Although you listen to a lot of music, you don’t really have a sense that you’re learning from what you listen to. You know what you like, but you don’t really understand why you like it or how to extract compositional or technical ideas from what you hear so that you can reuse them in your own music.
For most people, listening to music is a passive experience. We turn music on but then engage in another primary activity. The music is playing, and we’re loosely aware of it, but it’s serving a decorative or soundtrack-like purpose for whatever else we’re doing. Although this is certainly better than not listening to music at all, you can learn more if you spend at least some time engaged in active listening.
Active listening simply means listening as the primary activity, and it’s an important skill to develop. Rather than using music as the background for another activity, try listening without doing anything else. This requires time, quiet, and focus, which are skills you need for your own production work anyway. A good way to start is by just putting on some music and then turning your attention to it entirely. If you’re listening at your computer, close any open applications (and, ideally, your eyes as well). At this point, you’re not trying to listen with a particular focus, but rather a general one. If you can concentrate and avoid distraction, you’ll be amazed by how much more you hear than in a passive listening state.
The next step in active listening is to start trying to deconstruct what’s happening in the music you’re listening to. Here are some tips for doing this:
Listen in Layers
A great way to actively listen is to listen to the same piece multiple times and force yourself to focus on a different specific parameter each time. For example, spend one pass listening only for:
Sound: What are the timbral characteristics of this music? What instruments are used? What is the texture (dense vs. sparse)? Are there some specific production techniques that you recognize (either from your own or other music)? What kind of acoustic “space” is suggested by the music (dry vs. reverberant, near vs. far, etc.)?
Harmony: What key (if any) is the song in? What chords are used? Is there a chord progression that happens throughout, or does it change from section to section? If there are no overt chords (as in some minimal or experimental music), is harmony implied in another way?
Melody: What’s happening in the melody? Does it have a wide or narrow range? What is its general contour: Angular, with lots of leaps? Stepwise, with motion mostly by one or two semitones? What instrument or voice has the melody? Does this ever change? If there is no overt melody (as in some minimal or experimental music), is melody implied in another way?
Rhythm: How are events distributed within short time ranges like a bar or phrase? Are there patterns that repeat, or do rhythmic gestures happen only once? Are rhythms and tempo overtly identifiable, or is the music free and largely arrhythmic? What instruments have the most impact on the rhythm? What do the less rhythmic instruments do?
Form: How does the song evolve over time? Are there clear sectional divisions or are there Fuzzy Boundaries between regions? What defines one section versus another? Do certain instruments play only in some sections or is the instrumentation the same in every section?
Additionally, if there are specific instrumental or vocal parts that you’d like to understand better, try spending an entire listening pass focusing entirely on only one part. For example, the best way to learn how the bass line works in a particular song is to tune out everything else and focus just on the bass line.
Listen in Chunks
By isolating and looping short durations of music, you can more easily focus on the specific parameters or instruments discussed earlier. The best tool for this is your DAW. Try loading the song you want to listen to into your DAW’s timeline, adjust the project tempo to match the song, and then set the loop to a short region—one or two bars or, at most, a single musical phrase. Listen to this loop as many times as necessary in order to really hear what’s happening in the parameter you’re listening for. Then advance to the next chunk and repeat. When you’re done, go back to the beginning and gradually expand the loop length so that you’re covering a larger amount of time in a single listening pass. Listening in chunks like this is also a great way to learn or memorize a particular part by ear.
In addition to helping you learn how a particular piece of music “works,” active listening can also help you understand your subjective responses to music. For example, are there particular aspects of the song that sound familiar, nostalgic, emotional, etc.? Can you explain why (perhaps with reference to the parameters discussed earlier)? When listening passively, it’s common to have some kind of emotional response. But via active listening, you have a chance to understand what it is, specifically, that causes that response. And once you understand a technique or musical gesture, you’ll be able to adapt it for use in your own music.