When I was a kid, listening to music was a ritual.
Whenever I got the chance, I would take a vinyl record out of its sleeve (yeah, I know, I’m showing my age!), place it on the turntable, and listen to it from start to finish, usually with my eyes closed, and often with a pair of headphones on. Typically, the only break I took was to get up to flip the record over from Side 1 to Side 2.
Listening to music this way was an immersive experience. It took total concentration and involvement. Sure, there were times when I heard music by other means – on the car radio, in the background at a restaurant, or live at a concert – but this ritual of listening to an album alone, in its entirety, was something I did as often as I could.
What I got out of the process wasn’t just an appreciation for music. It taught me how to listen. It taught me how to hear different things, at multiple layers, in a piece of music. It taught me to hear everything in a recording – not just words and notes and beats and chords, but also arrangement and production – at a very deep level. When I talk to other people from my generation, they describe a similar experience. I call it the Art of Listening.
For me, listening this way went one step further, and taught me to listen to everything around me in the same way. It’s how, in addition to music, I became fascinated with all things sound-related, and why today I refer to myself as an audio engineer, rather than just a music engineer. I “see” the world through sound, and I definitely “see” music through hearing. It informs everything I do, as a musician, writer, engineer and producer.
We’re all aware that the pace of society – of life – has changed dramatically since I was a kid listening to vinyl records. Things happen more quickly, in shorter time frames, and in tinier chunks. We have to juggle a lot of things at the same time. So as with many things, the nature of life today has affected the way we listen to music. We listen to single songs far more than we listen to entire albums. We tend to listen to music while we’re doing what seems to be a million other things at the same time. As a result, we don’t often get the chance to get to that deeper level of listening to music – that totally immersive experience, and all that comes with it. In the extreme, some of us have lost the Art of Listening, or for people born more recently, have never known it at all.
The good news is that we can all (re-)learn the Art of Listening. But to do so, we have to consciously pay attention to how we listen, and tap into some “creative listening habits” – even if we don’t have 45 minutes of uninterrupted time available. I believe that (re-)learning the Art of Listening makes us better songwriters, composers, musicians, performers, engineers and producers. Listening once again becomes an active component of our creative process.
The Art of Listening includes different purposes for listening, as well as different places to listen. Here are a few ways to help you get back your “listening mojo” and re-elevate every aspect of the musical experience:
1. Listen in isolation
Find a place and a time to do nothing but listen to music, without any other sounds happening, or anything else going on, even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time. And if you can find a specific, isolated location for listening, all by yourself, so much the better. Immerse yourself totally in the music. Closing your eyes and using just your ears can enhance the experience even further.
2. Listen in different environments
In addition to listening in your “special place,” make a point to listen to the same music in different environments (e.g., in the car, in your home studio, and in the living room). This is especially important if you record, mix and produce music, since you’ll notice different things in different environments, and “problem areas” in your mix, for example, will reveal themselves more readily.
3. Listen to learn (aka, listen for insight)
With the purpose of educating yourself, consciously isolate as many different elements as you can while you listen. Can you pick out all of the different instrumental and vocal parts in the arrangement? Are all of the parts present all the time, or do some of them come and go? What high, middle and low frequency ranges do you notice? Can you figure out the chords of the song just by listening? Can you pick out the intervals between the notes of the melody? Some folks might simply call this “ear training,” but whatever you call it, listening to learn can open up an entirely new world and allow you to hear things you never noticed (or believed you could notice) before. And yes, it takes a lot concentration! But as with anything else, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
4. Listen with no purpose whatsoever (aka, listen just to listen)
Conversely, we don’t always want to be in “learning mode” while listening to music. Ironically, when we become so laser-focused on the details of what we’re hearing, sometimes we become unable to hear the big picture, the blend, the musical “forest” among the trees. Listening to learn takes a lot of effort and energy; when we simply let go and experience the music as a whole, it can be both relaxing and energizing at the same time. And we can experience the feeling that the music invokes, rather than its technicalities. I call this “taking a listening vacation.”
