The Art of Listening!
Updated: Jul 13
As musicians it’s easy to get caught up in the constant search for great gear, or chasing guitar tones, or even getting stuck in the middle of writing your own music. It’s easy to forget that one of the easiest things you can to do to improve your playing, your musical vocabulary, and improve your ear training is something you already do every day: listening to music! What most burgeoning musicians don’t know is HOW you listen is just as important as what you’re listening to on a daily basis. So, in this blog installment, we are going to go over some really simple tips for how you can improve your listening experience and become a better musician in the process!
Start By Upgrading Your Headphones!
My biggest pet peeve is watching my students listen to what should be life altering songs… through crappy $10 ear buds. Take them and throw them away in the garbage. These things effectively suck the soul out of everything you listen to by stripping out crucial mid-range frequencies, boosting bass, and utilizing harsh treble frequencies in an attempt to make the track sound louder when the ear buds are inside your ear. Unfortunately, this can make certain parts of the song effectively “disappear” sonically. This can make it difficult to really understand what an artist is trying to convey musically to you. Essentially, it you aren’t hearing the full potential sonic picture of the song you’re listening to.
A really simple fix is to simply upgrade the type of headphone you listen to music through. I recommend trying to get the most neutral sounding headphones you can at your price range. Just remember…you get what you pay for!
Now, think of listening like looking at a picture with your ears. Think can you hear everything in a song with absolute clarity? Or do certain instruments seem to stick out, and some frequencies disappear altogether? Do the headphones misrepresent bass frequencies as incredibly boomy? Do they fit over your ears? Are they comfortable? Do they block out unwanted noises from outside, or can you still hear noises in your room? These are all things you should be thinking about while contemplating your purchase.
Personally, I like over the ear traditional cans for my headphone of choice! Once you decide on a pair of phones, the longer you listen the better they will sound. You will need to break in your headphones over at least 24-36 hour listening period to really get what they were meant to do. The good news is after this short break-in period you should begin to start pairing your ear to headphones. This is where essentially you can know exactly what you’re hearing because your headphones will define music for you. As a musician it’s paramount that your ears be able to get an accurate picture of what you’re hearing so you can hear new music parts to be inspired by, critique performances of yourself, as well as identifying chord and interval structure in songs! If you don’t up your headphone game, you might be missing out musically!
MY CURRENT PAIR:
My current pair of headphones are a wonderful pair of Audio-Technica MX-70 I recently upgraded to after my old pair of AT-MX-50’s blew up after about 15 years of being both my recording session headphones/personal set. I really think the pair of Mx-70 are wonderful quality headphone upgrades as they are much flatter and neutral sounding when compared to the MX-50’s. The Mx-50’s were a touch bassier-great for playing drums, guitar, or bass in the studio- but for listening to final mixes they seemed to distort the image a bit. As you can tell finding the right set is important! You’ll hear if a difference!
THINK ABOUT INVESTING IN A HIGH QUALITY DAC:
What’s a DAC? (D.A.C. digital analog converter. Noun. -a device that coverts digital music files into analog quality music.)
DAC’s are relatively simple components of the listening experience. Essentially all the music you currently listen to has been stored in some form of digital media. Whether this be from songs being stored on a CD, or from MP3/WAV files, they are represented in digital signals. A DAC takes those digital signals from your digital audio and transforms it into real analog audio signal. That signal is sent to a headphone amplifier to drive your headphones and then you’re in business!
So, a headphone-oriented DAC is understandably a very important part of the sound equation and can affect how you’re hearing music, just like your personal headphones!
Asides from just about removing any and all unwanted noises in your music, a good quality external DAC will bring a large amount of clarity to your listening experience. And since we all get our music digitally now from Apple Music/Spotify/Tidal investing in a good DAC can make sure you get to experience new artist’s music the way they wanted you to hear it!
DAC’s can range in price depending on what you’re looking for. I ended up getting a really great REGA DAC-R that I love for listening to my digital music files. It allows me to take my laptop, or a tablet, and run it essentially through a vintage McIntosh audio system. But some really cool companies have even come out with portable ones designed to go in your pocket so you can listen in lossless quality on the go. My favorite of these are the McIntosh MAH-50 or the NAD DAC 2! I recommend checking out Audiogon to get a deal on what someone is selling!
Learn to Listen ACTIVELY:
Once you arm yourself with the proper tools to listen you need to teach yourself how to engage with the music you’re listening to properly. Most of the time when we are listening to music, whether it be a song coming over speakers as you walk into a room, or sounds you hear while driving, we tend to listen passively. Things go in our ears, to our brain, translated into information, and then quickly forgotten. While this usually is an adaptation to how fast our lives are moving at the time, this is not the way to study while listening to music.
Instead you want to focus on Active Listening, where the only thing you have at hand is to listen. Do not let other things cloud your mind. No television at the same time, no phone, no screens, no outside influence… just you in a comfortable room attentively listening to the construction of music. I recommend turning off the lights to remove as much of your visual sense from the experience as possible. Absorb everything at once as it hits you. Listen to the rhythm, the melody, the harmony, and the mood. Pick out all the difference instrumentation. Listen to each part as it happens. Time sections of songs in bar structure to start hearing what 12-bars of music sound like. Think of why the hook of the song is so catchy. How do the chords move in chord movement against intervals? What key is the song in? What is the structure of the song? How do the lyrics fit with the music? What layers are at work?
Some Active Listening Drills can also help you develop this skill like a muscle. I do several that feel like a game when I’m listening to music.
Listen to the song after many repeats with your hands slightly covering your ears. This will help you identify if any sub frequencies stick out etc. Listening from a different perspective is always important.
Try to draw a map/picture of how you heard the song as a stereo image. This can help when you want to explain a mix to other musicians or recording engineers!
Take notes through multiple listens of a single song to get ideas down if needed.