When a musician listens to songs from other artists, it should be for more reasons than just entertainment or pleasure. One reason a musician should listen to songs is to train their ears so that they can listen to music in a whole new way. They need to listen to music like a pro using something I call critical listening.
The use of the word “critical” here is best described as ‘by careful analysis, evaluation and assessment’ – basically, getting into the details. It is to use ones listening skills to analyse, evaluate and assess a song’s balance of levels, its frequency responses, dynamic ranges, tones, sonic imaging, the blending of all the sounds as well the songs meaning and emotions.
Critical listening skills are needed for both making and mixing music and sometimes can take years to develop. But here at productive musician we are always on the lookout to fast track skills development and know that this can be achieved by listening to music of other artists. Just like any other skill, critical listening also takes focused practice to learn, develop and master so its important (and productive) we develop this skill whilst listening to songs from other artists.
So the next time you listen to a music whilst cooking, in the gym, in the car or even just listening for entertainment and pleasure, listen to it like a pro and analyse, evaluate and assess the song (s) following these prompts:
Emotion: What emotion is the song trying to portrait? How do you think the artist (s) felt when making this? How will other people feel when listening to this?
Meaning: What is the meaning and message of the lyrics? What is the music trying to say? What and how are the artists trying communicate the meaning and message of this song?
Interest: Is there something memorable about the mix? This could be a melodic hook or a memorable tonality (think Cher’s “Believe”).
Balance: Do all instruments feel like they have appropriate depth and balance in the mix? Are any sounds more prominent than others?
Panorama: Do the instruments sit at various points in the stereo field (left to right speakers)? Does the point on interest shift within this field?
Frequency Range: Are all frequencies represented equally? Is there something happening in all frequency ranges or are some missing?
Dimension: Do some instruments sound more closer or further away? Is there a sense of death and movement in the mix?
Dynamics: Does the song change over its duration? Does the volume, velocity, tempo, time signature, key, or major/minor tonality change.
Arrangement: How is the song song arranged? What pulls the listener through the song and carries them to the end? When the lead instrument or vocal stops playing, what takes over as the focus of the song?
Once again critical listening is a skill that takes practice to learn, develop and master so be patient when you cant figure it out straight away, be persistent with the practice when listening to music and finally be passionate and enjoy the experience of listening to music like a pro.