According to Wikipedia, active listening means “Active listening is the practice of preparing to listen, observing what verbal and non-verbal messages are being sent, and then providing appropriate feedback for the sake of showing attentiveness to the message being presented.”
But how does active listening work with music? And how can you use active listening to become a better music producer? Well, you can start to understand how great music is built and replicate it in your own music.
This article will teach you what to listen for when using the active listening approach for music.
1. Really hear the sounds
You can hear sounds, or you can really hear sounds. What’s the difference, you might ask. Merely hearing a cool lead or effect in music registers is something you do every day. And let’s be honest, you probably don’t give it too much thought – or act on the insights you get.
Really hearing the sounds means analyzing texture, sonic and tonal qualities of a sound to give you a glimpse into how you can begin making sounds like that yourself. The idea is not copying – but improving your own ability to create sounds and understand what makes sounds act in a certain way.
Next time you listen to music, close your eyes, and really listen to the sounds. Take quick mental notes of the things you notice. Also, analyze how the sound is placed in the mix. Is it playing in mono with a delay stereo effect widening it, or is it panning?
2. Become aware of energy
Music is energy. It’s highs and lows, peaks, and troughs, often spanning wide varieties of feelings and thoughts. Music producers often refer to this dance of musical energy as dynamics, but there are other aspects that go into musical energy as well.
For example, let’s take a classic build-up and drop of an EDM track. The energy is slowly rising until it reaches climax with anticipation of what’s to come. When the drop hits, it’s often incredibly satisfactory.
That’s all-musical energy. But what makes this energy?
Listen. The proof is in the pudding.
Start listening to what is actually happening in music while also assessing how you feel when it happens. Why does the chorus have so much more energy and drive compared to the verse? What sounds did they add or remove? Did the artist widen some sounds in the chorus?
Analyze music with a focus on its energy – so you can replicate the same play with energy and make your music vibrant to a new level.
3. Hear the arrangement
Energy and arrangement are closely related. But arrangement is still somewhat different. With arrangement, it’s about how a musical composition is set up. That means, the difference parts of music that makes up the full track.
Some arrangements are better than others. And with music you listen to over and over again, chances are that arrangement works for you.
Listen to how your favorite music is structured. How long are the different sections and build ups, and are there any arrangement surprises that make a musical piece unique?
Arrangement can be really hard. But you can learn a lot by taking courses and really hearing the arrangement in your favorite music.
Another thing you can do is upload your favorite music in your day and mapping out its arrangement. That can make it clear how a track is built and why it’s so addictive listening to.
4. Understand the groove
The most foundational element of music is groove and rhythm. In most musical genres, that means drums and percussion – but it can also mean the rhythmical enhancements other sounds can make.
But for a better understanding of a music’s groove, start with the drums.
- How’s the kick, snare and hi-hats playing?
- Does the track have other percussion playing in the background?
- Does it change throughout the track or does some drums stay the same?
- And what happens to the groove when a new drum sounds is introduced?
Hear the groove and try to understand it. If you can, try drumming along to different drums. If you aren’t a drummer, this can give you a better feel for rhythm and understanding of how to improve the grooves in your music.
5. Ear candy
Some sounds are like candy for the ears. And most great tracks use them. Ear candy means sprinkling music with seemingly random but interesting sounds that makes you want to hear more. It can introduce an element of surprise and give a lot more character to your music.
Listen to music and try to find different pieces of ear candy. Take note of what those types of ear candy are and why they sound so good. Then, try to go into your studio with the mindset of improving your mixes with sweet ear candy.
Great music can teach you many things. But the key is active listening. Other than learning from professional courses, learning from your favorite artists can give you a lot of insight. But you have to start listening attentively. Take mental notes on the sounds, arrangement, ear candy and mixing decisions. Or better yet, write your insights down.
Before you know it, you will start adopting similarly great techniques as your favorite artists – but with your own flare and taste.
Now get out there and start listening to some great music!
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Thanks for reading, and see you in the next article.
About the author
Pelle Sundin is a Swedish music producer and writer, active with his chillout project PLMTRZ. He also produces psytrance. When he's not producing, he surfs, skates, and chugs coffee.