Active listening is one of the fastest and most efficient way you can improve your songwriting and music production skills.
It's pretty much effortless, very pleasant and…. it's free 😉
This post was inspired by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's wonderful book: Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience.
The Ingredients of a Productive Active Listening Session
1- Set Aside Specific Hours For Listening
Let's be honest, you're not going to do it otherwise 😉
2- Make Yourself Comfortable
Dim the lights and sit in your favorite chair. Or lie down. Whatever works for you!
You could do this on the move, but I don't recommend it because there would be more outside distractions vying for your attention.
Points 1 & 2 are really about creating a pleasant experience you'll want to return to. The more you can make this a pleasant little ritual, the better.
3- Plan What You Will Listen To
Put together a playlist or line up an album you'll be listening to during that time.
4- Formulate Specific Goals For the Session To Come
Before you go in, decide what you want to get out of your active listening session? (see examples below)
Points 3 & 4 are about making this a deliberate practice. That's where you get big value and improve as a songwriter.
Examples of Active Listening Music Goals
You don't have to be a music maker to enjoy the benefits of active listening.
But if you make music, active listening is an incredible tool that will help you master your craft.
The ultimate goal is always to improve the music.
But let's look at a few examples of how you can get there through active listening….
Listen For What Makes A Song And Performance Stand Out
So you can improve your own performance and stand out.
When you feel your music is a little dull and you're not quite sure how to take it to the next level.
By comparing different versions of a same song.
What do they have in common? How are they different?
Which version moves you more? What is it about that version that just works for you?
How did they do it?
Are the performers making the difference? Is it the arrangement? Are you more sensitive to a certain type of instrumentation?
What can you experiment with in your own music to make it better? Not better for the market but better for YOU. For what YOU want to sound like.
At the end of the active listening session, you will have a better idea of the kind of musical performances you aspire to and a notion of where to start to get there.
Listen For What Makes Certain Types Of Music Recognizable
So that you can play with different genres and find your own voice along the way.
When you're struggling to structure your song or simply want to experiment with different types of music.
By listening to a playlist of similar artists.
Whether you identify more as a songwriter or music producer will make some questions more pertinent than others but, generally speaking, you're trying to figure out what makes these artists sound similar.
What is it about these artists that make them sound alike? What do they have in common?
Is it the way they perform? How they sing? Play the guitar? Deliver their lines?
Is it how the song is written? Do they use a similar "formula"? A similar arrangement? Similar instrumentation?
Is it how the song is produced? Is there similar delay on the guitar sound? Do the vocals sound compressed or EQ-ed in a similar way?
Is it more about the general feel of the music? Maybe the atmosphere in the room? The reverb? The way it makes you feel?
As the end of the active listening session, you will have clearly identified a number of musical elements you can experiment with to get closer to the sounds and dynamics you like.
Listen For What You Love About Other People's Music
So you can build on the work of artists that make you tick and create your own unique music.
When you're falling out of love with music and you need to remind yourself what it is you're trying to convey with your own music.
By listening to a playlist of music you love, music that triggers something strong in you as soon as you hit play.
Note – Depending on your mood and what you need in that moment, it could be fun and light music you enjoy. Or it could be deeper and more soul searching masterpieces that move you to the core. Your call.
What is it about the music that makes you enjoy it?
Is it the way it makes you feel? Does it pump you up? Make you feel euphoric? Helps you relax?
Is it what it makes you do? Dance? Sing along? Think? Cry?
What does this music remind you of? Does it bring back happy or sad memories? Do you picture yourself in certain places, with certain people?
What makes these artists or songs different, recognizable?
Is it a flow, a vocal performance? Think Leonard Cohen, Adele, Eminem.
Is it the piano sound? Think Queen, Yann Tiersen, Coldplay, Keane.
Is the guitar sound really recognizable compared to other types of music? Think Red Hot Chili Peppers, Modest Mouse.
Is it something in the synth? Think Vangelis, Kraftwerk.
Is it a beat, a groove, a rhythm? Think Bob Marley, Avicii.
Is it the reverb, the space and atmosphere in the production? Think Amy Winehouse, Kings of Convenience.
Of course it can be many things, Eminem is not just a flow and Queen is not just a piano sound but you get the idea….
There are some things that are at the core of the music we enjoy listening to. That, without them, the music would simply not be the same and probably wouldn't make much of an impact.
That's what you're listening for. That's what you want to get close to and where you want to find inspiration for your own sound.
So that you can make others feel as well.
Last Active Listening Music Tip Before I Go
Whenever possible, try to listen on the monitors or headphones you use when you mix your own music.