Music – Listening versus Playing
By Stewart Hendrickson

The weekend is coming up and there are several possibilities for Saturday evening. A big-name out-of-town folksinger is giving a concert that is sure to be a sellout, so you need to make your reservations quick. A local musician is giving a concert in a nearby coffeehouse, and you’d like to support her music. And you’re thinking of having some musician friends over to jam in the afternoon and perhaps stay for dinner and more jamming in the evening. What are you going to do?

This is an interesting dilemma that most of us have faced at one time or another. More often than not I will probably end up jamming with friends. This has led me to wonder which I prefer most – listening to music played by others or playing music myself and with others – and why.

When I first came to Seattle ten years ago I found there were two local folk music organizations. One musician I met advised me to join Victory Music since it was an organization more attuned to the practicing musician. I joined both organizations, but I think now for different reasons that have to do with playing versus listening.

I view music more as a participatory rather than spectator sport, and I find my musical home more in Victory Music. The other organization serves me better for listening, so there are good reasons for both.

In order to understand these differences I think one has to understand the history of making music and our contemporary culture.

Before radio, records, CDs, iPods and mega-concert halls, music was something people had to make for themselves. Traveling musicians were few and far between and concerts were a rarity. Folk music was the music that ordinary folks made for themselves. It was not highly sophisticated, and tended to be simple but highly addictive. And if you were not playing music yourself, you were involved in it by dancing or just singing along. Music was involved in most activities where people gathered for social interaction. A friend of mine says, “I believe that music is something we should do with each other, not something we do to each other.”

Prior to the 20th century, if you were educated, music was an important part of your education. Now school music programs are the first to be cut when budgets are tight. That represents quite a shift in priorities.

In the folk craze of the ‘60s making your own music became more of a thing to do. The guitar became a popular instrument and hootenannies (or ‘hoots’ as they were known in Seattle where the term originated) were almost spontaneous events were people would get together to make music.

When I first came to Minnesota in the late ‘60s we would often get together at various friends homes for music and conversation. But by the late ‘70s that changed as people became busy, both spouses worked, and free time was scarce. It was not until I moved to Seattle in 1996 that I rediscovered home-made music.

Maybe Seattle is a different place, or I just got into the wrong crowd (musicians will do that). It is certainly a different crowd than what I was involved in back in Minnesota before I moved west. But even here, when I try to explain to non-musical friends that I play in an Irish session or perform at an open mic (and just what is an open mic?), I have to explain that I am not a member of some band and am not a professional musician. They find it difficult to conceive that non-professional musicians, just ordinary folks, can actually make their own music. After all, music is a commodity that you buy.

An interesting aspect of my listening side is that I tend to go to the less-popular concerts. That’s good, because they are seldom sold out and I don’t have to worry about reservations (and they’re cheaper). But why is that? Is there something weird about my listening preferences? Or do I listen to music for different reasons than those who go to the more popular concerts?

I think that as I narrow my musical preferences to a particular style or genre (Irish and other traditional music in my case) I become more attuned to the subtle differences and nuances in that music. I thus attend concerts to further explore these interests rather than just to be washed over by nice sounds.

Listening to music is for me a very intense and demanding experience. I often find background music annoying, particularly if I have to concentrate on some other task. It’s either one or the other for me. If I listen to the kind of music that I also play, I am listening to both the structure of the music and the technique and interpretation of the musician. I often interrupt my music practice to listen to the same or similar piece of music on a CD. Listening, then, is a very important part of my music practice.

Before folk music became my passion (I always had some interest in it) I was interested and very involved in classical music. I sang in various choirs that performed with symphony orchestras and was involved in other semi-professional musical performances. I found rehearsing and performing with a serious musical organization much more interesting and satisfying than going to a concert. By being part of the performance, and after many rehearsals, I could understand the intricacies and nuances of the music in a way that was not possible by just listening to a concert. So this listening versus playing is no different in classical music.

I find it interesting that while Seattle is home to many nationally-recognized professional musicians, I see very few of them at concerts here. It could be that they are too busy touring, or have little money to spend on concerts. Or perhaps they also prefer playing music themselves over listening to others play.

I will probably forgo the big-name touring musician, unless he or she is one of the top Irish or other traditional musician that I have not heard before. I will more likely go to hear a local musician at a small venue. But then I would be very reluctant to give up my Irish session or open mic night. But if it’s just getting together with some friends for music, food and conversation, that would be hard to resist.


Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus – University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; ). Contact him at for questions, ideas or comments.