You’ll Never Listen to Music the Same Way Again

“You’ll never listen to music the same way again,” my teacher told us the first day of class. He was talking about mixing and critical listening. Now a year later, I couldn’t agree more…

The Beginning

Consumers, critics, and aficionados who love music but haven’t experienced the music creation process have always intrigued me.

I’ve been drumming since 2nd grade, and I don’t feel like I’ve been able to truly experience music with innocent “uneducated” ears in a long time (although I’d love to). Wouldn’t it be amazing to listen to one of your own mixes, recordings, or compositions for the first time again with completely fresh unbiased ears? It’s like the curse of knowledge, but the curse of ear training.

Growing up, I would over-analyze the rhythm of my favorite songs. As a drummer, I noticed subtleties in the drums and groove that the everyday listener might not consciously notice or care about. But honestly, does critical listening even matter at the emotional listening level? Not really. Who feels the deepest pleasure from listening to music: the untrained music critic, the musician, or the world class mix engineer? Who are we to decide? Does it even matter?

When I used to be obsessed with a song (maybe ages 1-15), I only knew that it made me feel good; I didn’t really know why (or care to know why…)

We don’t always need to over-analyze why a seemingly random song (or any work of art for that matter) makes us feel amazing, but if we do want to break it down, it’s nice to have the knowledge and vocabulary to dissect and discuss it.

Curse of a Trained Ear?

After a lot of experiences, study, and a love-affair with Logic Pro, I again became freshly aware of new listening habits. I started hearing (what were previously subliminal) subtleties in arrangement, harmony, and musical layers shifting in and out creating movement, texture, and emotion in my favorite songs. I was thrilled. Now I could listen to my previously cherished songs which I had played out, but in a whole new light with a fresh perspective. All of a sudden I had an excuse to listen to 90’s pop music again! Sad? Nah. I have a huge producer crush on Dr.Luke & Max Martin, as well as their mix engineer, Serban Ghenea

Listening habits continuously evolve along-side your own skills. You’ll identify with new subtleties as your own abilities progress. Once you become aware and conceptualize something you hadn’t previously noticed, you’ll start noticing it everywhere. This is also true for plenty of other aspects of life.

It used to be things like snare drum ghost notes that stood out to me, but since I’ve delved deeper into the recording and mixing process (and also since building Quiztones), it’s tonal color of sound that I’m more aware of lately. Subtle delays, reverb, compression, and distortion stick out like never before when I’m “leisurely” listen to music. On a macro level, “what is making this mix/performance/song effective?” is the general question I’m usually asking myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy listening to music simply because I love the way it makes me feel, but do you ever find yourself listening to music leisurely and technically? Some may even enjoy it more this way. What about those who love math-rock or mathcore? Eh, who cares…

Honestly, listening to top-40 radio in my car these days, my inner monologue is more like:

  • Nice automation on the lead synth building up to the chorus
  • So many four on the floor songs with side-chain compression pumping hi-hats, pads, or even a whole mix.
  • Filtered noise transitions everywhere… (eh-hem, Dr. Luke)
  • What a nice tuning job they did on a bad vocalist. Nice Melodyne harmony stacks, Nelly!
  • Is that a 1/4 note delay or a dotted 1/4 note delay – or maybe an eighth note delay feeding into a 1/4 delay?? Who knows.
  • What a heavenly bass drum sound – like a huge glorious pillow moving air.
  • I clearly hear every breath of this vocalist while driving 80MPH… with the windows down… on a bumpy road…

Technical vs Musical Listening

I think the ability to listen musically and technically is an incredible skill regardless of your primary focus. Critical listening is important. Period. The more knowledge you have from either side of the glass, the better you will fare – whether as a musician, producer or audio engineer. Also, a great mix starts with a great performance and a solid arrangement.

Let’s be real: the recording and mixing process fundamentally exists to serve the music – allowing it to be as amazing and emotional of an experience as possible for the listener. Music shouldn’t be mixed for an ego.

