How to use active listening to inspire your next song

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Illustration: Jordan Moss

When was the last time you listened to music?

Chances are, it was earlier today—while you were driving home, going for a walk, or cooking a meal. You might even have something on in the background at this very moment.

But when was the last time you really listened to music?

The truth is, most of us listen to music passively. We think of it as entertainment, a soundtrack to our lives that we have in the background while we focus on something else.

For musicians, however, listening to music can be an incredible source of knowledge and inspiration. Listening to other people’s songs is how we learn, develop our skills, and find our own sound.

But, all of this happens only if we engage in active listening.

What is active listening?

The definition of active listening is simple—it’s what happens when all you’re doing is listening. You’re not doing or thinking about anything else, and there are no other stimuli or distractions around you.

This kind of listening is deliberate. It requires a dedicated time and space. Think of it as attending a college lecture; you show up to the lecture hall at a certain time, bring your laptop to take notes, and expect to spend the next hour or so learning.

Actively listening to music should be treated the same way. It allows musicians to learn from the artists they admire and look up to. It trains us to not only enjoy music, but to listen to it with a critical ear, identify elements we like, and use them to inspire our own sound.

For maximum benefit, active listening should be a regular practice in every musician’s life. Read on to learn how to get the most out of your active listening sessions and what exactly to listen for.

Tips for active listening

Everyone has a different learning style and preferences, but the following tips may be helpful to keep in mind as you try out active listening for the first time.

Eliminate distractions

Find a time when your house or apartment is relatively quiet. The key is to eliminate as much outside noise as possible so you can focus on the music. Give a heads up to other people so no one comes barging into your room in the middle of your listening session. If you need to, turn off your computer, dim the lights, and close your eyes.

Use high-quality audio

Most streaming services tend to compress audio, making it harder to make out the individual elements. If you can, try to use hi-fi streaming options, or find .wav or FLAC files instead of mp3s.

Use headphones or studio monitors

Use studio monitors if you have them. If not, a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones will help you focus all your attention on the music.

Listen to songs you like

The best way to create your own signature sound is to start out by imitating your idols, so listen to the songs you already know and love. Not to mention, studying a song will require you to listen to it over and over, so it’s always a good idea to choose something you won’t get tired of easily.

Listen to different genres

Creativity and innovation are often achieved by combining existing ideas in new and unexpected ways. The only way you’ll be able to come up with your own unique sound is if you expose yourself to lots of different genres of music and learn their key features. When you intentionally identify elements from different genres and combine them in interesting ways, fans of those genres will undoubtedly take note.

Listen for one element at a time

Active listening requires you to break down each song into its parts. Choose an element or an instrument that you want to analyze (more on this in the next section) and listen to the entire song, focusing only on that element. For example, if you want to learn about the bass, play the whole song and pay attention to only the bass. Then, rinse and repeat (you may start to see why it’s important to choose a song you like).

Listen like a critic

The songs you choose for this exercise are likely some of your favorite songs, but in order to really practice your active listening skills, you need to think like a critic. Pick every song apart and think about what you like and don’t like, what you would do differently, and what you would add or remove. Thinking like a critic will help keep you from getting off track and simply enjoying the music without learning anything from it.

Take notes

This is perhaps the most important point. Think back to our lecture analogy—would you attend a lecture and not take any notes? Hopefully not!

Each song you actively listen to is a treasure trove of valuable information, but you’re bound to forget a lot of it if you don’t write it down. You can choose to write down your analysis of each element, ideas for what you’d like to include in your own music, or both. Some musicians even go as far as keeping a dedicated listening journal.

What to listen for

So you’re ready to try active listening. But what should you actually listen for?

This depends largely on what you’re hoping to gain from your active listening session, what you feel you’re already good at, and what you’re looking to improve. For example, if you’re a skilled drummer, you may not need to listen as closely to the drums, apart from picking up a few interesting fills. But maybe you’re not as good at coming up with chord progressions—you would probably pay a bit more attention to the song’s chords to see what you can borrow.

If you’re really not sure where to start, here are a few general ideas:

Overall mood

Think about the song’s mood or atmosphere. How does it make you feel? What emotions does it invoke? How do you think this is achieved? Try to identify whether the mood is created by a certain instrument, chord progression or rhythm, and think about what you could do to achieve a similar effect with your own song.

Tempo and time signature

Is the song fast or slow? Is it in 4/4 or 6/8? Try to count out the beat and think about what effect the time signature has on the mood of the song. How would the song be different if it changed?

Rhythm

What’s the rhythm of the song like? Does it make you want to tap your foot or have a dance party? Identify the instruments that contribute most to the rhythm—are they familiar or unique? Do you hear any interesting percussion instruments? If the rhythm changes throughout the song, think about where that happens, how it’s achieved, and what effect it has on the song.

Key and chords

Listen to the chords used in the song—are there any interesting choices or borrowed chords? Note any changes in the chord progression or the key of the song. What effect do these changes create? If you’d like, identify the chords and the key by name (though you may need to use your instrument for this step—feel free to come back to it later so that you don’t interrupt your active listening session).

Instrumentation

Try to identify every single instrument used and listen to their individual lines. How do they compliment each other? Do you hear any interesting instruments that you could use in your own production?

Mix

Listen to how the instruments and vocals are mixed. What effects do you hear? How are the channels panned? How does the mix contribute to the song’s mood and energy? If you can’t identify anything noteworthy right away, try briefly listening to another song for comparison and you’ll likely notice how differently they’re mixed.

Song structure

Think about the song’s structure. Does it change over time or remain the same? How does it contribute to the song’s storytelling? If there’s nothing unique about the song’s structure, think about what you would add to make it more interesting.

Melody

If the song has a vocalist, pay attention to the melody they sing. If not, listen for the lead instruments. How does the melody fit with the chords? Do you hear any notes that surprise you? Can you identify the different intervals? If the melody tends to get stuck in your head, think about why that is—what makes the melody catchy or memorable?

Technique

If the song has live instruments, listen closely to how they’re played. Can you use this as inspiration the next time you practice your own instrument? What about the vocalist’s performance? If you don’t play an instrument or sing, listen to the song’s production and see if anything stands out that you’d like to try for yourself.

Harmonies

Think about how the harmonies, whether instrumental or vocal, embellish the song. How many can you hear? Can you identify the individual melodies they’re composed of? Do any harmonies surprise you?

Lyrics

If the song has lyrics, what’s the story they’re telling? What rhyming scheme, if any, is the songwriter using? Are there any great lyrics that stand out to you? Any that are particularly memorable? If you can’t identify anything noteworthy about the lyrics, take any line and think about how you would make it better.

Apply what you’ve learned

Analyzing a song through active listening is only half the battle. Once you’ve listened to a song with a critical ear and made notes, put down the headphones and pick up your instrument. The real learning happens when you apply what you learned and found inspiring to your own projects.

Have you tried active listening? Is there a particular song that you’ve learned a lot from? Let us know in the comments!

May 18, 2021

SAYANA SAYANA is a contemporary R&B singer-songwriter based in Toronto, Canada. When she's not making music, she creates content on personal development and navigating life as a musician. Her new single "Small Talk" is now out on all platforms: https://link.sayanamusic.com/small-talk