5. Listen to music that’s not your own
Sometimes, as musical creators, we can get so focused on writing, performing and producing our own music that we forget to listen to all of the other music that’s out there. But most of us developed our own musical voice by learning other people’s songs. Sometimes, the best remedy for getting “bogged down” in our own stuff is to listen to one of our favorite artists, or better yet, a completely new artist we’ve never heard before. That tends to break any creative logjams, snap us back into reality, and help us to do an even better job on our own music. In particular, as a producer, I often find that when I’m working on a particular project for a long time, I can lose perspective or get stuck deep in the weeds. Listening to something that has been produced by someone else helps me to reset my brain and regain perspective on the music I’m working on.
6. Take listening breaks
When we concentrate on any one thing for too long, we tend to lose perspective. When we get to that place, we really can’t trust our ears much at all. It can happen at any phase of music creation and production. For this reason, I don’t recommend starting to mix a song immediately after recording all the tracks. Even if it’s only for 15 minutes, it’s best to give our ears a rest, so that when we come back to mix the song, we’ll be hearing it with a fresh perspective. The same goes for mixing vs. mastering. I also recommend getting up and leaving the room at least every 30 minutes whenever mixing or mastering, to give your ears (and your brain behind them) a much-deserved break.
7. Listen on different playback media
If you’re producing, and especially, mixing and/or mastering, listen to your recordings on different playback media (e.g., on your home studio monitors, on your computer speakers, and on headphones and ear buds). You’ll experience the music in the various ways that your audience will, and you’ll find things that “stick out” in some subset of the media that help you know where to focus your attention and make changes. The result will be a great “compromise mix” that will translate well across all media and environments.
8. Listen with a critical ear
When we write songs, one of the key parts of the process is editing. We’ll work on a line, a melody, or a chord progression over and over, until we get it just right. Well, we need to do the same with our recorded music. At times, it’s necessary to listen as an editor, be honest with ourselves, and make hard decisions about the recording or production at hand. Do all of those parts really need to be present? Are those two parts clashing with one another? Is that part a little out of the pocket? Is the mix too heavily concentrated in one or two frequency ranges? I look at it this way: by being my own “listening critic,” ahead of time, I’m respecting the end-listener. I’m doing them a favor. I’m being considerate, by making the listening experience for them as pleasant as possible.
9. Turn off the bloody computer screen!
With the advent of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software and its graphical user interface (audio waveforms, colors, lots of simulated knobs and dials, etc.), we’ve collectively learned to “listen with our eyes and not with our ears.” This is not a good thing! The end-listeners of our music are rarely (if ever) watching a waveform go by on a screen as they listen to our music. They’re driving in their car, working in their office, watching a movie or TV show, or jogging or riding a bike in the park. If they’re not staring at waveforms when hearing our creative output, then why should we? Now, I’m not saying that all those graphical tools aren’t useful when we’re creating and producing music; but at some point, as we get closer to the end of the process, we need to start relying more on our ears than on our eyes, and just listen. That’s how the “real world” is going to experience our music, so it makes sense that we would put ourselves in their shoes before we ship the mix out the door.
10. Leave room for silence
Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your listening skills is to listen to nothing at all. In today’s fast-paced, hustle-and-bustle world, there are few moments of true silence in a day. It’s worth it to find a time and a place where you can be in as quiet an environment as possible, and experience the power of a lack of sound. Great musicians, arrangers and producers know that the empty spaces between the notes are just as important as the notes themselves. Not only will experiencing true silence give you solace and relaxation, it will also bring you back to the notion of leaving space in your music when you create and produce it.
I hope these tips will give you a new perspective on the Art of Listening, or at least bring back a perspective that you might have gotten away from. I’d love to know of any other techniques that you use to make your listening experience a better one. Please leave them in the comments below.