Everyone knows how to listen, right? There can’t be a right or wrong way, can there? While there is no correct or incorrect way to listen to a piece of music, a skill called active listening is favourable. Did you know that nearly 50% of Spotify streams are skipped before the song finishes? This is because we get distracted and end up passively listening to music. If passive listening is your primary manner of listening, then you are missing out! It is an important skill for music producers to utilise, and this article will explain why. We will also give you the active listening definition and some active listening techniques and exercises that you can use.
So, what actually is the active listening definition? It’s simple, really. Active listening means that all of your attention goes into listening, so that is all you are doing. If you were passively listening to music, then you could be texting, reading, talking, essentially doing anything other than just listening. Active listening means that you are focused on just one task: listening.
It is an important skill that music producers should have, plus once you have mastered it, it is a skill that will stay with you forever. The more that you actively listen, the easier it will become. Active listening brings you closer to the music, and gives you a whole new level of appreciation for it. This appreciation comes from a deeper understanding of the piece, as it becomes a lesson on music production. You can listen to what works and what doesn’t, and apply your new knowledge to your own craft.
So why is active listening important? Because in order to improve your producing techniques, you will need to actively listen. After all, it is just as important as songwriting, mixing or music theory.
Read on for the specifics in active listening techniques and exercises, but right now, let’s keep things really simple. The first step in developing active listening skills is to find a quiet room, and by that we mean a room that has no distractions. You should turn off any device that you aren’t using to listen with, such as your computer or phone, and you could even turn off the lights and shut the curtains. We would also recommend closing your eyes, as this can help to focus your active listening skills.
It is a good idea to use noise cancelling or studio headphones if you own them, as they help to block out any unwanted sounds. The room that you have chosen should also not have outside noises interrupting your listening flow. This could mean a dripping tap, your next door neighbour shouting, your dog barking – you name it. You should also use the best sound quality that you can get your hands on, files such as FLAC or WAV are good for active listening. Right, now that we have got the basics out of the way, let’s take a deeper look into active listening techniques.
Once you have found yourself a good room and have become mentally prepared to begin active listening, then you can start to employ some of the following methods.
Top tip: the first time you actively listen, choose a song that you enjoy listening to, or one that you struggle to get out of head! This way, you will learn everything you can from a piece of music that you admire. There are key questions that you should be able to answer after active listening. Let’s break them down.
What instruments have been used? What is the texture of the song? What kind of timbral characteristics can you hear? What production techniques have been used? What layers are there?
What are the lyrics saying? In what way do they fit the music? Are any lyrics repeated? What makes the hook catchy? What is the structure of the song like? Does it appear to follow a popular structure, such as AABA or ABABCB? Does the mood of the song change?
What chords have been used and what do you notice about the use of harmony? Are there any key changes? Is there a chord progression?
What instruments affect the rhythm the most? What is the purpose of the less rhythmic instruments? Are there rhythmic patterns? Do any of the patterns repeat themselves? Do they happen over a phrase or bar, or does the piece not have any obvious rhythm?
What is the melody like, and what is its range? What main instrument holds the melody? Does the voice have melody? Is this consistent or does it alter? What is the contour like? Or is there no obvious melody? Why do you think that is?
Don’t worry, we don’t expect you to answer all of these questions in one active listening session! A good idea is to focus on one section of these questions at a time. Every time you listen to the song, you should aim to answer another set of questions. What’s more, these questions are not the only ones you should answer, as they are just a good starting point. The main aim of active listening is to learn things that will help you further your music career. So, ask the questions that you want the answers to. For example, if you want to learn more about song structure then focus on that.
Once you have honed your active listening techniques by getting some practice in, then there are some active listening exercises that you can employ. This will not only help you learn more about a song, but will help to improve your future creations by enhancing your producing and critical listening skills.
I can almost see the confused look on your face… yes, you read that correctly! Granted, this will be easier for those of you using speakers, but you can still cover your headphones. The idea here is to actively listen to what sounds still come through. What instruments can you hear? What sound is the most clear, is it the voice or a particular instrument? Also, consider what sounds have been left behind. This will allow you to listen to some of the sub frequencies, and work out what sounds good and what no longer does.
Playing the song you are actively listening to backwards is actually a really beneficial exercise. It helps you to build perspective, and listen to how different the song sounds when it is played in reverse. This exercise works the same for slowing a song down, as you begin to notice things about it that you never normally would when it was playing at a normal speed. This is exciting as the song is revealing all of its secrets to you!
Making notes after you have finished active listening is a good idea, as it helps to improve your active listening skills. After every session, you could take notes on what you heard and how it made you feel. Another good tip is to draw out what you heard and map out the song. Think about a DAW and how the song would look in it, as this will help you to visualise how the song works. This doesn’t even have to be for the whole song, you could just map out the chorus or the first verse.
This is the natural next step in mapping out the song. Put your song into your DAW software and download a free VST plug-in that will help you to analyse the piece. Take a look at the images the frequencies make, and where specific sections sit on the spectrum. This is another way of seeing the song visually, and both methods are extremely useful in improving your active listening skills.
So, there we have it, a guide to active listening! Active listening is such an important skill for producers and songwriters, and not one that should be overlooked. After all, it helps you to gain a deeper understanding of a song and discover new aspects of it that you wouldn’t have known before. In turn, this can help you to hone your own skills and techniques as a producer. So make sure that you practice active listening exercises and active listening techniques. After all, the only way to improve as a producer is to listen effectively.
You work so hard at your craft, and you want your music to sound the best it possibly can. So remember to practice, practice, practice when it comes to active listening! Every time you do it, you will find yourself improving and gaining confidence in your skills. Remember our top tip of breaking your listening down into sections and asking yourself the relevant questions needed to gain a deeper understanding of the song.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and actively listen!
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