12 Reasons Live Music Will Make You a Better Musician

Do you sometimes struggle to get out the door and listen to live music? After all, it’s easier (and cheaper) to just stick in earbuds or crank up the speakers and listen to familiar, dependable sounds.

But listening live is essential if you want to improve as a musician. “Musicians go see bands and hear music from a whole different perspective than the average person in the audience,” says booking agent Chris Munson.

Find out how much you can learn from that next concert or show—then plan more nights on the town.

  1. Observe new ways to play your instrument. When you listen at more intimate venues, you can get up close and see what the musicians are doing. Go out and discover new techniques. Connect what you’re hearing with what you’re seeing. Between sets or after the gig, get the guitar player to show you how she played that lick.
  2. See how bands arrange their songs. It’s easier to understand how a song is arranged when you can see it performed. You’re more likely to notice that two instruments kick it off while the others hang back. Or it’s easier to pull the vocals apart when you’re watching three people sing harmony. If you’re listening to a recording, you might have trouble identifying all the instruments by sound—but now you can see all of them and analyze how they work together.
  3. Hear fresh sounds and discover new music. A live set will uncover songs and approaches you don’t have in your collection or on your playlist. Who knows where that might lead you?
  4. Learn more about jamming by watching how musicians interact. See what signals the mandolin player sends to the fiddler, whether a head nod, tilted instrument, or raised eyebrow. Learn the non-verbals to help you jam or get tighter with your band.
  5. Mingle with the musicians and make new friendships. Making music is about making connections—between notes and between people. Introduce yourself after the gig and offer the sax player a beer. He might swap ideas or tell you about a jam you might like.
  6. Notice mistakes and be reassured by them. It’s easy to get discouraged by mistakes you make. But when good musicians miss a chord or a lyric, what do they do? Ignore, minimize, smile, or make it sound intentional. It’s reassuring to see that mistakes are normal and that most people don’t even notice them.
  7. Carve out time to focus just on music. Have you gotten used to hearing snippets of songs while moving from the car to the store or being pulled away by a text? Setting aside an evening to just hear music is one solution to our modern attention deficit problem—and that renewed focus on music can remind you of its power.
  8. Be inspired to play more. There’s nothing like live music to get you energized to play. Bay Area guitar player Stuart Koplowitz says, “I always come away from a concert feeling like the first thing I want to do is pick up my guitar.”
  9. Discover venues for your own group. If you gig, then look for bands like yours and see where they perform. Notice how the configuration fits in the room and how the PA system sounds in the space.
  10. Steal ideas for stage patter, licks, and songs. When you’ve enjoyed something, it’s fine to pass it along to another crowd. Stealing is the best form of flattery. Just don’t pretend the songs are your originals!
  11. Learn about performance by observing what works and what doesn’t. What does the band do that makes you want more? What kind of vibe or stories add to the music? Conversely, what’s distracting or makes you stop listening? When you hear the lead singer complain about the heat/band/injury/management, you’re reminded to avoid similar mistakes yourself.
  12. Enjoy the extra energy from listening together. Sharing the excitement of music with others is an energy boost. Practicing alone can get old, and there’s nothing like hearing some good sounds with an appreciative crowd to get you pumped back up.

Now go check out some music at a café, brew pub, house concert, or hall. Then pick your instrument up and channel that energy into it.

Gayla M. Mills plays bass and performs on weekends with her husband Gene Mills on guitar. Two of their CDs received international airplay and were on the top ten folk charts. Her book Making Music for Life: Rediscover Your Musical Passion, published by Dover, provides amateur and aspiring musicians with hundreds of ideas for how to get more from music. www.gaylamills.com.


Great list. I’d add one other reason for listening to live music that’s somewhat a combination of a couple already on the list, but not expressed in any of these ways: Discover songs you might not have thought could be covered live. Or, discover ways to pare down original record arrangements for live band performance. Or discover complete reimaginings of material that can be covered by bands of different size or genre.

These are all variations on the idea of opening your ears and mind to non-literal ways to cover recorded material.

My last electric band went from 6 pieces in the first half of the ’90s (two guitars, keyboard/synth, bass, drums, female vocal) to a quartet that sometimes had two guitars or sometimes guitar and keys, to a guitar, bass, drums trio with only one good vocalist by the end in 2013. Obviously, our arrangements drove our arrangements. But we never limited ourselves to material from trios.

Further back, my bluegrass band in the 1980s, drew material from the rock we grew up with and that reflected our non-bluegrass backgrounds. A typical set closer for us was our bluegrass version of “Walk Away Renée.”

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