Play that Song: A Guide to Deep Listening

I spent a night listening to a playlist I had been compiling since 2016, remembering small moments and people that made me who I am. Here's a personal guide on how to deeply listen to music for some moments of peace.

Nov 8, 2020

Fireworks and a countdown do not come to mind when I think of my most memorable New Year’s Eve. Rather, what comes to mind is the Eve when I spent the night on my bed in the dark, listening to a playlist I had been compiling since 2016, remembering small moments and people that made me who I am now. It was the night I had the luxury of occupying the only seat in an audience, watching my own growth over the years with no interruptions. My mind that usually races with thoughts nonstop was on pause for once.
  1. Love$ick by Mura Masa & A$AP Rocky: a song that makes its way into every car ride, the background music to cringeworthy Snapchat videos from class trips and more than anything, an ode to old and enduring friendships.
  2. Forget it's a Dream by Communions: the soundtrack of one of the most transformative weekends of my life, candidate weekend. A friend from candidate weekend shared it with me while exchanging our favorite songs, and from there it kept replaying until I made it home.
  3. Prague by Blaenavon: a reminder of those 20 minutes I spent sitting in front of the Astronomical Clock in Prague with my two sisters, wondering where our parents disappeared, making small talk with strangers we'll never meet again.
The late American composer and founder of The Deep Listening Institute Pauline Oliveros defines deep listening in her book, Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice. "Learning to expand the perception of sounds to include the whole space/time continuum of sound — encountering the vastness and complexities as much as possible. . . Such expansion means that one is connected to the whole of the environment and beyond,” she explained.
Let’s think back to the first few months of the pandemic, when the unprecedented silence of the world was disrupted by music playing from balconies and online quarantine concerts. Being solely focused on the act of listening to music suddenly occupied much of people’s days; is this a coincidence?
There's a myriad of psychological research in the area of music and music therapy. Studies in neuroscience experiment with music and its capability to impact human behavior and emotional regulation. In some cases, listening to music has been likened to change brain functioning the way medication can. It is no surprise, then, to see music float to the surface during the current pandemic, not only in our personal lives, but in the health sector as well, where initiatives such as the MuzIC foundation in the Netherlands sent musicians to play for patients in the ICU.
So, you might be wondering, how do I incorporate active and deep listening to music in my daily life? The answer is not exactly scientific.
Deep listening manifests itself into my life in many ways. It is when I add the song I'm listening to in the header of every journal entry alongside the date and time, or the growing collection of lyrics that put my feelings into words better than I do, in my notes app. It is time spent crafting a playlist for loved ones or listening to a playlist made for me. It is the embarrassing effort that I put into sorting my Spotify playlists into folders, and the nights I stayed up waiting for an album release. Actively listening to music helps me find something to look forward to even on my worst days. It is the reminder I need: that no matter how things are going, I have at least five minutes to allow myself to disconnect and be transported to another space.
In short, my simple answer is: there isn't just one way. Here's a personal guide that could help you take on this practice for some moments of peace in your life:
  1. Prioritize making time for deep listening:
Whether it's for five minutes at the end of the week or one hour before going to bed, make an appointment with yourself and show up to it. It is not noted down on my Google Calendar, but whenever I choose to sit down and deeply listen to music, nothing will interrupt it because it's my main priority for those few minutes. This eases my mind and stops me from feeling like I'm wasting valuable time that I could've used doing something else.
  1. Prepare your playlist beforehand:
Whether you have a fixed playlist or put a few songs in the queue two seconds before, this eliminates the distraction of needing to reach for your phone to skip a song that does not resonate with you in the moment. For me, it is reassurance that my secret guilty pleasure songs won't bleed into the session…unless I want them to of course.
  1. Find an empty — and comfortable — spot:
Similar to my earlier suggestions, this aids in removing distractions and being present in the moment. Additionally, I found that I used to avoid sitting with myself. Being in a place where I can be alone and comfortable has helped me understand how I can have productive alone time. This place could be your room, but it also could be an outdoor space where you can feel more connected to the setting around you. The amphitheater on campus is one of my favorite spots for this.
  1. Reflect on what you listen to:
For me, this means developing a certain sensitivity to what I’m listening to and asking myself questions like: what is the message the artist is trying to communicate? How are they communicating it? And most importantly, how does this resonate with me? Doing this allows me to make associations between songs and cherished moments in my life. It turns music into a time capsule that I can dig out whenever I please to look back at and enjoy.
In a time where many of us are itching for a break from the escalating madness of the world or a sense of normalcy, I believe paying more attention to the music we listen to could help. If you have a few minutes now, give it a try and figure out how implementing elements of deep listening could help you love the music you listen to more and ease the tensions of daily life. I’ll leave a playlist with a variety of songs for inspiration here.
Sarah Al Yahya is a Columnist. Email her feedback at
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