If you’re eager to enhance your songwriting and music production skills, one vital ability to develop is active listening. Active listening entails purposefully immersing yourself in music without any distractions from external stimuli. It means making listening your primary focus, as opposed to passive listening, where music serves as background noise while you concentrate on other tasks.

While you may casually listen to music in your daily life, active listening requires you to eliminate all other sources of noise and dedicate your full attention to the music. The benefits of active listening are numerous and can significantly contribute to your growth as a composer and performer.

Why is active listening important?

Musician and composer Tom Waits once shared a valuable insight for songwriters:

Regardless of your preferred musical genre, active listening serves as a practice tool that enhances your ability to compose and perform your own music. By actively listening to a track, you can discern its subtleties and compositional structure, appreciate the intricate nuances of various instruments, and even identify chord progressions or unique sounds that inspire your own musical creations.

Approaching active listening:

Ready to embark on an immersive journey with a single music track? Here’s a step-by-step approach to help you make the most of your active listening sessions:

Prepare your environment:

Choose a distraction-free space where you can feel relaxed and fully engaged. Turn off your computer screen, close your eyes, or dim the lights. If possible, utilize studio speakers for an optimal listening experience. Alternatively, invest in a quality pair of noise-canceling headphones that will allow you to completely immerse yourself in the music.

Prepare the track:

Select a song you genuinely love or find challenging to get out of your head. This initial active listening exercise should focus on a piece of music that resonates with you, enabling you to extract the most valuable insights.

Listen with intention:

Stay attuned to the sonic world around you and delve deep into the sounds you hear. Resist the temptation to let the music wash over you passively. Instead, adopt a critical mindset, treating the music as a collection of objects to be analyzed. Pay attention to elements like rhythm, timbre, melody, and instrumentation. Isolate each instrument and listen to the song repeatedly, honing in on different aspects with each iteration.

Guide questions:

As you actively listen, ask yourself questions that prompt deeper exploration of the music. Consider the mood and tone shifts, analyze the song’s structure (e.g., AABA), determine the key, identify layers and instrumentation, examine chord progressions, discover what makes the hook catchy, and discern repeated sounds or changes. Additionally, pay attention to the song’s acoustic “space” and lyricism, allowing these elements to contribute to your study.

Post-listening reflection:

After an active listening session, reflect on the emotional impact the music had on you. Would you listen to the song again? Would others? When critiquing music by other artists, maintain objectivity and detach your personal taste. By doing so, you can appreciate the technical skill and musicianship even if the style doesn’t align with your preferences. Look for inspiration in various aspects, such as note or key changes, that you can incorporate into your own songwriting.

Active listening exercises:

To maximize the benefits of active listening, consider incorporating the following exercises into your sessions:

Cover your ears

Paradoxically, covering your ears while actively listening can provide valuable insights. Play a song on speakers and either wear headphones or gently shield your ears. Take note of the sounds that are still audible, the sub frequencies you can hear, and which sounds dominate the mix.

Active Listening
Active Listening

Play it in reverse: Just as a sculpture must be observed from all angles to be fully understood, music requires multiple perspectives. Experiment by playing the song in reverse and observe how each section sounds when reversed. Alternatively, slow down the tempo to gain a fresh perspective, allowing you to identify previously unheard details.

Draw a diagram

Try visually representing the song by drawing a diagram. Imagine how the different components would appear in a digital audio workstation (DAW) and assign each element a name. By mapping out the song, you gain a clearer understanding of its structure and function. Start by focusing on a specific section and loop it in your DAW for further analysis.

Study it in a DAW:

Active Listening
Active Listening

Import the song into your preferred DAW and utilize a free VST plugin or a spectrum analyzer within the software to analyze the track’s frequency spectrum. Observe how different parts occupy different frequency ranges and visualize the overall frequency distribution. This analytical approach complements the auditory experience, helping you comprehend the relationship between what you hear and what you see.

Applying what you’ve learned:

Active listening is an ongoing learning process. After critically listening to a song, remove your headphones, pick up your instrument, or open your DAW, and start writing. Utilize the insights and inspiration gained from your active listening session to fuel your own creative projects. Remember that analyzing music is only half the battle; true learning occurs when you actively apply your newfound knowledge and motivation to your own compositions.

Do you have a favorite song that has taught you valuable lessons?

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