Side-Note:

  • I’d rather perform or record with the musician who listens and plays musically with emotion, opposed to the musician who gets the “best tone” out of their instrument.
  • I’d rather listen to a pro drummer shred on an un-tuned starter kit, opposed to hearing 11 year old Tommy banging on some impeccably tuned exotic bubinga drums.

Invisible Improvement

When you’re quickly improving within any realm of music, it’s always amazing how you can listen to an old song or open an old recording session (even just months old), and know right away what would take it to the next level. Don’t get down on yourself for this, as it’s really just tangible proof of your own improvement, which you should be proud of.

Subliminal Enjoyment

Good mixing is a musical art form. It’s a process meant to serve the song, and present it in an exciting and emotional way for the listener. Defying variables of unpredictable listening environments and subtly (or not subtly) guiding a listener’s ear and attention is an amazing under-appreciated art.

It’s interesting to hear a song you loved as a kid, but years later with better trained ears. It makes you realize that there were so many aspects and subtleties to why you loved these songs which you never really could have acknowledged or have been consciously aware of at the time.

Listening to songs I loved when I was 14 that were mixed and recorded by world class engineers, I used to think “those drums are awesome.” Now I can conceptualize the building blocks which made it sound and feel that way.

Hearing a song you used to adore when you were less musically or technically educated in any aspect of music is a beautiful thing, and your ever-changing perspective of listening should keep it fresh forever.

Share your own experiences in the comments below!

Dan Comerchero

Dan Comerchero

I'm Dan, founder of The Pro Audio Files and Quiztones ear training apps. You can find me compulsively refreshing Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+.
  • Zêphyr

    Good post Dan, I definitely can relate to it.

    First listens intrigue me the most, once past that moment ill try to forget about critiques and techniques. They’ll pop up anyway soon or late … just relax, take the artwork with you and absorb the music, the songs, the lyrics and so on.

    Hearing your own work with untrained ears is not an option I guess, but somehow further down the road you might experience some part of it. Like when you didn’t listen to it for a few months or years. My best friend mentioned this to me passed weekend, he had listened again to his first album from about 6 years ago. Said it felt like he never heard it before and actually had to compliment himself for doing a good job back then. Personally I think it could have been even better, as I know the album was mixed in a time frame of 3 to 4 hours per track. Something I can’t do, just can not work with a clock on the wall staring at me and fight deadlines. Just can’t, all for the sake of the result though. Good for business? hell no… for the result? Probably ! Mixes need to grow on me. Some might call it a lack of confidence or talent, others will say Ill never get to work on the bigger/better project’s that way, I don’t know… will see. At least for now it works for me.

    Some schooled musicians I work with from time to time hear music as dictations and can spell out every song they hear. I believe it’s a big plus being able to analyze songs, studio & live mixes or sounds and be able to recreate them or parts of it but mostly to learn from. Especially live mixes intrigues me the most at the moment, as these have taking a huge studio turn the past few years with the venues and other digital consoles out there.

    The last concerts I visited were 3 GN’R gig’s, an awesome experience to analyze these live mixes apart from the brilliant performances by the band of course. There’s some much going on that I needed these 3 show’s to observe n’ absorb it all… automation, different scene’s, cue’s, effect’s, all on the fly. The modest attendant will not even notice what’s going in there and that perfectly fine. You don’t want to know what every cook does to get you your meal either. Everything made perfect sense, really top notch work and a joy to learn from ! Would love to dig in to the venue stuff and get on the road with it someday. In the mean time Ill keep doing what I do…

    Subliminal enjoyment:

    Makes me think of my late grandfather, he really used to adore German Schlager’s on TV… That was 100% lip sync and pretended performances, looked so fake to me but for him it’s wasn’t and for the audience it wasn’t either. You know? Guitar solo’s with unplugged Les Paul’s pretending they are playing there balls off … We would get in to discussions about liking vs. not liking. Me not liking it and trying to explain that it was fake and he getting pissed at me, of course not believing what I was rambling about either. Now years later I wish these discussion never had taken place because for him this was subliminal enjoyment, something personal that nobody can or has the right to take away from someone. It’s all about how you look at it and experience it I guess.

