I recently posted the following image to Facebook.
It’s not hard to figure out that to improve as a producer, you actually need to produce. Production should be your priority, but at the same time, some level of consumption, or “out-of-the-box” learning is essential.
One of the best forms of consumption, or learning, is listening to music. In fact, I’d argue it’s the most important thing for the producer to do outside of actually making music.
But most of you don’t listen to music. You might listen to it while you’re driving, doing the dishes, or hanging out with friends – but you don’t listen to music intentionally.
I’m calling you out.
Why? Because by not listening to music, you’re slowing progress and stopping yourself from making truly great music.
In this article, I’m going to cover:
- Why it’s important to listen to music (intentionally)
- How to solve production problems by listening to music
- How to gain inspiration from listening to music
- Why collaborative listening sessions can be beneficial
- Questions to ask yourself during listening sessions
- How to make listening a habit
As the writer reads, the producer listens
Ask any professional or semi-professional writer the question “how do I become a better writer?” and they’ll tell you to write.
The best way to improve as a writer is to write. The second best way to improve as a writer is to read – to consume the work of others, and learn from it.
Following this logic, we can safely say that the best way to improve as an electronic music producer is to produce music, and the second best way to improve as a producer is to listen to music.
The delusion of originality
Some producers have told me that they avoid listening to music because they want to be original. They want to make completely unique music.
This kind of thinking is detrimental for many reasons.
Firstly, no one can make completely original music, as I talk about in my book. It’s just not possible as we’re always influenced by something.
But second, it assumes that by listening to music, you’re somehow going to end up with an end product that isn’t original. Sure, if you’ve only listened to one song your whole life, you’ll probably end up creating something that sounds similar, but most people have listened to more than one song in their lifetime.
I’d argue that the inverse is true. By listening to music more often, you build up your mental pallette of ideas and sounds. Ideas that can later be fused together–in the production workflow–to create something unique.
By not listening to music, you stem your creative potential, especially if you’re a new producer. Someone who’s mastered the craft of making music may be able to get away with not listening to music, but that’s only because they’ve gone through years of listening to music in the first place.
Note: I know that very few people have this mindset–that not listening to music is something to be proud of–but I felt it was important to cover anyway.
Before learning how to gain inspiration, ideas, and solve problems by listening to music, it’s important to realize that I’m talking about a special type of listening.
For many of us – especially those of us who are busy – listening to music is a supplementary action more than anything. We stick it on in the background while we’re working, or play it leisurely in our car while driving.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Music is supposed to be enjoyed both by itself and in unison with other activities, but for the producer who wants to gather ideas and solve problems, a more focused form of listening is required.
That focused form of listening is what I like to call intentional listening.
The name says it all – you’re listening with intent.
Instead of being something passive, listening becomes a task in itself. You listen, and that’s all you do. You’re not playing around with anything, fidgeting or letting your mind wander – you’re focusing on the music.
If you want to get the most benefits from listening to music, you have to make it a task in itself.
Note: I’m not trying to advocate that you should only listen to music with intent. Music is, first and foremost, made for enjoyment and appreciation. Do not feel that you have to stop listening to music passively; instead, notice the difference between listening passively and listening intentionally, and how valuable the latter is as an artist.
Listening as problem solving and learning
Every day I get emails from producers who are struggling with specific production-related problems. I always offer practical advice, or at least direct them to helpful resources, but often times I’m tempted to respond with “You really just need to listen to more music and analyse it. Doing that will solve your problem.”
Listening intentionally to music in order to solve problems or learn new things is harder and more time-consuming than watching a 10-minute YouTube tutorial on a particular topic, but it’s far more rewarding and beneficial in the long run.
I’m going to run through an example of how I’d solve a production problem and learn something new by listening intentionally to music.
Problem: My build-ups sound too weak
Let’s say that my build-ups sound too weak, they lack energy, and I’m not sure what to include in them. I could go onto the internet and search desperately for answers, and I may find something that helps, or I could follow the process below.
#1 – I create a list of 10 tracks in the genre I want to make
Let’s say I’m making commercial progressive house. I gather a list of 10 tracks that I know are well made, in order to listen to them and study them.
It helps to have a big library of music for this, but it’s not essential. You can always purchase/download the tracks that you need. Streaming can work too, but it’s not ideal given the next step in the process.
#2 – I drag the 10 tracks into my DAW
Listening intentionally does not mean you have to drag music into your DAW to analyze it. In fact, in the case of listening for inspiration and ideas, it’s unimportant and potentially a distraction. In this case, though, I’m listening to build-ups. I want to be able to quickly listen to the build-ups in each of my 10 tracks which is why I’m dragging them into my DAW.
#3 – Cut out the build-ups
The next thing I do is cut out the main build-up from each track, including the 8 bars before and after the build-up. The reason for including 8 bars on either side is to listen to the build-up in context.
#4 – Note down findings
Now that everything is in place, it’s time to start listening. However, as I’m sure you know from experience, it’s hard to keep things in your head. If you’re analysing build-up and happen to figure out a few things, it’s important to write those things down rather than trust your brain with them.
So, I open up a notepad application (Evernote is my preference) and note down:
- Each core element in each build-up (snares, risers, etc.)
