The Beatles & active listening; an early lesson from “You Won’t See Me”

When I was in the sixth grade or so, I had a teacher who explained the dif­fer­ence between active and pas­sive lis­ten­ing. I didn’t quite get it until a home­work assign­ment got me up to speed.

Like most kids, I didn’t really care for doing home­work. And so like many young­sters, I decided the best way to do home­work was to lis­ten to music while I studied.

I put on the album Rub­ber Soul, The Bea­t­les 1965 album. I tried, but it was hard for me to con­cen­trate on my home­work! Not with all that great music going on. Dur­ing the song “You Won’t See Me” I truly learned what was meant by active listening.

It wasn’t Paul McCartney’s lead vocal that was draw­ing me in. Instead, it was the back­ground vocal har­monies. This was before I knew much about music the­ory, but I rec­og­nized the dis­so­nance of the major sec­ond being sung in har­mony, and the step­wise motion to resolv­ing the dis­so­nance. As you can see from the exam­ple attached, the voices lead nat­u­rally to the har­mony of the piece.

I remem­ber los­ing myself in the piece so much, of not pay­ing much atten­tion to the words, but only to lis­ten­ing to the har­mony and its resolution.

Active lis­ten­ing indeed! Home­work had no chance.

About Richard D. Russell

This was written by Richard D. Russell, New York City based composer of fine music.