Most of the time we listen to music in passing. You might shuffle a playlist while driving or listen to your hype songs while exercising. But have you ever sat down with a song and understood it? What if you weren’t doing anything else, giving your full attention to listening and absorbing all its intricacies?
There are two kinds of listening: Passive Listening and Active Listening. We do passive listening often, whether we want to relax, escape life, or simply enjoy our favorite song for the 50th time.
Active listening, on the other hand, is intentional. We are engaging our thoughts in analyzing the song. We aim to understand the song: What form it uses, what the lyrics may mean, why that one part of the song is your favorite? We can use this to learn more about songwriting.
Participating in active listening helps us develop our own songwriting skills, so let’s get to know one of your favorite songs more intimately.
Follow these steps to practice active listening:
- Pick a song, any song. Although, this activity will work best if you choose a song that you love.
- Structure. What’s the structure of this song? Is there any deviation from standard song form for its genre? What purpose does the structure serve?
- Lyrics. If there are lyrics, how do these lyrics stand out to you? Are there any lines that speak to you? What about those lines do you like so much? What is your interpretation of the lyrics and how do they make you feel?
- Melodic elements. If there are melodic elements in this song like chords, a melody, harmonies, etc., then what is your favorite? Dig down, and try to figure out why it’s your favorite. If it’s the chord progression, find out what the chord progression is. If it’s the melody, then notice how the melody changes.
- Rhythmic elements. Same as above, what do you like about the rhythmic elements in this song? Is the pulse unique? Do you like the way that the percussive instruments/beat sounds? See if you can figure out exactly what is happening in the rhythmic part of the song.
- Details. What small additions/effects in the song stand out to you? Do you notice any interesting uses of mixing elements such as reverb, delay, phasing, etc? What purpose would those details serve?
- The Bigger Picture. How do these elements that we’ve looked at work together in the song? Listen to how the song develops and where some elements come in, and some leave. What are the possible choices made that would pull in the listener?
In passive listening, we hear the “what” of the song, such as the harmonies, the melody, and the lyrics. But in active listening, we ask the “why”, such as “Why is this part so catchy?” or “Why would this be included in the song?”
When you actively listen to songs, you will learn new techniques to use, know what elements you like as a songwriter, and understand how to effectively develop your songs. In turn, you will be able to effectively identify and apply new ideas your songs. Good luck!