Woman active listening to music

How to Master Active Listening in 5 Quick Steps

Active listening is a technical skill and musicianship requires that it be learned and used for live performance and to enhance production techniques. Unlocking the art of actively engaging with the music you’re immersed in allows you to glean insights from professionals on ideas you’d like to learn.

Much like any skill, effective active listening isn’t an innate talent. Just as you acquired the skill of walking, you can develop the knack for picking up the subtleties in the music you listen to. It resides within you, waiting to be honed to perfection.

What is Passive Listening?

Whenever you’re listening to a particular piece of music, the music you’re listening to is playing, you’re feeling the mood of the song, and the music plays without you paying attention to the song, you’re passively listening.

This type of listening accompanies your daily activities like commuting or cleaning, where you embrace the entire song without delving into its intricacies. You might even find yourself dancing or singing along uninhibitedly.

How to Learn Active Listening and Why is it an Important Skill for Musicians?

When you’re actively listening you’ll be able to be closer to the music, and when you really listen with a critical mindset you’ll be able to see the technical skill of the artist and gives you a whole new sense for music appreciation. Active listening requires focusing your attention on distinct segments of a song throughout its duration or even on a single element if needed.

The practice of active listening is to get insight into what makes a song and to help you learn using music you love. It demands energy, focus, and the ability to isolate a specific aspect of the music, allowing you to dissect and appreciate it while filtering out other sensory inputs.

How you accomplish this is through the kind of listening you practice while the music is playing. When you hear music, you want to listen for rhythm, ask yourself what instruments do you hear, what timbral characteristics are are present, are there any set of objects that stand out from the rest.

This is called active listening.

It is important because it is a central task in making music; learning how different instruments blend together through different frequencies. When you listen closely to the instruments can you hear and get into a critical mindset, you can understand them and take them apart and see the technical aspects of the song you are listening to.

Reasons You Need to Actively Listen to Music

Active listening is an important competency for musicians and music producers alike. Music, unlike other art forms, is tangible and palpable; it lives within your ears, ready to instruct and inspire. Musicians also perform via active listening, which means listening to their band mates and paying attention to the rhythmic patterns of the drummer and the guitar players chord progression.

Tips for Active Listening Session

There are many different reasons for anyone to learn active listening techniques. It is an essential skill that you can work on and hone until you are able to do it. The process is fairly simple, and once you understand it and know how to actively listen you will be able to jump to the last step at any time.

1) Free Yourself From Distractions

One trick to effective active listening is to listen to music free from distractions. Set aside time to free yourself from talking to other people, stresses, and tasks you need to get done. It doesn’t have to be a long time, even the duration of one song is good practice.

Just get ready to listen to music without distractions.

2) Choose a Song

Choose a piece of music from a genre of music that you want to learn. Would you listen to a song for practice in a genre you have no interest in? I mean, you definitely can, but why not try to kill two birds with one stone here?

If you want to make country music, listen closely to country music, metal for metal, EDM for EDM, etc.

Listen to the song you chose in its entirety.

Take notes of what parts you liked and at this step resist the urge to become engaged in active listening. Just begin by listening passively and make notes based on what you’d like to understand better.

3) Re-listen to the Song

This time listen effectively and deliberately rather than an afterthought. Put on your noise-canceling headphone and really focus on the song. I find that the drum section is a pretty easy piece to follow to begin.

4) Isolate a Single Sound

Restart the song and narrow your focus to a single element. Perhaps you opt to follow the drums, the bassline, or the instrumental melody. Drum patterns often make an excellent starting point due to their distinctiveness. As you zone in, observe its rhythm, interplay, and transitions. Take note of its absence and reappearance, gradually refining your timing.

5) Rinse and Repeat

Keep doing this until you fully understand and grasp the concept. It really is not a hard skill to learn, but it can be challenging to master especially the more complex the song is.

If it is a song you really enjoy, it may be hard to use active listening exercises as your ears may want to revert to passive listening while you jam out. I’m guilty of this honestly.

Just keep working on it until you get it, and keep it simple. No need to overcomplicate the process. Fair warning though, if you listen to the same song over and over again it might get stuck in your head.

Key Considerations For Active Listening Techniques

Bear in mind the importance of avoiding ear and mental fatigue. This activity demands focus and mental exertion, so allow yourself breaks without overstraining.

If you sense difficulty in maintaining your auditory focus or strain in isolating sounds, pause and return when refreshed. Have you ever spent hours on a song and thought it sounded great, but then you went back to it and it sounds bad?

Same concept, your ears need rest!

Taking it to the Next Level: How to Actively Listen to Music Production

Some people are so good at they can replicate a rhythm or melody the first time they hear it. So perhaps that’s the end game for this skill.

While initially challenging, this is a skill that swiftly matures from novice to adept. One thing you can do is to place a song into your daw software.

Select a segment to recreate, harnessing resources to ascertain tempo and key signature. This step bridges theory and practice, aligning your newfound skills with your creative endeavors.

If your daw doesn’t have the right sounds or you cannot recreate them, download a free vst from the internet and see if you can replicate some of the sounds.

Another avenue you can take to visualize what you are listening to is to get your hands on a MIDI file associated with your song.

Many websites like Nonstop2k, will generate MIDI data that your DAW will put basic instruments to so that you can manipulate them and turn them into your own songs.

Using MIDI data to practice active listening can help you refine the skills you are growing as so that eventually you will be capable of creating your own songs and listening for the differences of what sounds good and what sounds awful, and WHY.

You can use other sites to help you find the tempo and key signature of the song you are listening to take the guess work out of that aspect of it.

How I Develop Active Listening Skills

If you have read this far, you probably know that I think this is a fairly simple skill, but difficult to master. I have been practicing it with Music for over 25 years, in fact, I was doing it before I knew it was a thing.

Then one day my friend said he was jealous of the people that can listen to every piece of a song and not just the song as a whole.

This led me down a rabbit hole where I found out not many people are even aware of this skill, and I wanted to share the simple steps on how to learn this skill.

Being able to actively listen to professional work, as well as your own work, will be able to help you identify why certain parts of your song don’t sound as good as you thought it would.

Some people really go to songwriting school to learn about music theory, and frankly, I can’t blame them. If I had the money I’d love to learn more about what I don’t know, but, I know that music is definitely a skill you can learn on your own.

The skill itself is like riding a bike, once you understand the concept, the snowball effect will begin and you’ll get very good at it, very fast. It just takes a little effort and concentration to begin.

I believe in you!

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