- The characteristics of those core elements (the snare is punchy)
- Snare roll
- Pitched riser
- Noise sweep
- Vocal repeat
- High-pass filtering
- Snare roll
- Short decay, soft, lacks “thwack”, automated delay
- Pitched riser
- Quiet, drenched in reverb, sidechained
- Noise sweep
- High-passed, sidechained, wide
- Vocal repeat
- Progressively gets shorter
- High-pass filtering
- Subtle, only on snare roll and vocal repeat
#5 – Build a basic “starting template”
Having done the above listing for all 10 build-ups, I have a fair bit to look at. At this point, I intrinsically have a better ear for what a good build-up should sound like, meaning that even if I were to end the process at this point, it would still have been beneficial and I would have learned something.
I’ve got a bunch of notes for my build-ups, so now it’s time for me to rake through them and create a basic template that I can use when making my own buildups.
I do this by looking for the most common elements and characteristics, so if 8/10 buildups have a snare roll, I’d include that in my template, but if only one track had some obscure sound, I wouldn’t include it.
After looking for recurring elements and characteristics, I come up with the following:
Basic Buildup Template
- Snare roll
- Punchy, simple, strong body
- Wide, has reverb, sidechained
- Noise sweep
- High-passed, lowpass filter automating up, sidechained
This is a bare minimum template. A starting point. What it means, however, is that if I manage to reach this bare minimum when making my own tracks, I can feel confident that my buildup is at least satisfactory and not “weak.”
As you can see, this takes a lot more time than watching a YouTube tutorial, and in some cases a 10-minute tutorial may be the better choice. However, there are certain benefits that can only be gained from this listening process:
- You build confidence by solving the problem yourself instead of taking the easy way out
- You develop a keen ear
- You may come up with a more creative solution than you would following someone else’s advice
- It’s more satisfying doing it yourself
Listening as inspiration
When listening for pure inspiration and to come up with new ideas, your listening sessions should be less focused and less directed. You’re not really trying to solve any particular problem, but rather you’re expanding your palette of sounds and ideas.
Two things happen when you listen to music for inspiration: you discover new tricks and ideas that you can apply to your own music, and you feel driven to create.
Have you ever listened to a new song and thought “Wow. That lead melody is amazing. I need to look at how it’s made!” If you have, then you know how powerful listening to music is. In addition to noticing single elements and sounds, listening closely to a well-made song can invoke such an emotional response that you feel compelled to make music.
When listening as inspiration, you shouldn’t be doing anything else other than listening. If you hear something interesting, feel free to write it down for future reference, but don’t become distracted.
Finally, while it’s beneficial to listen to the genres of music that you produce yourself (because you can easily apply what you hear to your own productions without significant tweaking), it pays to diversify your listening material. Listen to other EDM genres and also non-EDM genres. If you make progressive house, spend some time listening to techno, drum ‘n’ bass, jazz, classical, and so forth. By doing this, you open yourself up to even more ideas that can be applied in your selected genre.
Collaborative listening sessions
We all hear music differently. By listening to music with other producers, you can share your findings and learn even more.
For example: let’s say I’m listening to solve the problem I mentioned earlier, that my build-ups are weak. I organize a collaborative listening session with another producer who’s far more experienced than me, and he notices a couple of things that I don’t. He points them out to me, and I now hear them.
This wouldn’t have happen otherwise. If you can listen to music with producers of a higher caliber than yourself, they’ll be able to point out certain sounds and ideas that you miss.
Questions to ask in listening sessions
If you’re not listening to problem solve, but you still want to have some sort of focus, then it’s worth applying a question to your listening sessions.
For example, your question might be “how complex are the drum patterns in these songs?” by posing this question to yourself, you naturally listen more closely to the drums than other elements, and thus learn more about drums than you would otherwise if you don’t pose the question.
I encourage you to come up with your own questions, but here are a few to get you started:
- How does this make me feel? (Sad, happy, euphoric, bored?)
- Why does it make me feel that way? (Dissonant chords, dark sounds, sad lyrics?)
- What instruments and elements stand out the most?
- What don’t I like about this song?
- How much energy does this song have on a scale of 1–10?
- Approximately, how many tracks are being used?
- How complex is this song on a scale of 1–10?
Making it a habit
I know you understand the importance of dedicated and intentional listening sessions, but I need to reiterate the fact that performing a listening session once in a blue moon isn’t the way it’s supposed to be done.
You need to make this a habit. Ideally, you should listen intentionally every day. Making intentional listening a daily habit means you’ll be constantly motivated and inspired to work on new music, and it also means you’ll have a vast collection of ideas to experiment with.
My advice is to start by listening to one song per day. Anyone can do that. Take 5–7 minutes out of your day to listen closely to one song. Make it a task in itself, and note down anything that comes to mind.
Do this for 30 days, then consider increasing the duration of your sessions to get even more benefit out of them.
Your problems won’t always be solved by listening
I don’t want you to get the impression that every music related problem can be solved by listening. That’s completely wrong. It would be unwise to attempt to learn the basics of sound design from listening to music, or to learn complex jazz music theory. Books and other resources exist for that.
Often times, when you encounter a problem during production, some technical knowledge is required to fix it. You won’t always get the answers. With that said, listening intentionally to music will, more often than not, lead you in the right direction. It might not provide the exact solution, but it will send you on the right path.
As the writer reads, the producer listens.
I’ve only scratched the surface of how beneficial listening is. There are plenty more reasons to listen intentionally to music beyond problem solving and finding inspiration, but you’ll have to find them out for yourself.
Before you go, I want you to commit to making intentional listening a habit. Set a reminder on your smartphone or computer for the same time every day, and when that reminder goes off, spend a couple of minutes listening intentionally, and without distraction, to a song. Come back a month from now and share your results 😉