    Having a technical baggage is a good thing but also should come as a natural part of your evolution somehow, we are not better than animals and plants, usually developing new skill’s when we need them to get better at we do to survive.

    End of rant, blogging and commenting is not really my thing so I hope it makes some sense to you somehow…

    Cheers

  • http://arkarsenal.com Mark

    Hey Dan,

    First time on your site, but man you’ve done a great job with it. I really like the design, as well as the content.

    This post really explains a lot of what I’ve been feeling about music. I’ve been a listener for many years, but just recently began making my own music. Noticing certain things has surely changed the game for me, but with all this talk of losing your love for it as you learn more about it… I just can’t agree with that notion. The more I learn, the more I’m able to pick out things that I’d love to incorporate into my own music.

    Like you said, reverb and delay was something I’d never pick up on if it weren’t for my use of Ableton, and the more I hear it, the more ideas I get on how to use it.

    Nice post, and I look forward to more!

    Mark

    • http://www.theproaudiofiles.com Dan Comerchero

      Thanks so much Mark! I’m glad you enjoy the site.

      I didn’t particular mean to imply that I’ve lost any love for music. If anything I love listening more, and in a whole new way. In some ways though, it’s a curse to be always listening technically opposed to “innocent” enjoyment.

      Everyone has songs they’ve played hundreds of times, loved, and then couldn’t listen to again. But, five years later when you listen, after your music/engineer/producer skills improve, you hear all kinds of beautiful new things.. almost an insight into what made it a great song, arrangemnt, mix, etc.

      Once you hear the subtitles (delay’s, verbs, etc) you can never go back to NOT hearing them! Love that.

      Take Care,
      Dan

  • http://www.audio-issues.com/ Björgvin

    I tend to joke that whenever I’m at a boring concert or listening to a boring song I can just start listening to how the kick drum is EQ’d, what type of processing is on the vocals etc… I switch over from critical listener of boring music to analytical listener of “doesn’t-matter-if-it’s-boring” music.

    • http://arkarsenal.com Mark

      That is an awesome way to make the best of a crappy situation, Bjorgvin. I think I’ll try this out the next time I’m watching a boring band.

  • http://beatmakertips.com G. Ometrik

    I think Dan did an incredible job articulating something that a lot of musicians and producers go through. I’ve been dissecting records ever since I got my first copy of a “post acid dropping” Beatles record. Got myself a Tascam 4 track and that was the end of it. That was almost 20 years ago.

    The upside is that eventually you get to some sort of normalcy, in terms of listening to music. You can hear past the eqing, arrangements, etc. It’s still there, and you are conscious of it – but you’re still able to enjoy the song.

    • http://www.theproaudiofiles.com Dan Comerchero

      Thanks G. Ometrik.. nice name!

      I agree with what you’re saying.

      I also love the feeling of being able to enjoy something years later after getting sick of hearing it. Those are the moments when it’s clear to see how far you’ve come, but also with that burst of nostalgia, all the wiser.

  • Firdaus Lam

    “You’ll never listen to music the same way again” and “you should listen to music differently”

    those are the same words my instructor gave me.thanks for the insight it related to me in many ways.

  • Charles W

    After years of mixing it is refreshing to hear good music that is completely lacking in mixing and recording technique. It’s like…. when a song has nothing technical going on I can finally just enjoy the music because there is nothing to critique or focus on. I admire musicians who release recordings that are technically horrendous, it’s kind of a big “F-U, i am an artist, here’s the music I make.” When a musician like that a great engineer get together, a masterpiece is made.

    • http://twitter.com/SGRaines Sam Raines

      Couldn’t agree more. My friend has recently gotten into music, and he is bursting with energy and inspiration but has little technical skills to back it up. The result is low quality records that are technically not good but that I enjoy perhaps way too much because he’s so completely honest in them.

  • BluMondie

    Great!! Just goes to show what my other half has to put up with when I’m analyzing my work & she tells me to leave it alone.. That it sounds fine! But I know betta.. Yea Right! :)

  • http://dbakeca.com Dbakeca Italia

    very true

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