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Critical Listening Skills- How do you listen to your music?

Discussion in 'Sound Science' started by scottsmrnyc, Feb 9, 2009.
  1. LFF
    I must also disagree with panda.

    Listening critically, for me, is an essential part of listening to music and I'll explain why...but first some background information.

    I am a mastering engineer and sound restoration specialist. I feel I am quite good at my job and feel that while my ears may not be the best, they are damn good and among the best. My ears and ability to perceive, interpret and manipulate sound is what makes me great at my job.

    My enjoyment in listening come from recognizing the difficulty of producing a recording, from performance to mastering. I enjoy listening to single point recordings that sound spacious, to multi-track recordings and their immense detail to well mastered recordings that sound natural and organic.

    I really have fun knowing that my ears are resolving the sound of an electronically captured performance that may have been recorded decades ago. I love hearing the ambiance of the recording hall, the walls of the studio or the occasional talking that most people never hear. All those little nuances are part of a performance and something I really cherish. Most of all, I love natural and organic recordings that, even for a small time, tear down the walls of reality and put you inside Capitol Recording Studio A with Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra or some other great artist. Having recorded sound sound so real that it puts you THERE - that's awesome. That's what I want when I listen to music.

    I want to hear Nat King Cole breathe in before he opens his mouth. I want to hear Bing Crosby lean forward in his chair just before he sings. I want to hear Frank Sinatra jingle some change in his pocket as he finishes singing. I love to hear the controlled breathing of Janos Starker as he plays a Bach piece or hear Lee Morgan cheer on Art Blakey on a drum solo. I crave that from my music - to be THERE.

    Of course some people say that what I do is analyze music and not listen to music. I disagree. I like to say that music is the language of the human soul and that all I do is attempt to understand that language a little more everyday. In short...I love music. As Sidney Lanier once said, "Music is Love in search of a word".

    Now to answer what I do before/during/after music.


    Listening Research: Know a little about the music. Composer, period, artist, etc.

    Mental Preparation: I like to relax and not think about anything else.

    Sound Room/Environment: Can be anywhere but I prefer a cold, dark room.

    Equipment levels: Not loud. Just loud enough to where the vocalist sounds natural.

    Mental Focusing: None. Just listen to the music.

    Exercises: For work I often compare different eq's and settings. For casual listening - none.

    Put away my recordings carefully. Go to sleep.
  2. St3ve
    Critical listening, for me, can be a curse sometimes. As a musician, for a long time i have practised transcribing music that i like. It might be certain instrumental passage or an entire piece - I will become obsessed with it and listen very carefully to how it 'works'. Similarly, since getting into headphones i have been listening, and evaluating, the sound of my gear - something i consider entirely separate from the experience of enjoying music. I wish that sometimes I could just accept that it sounds great. The problem is that my focus has shifted to one aspect of the recording, be it the performance or production, and the 'feel' slips away. The cure to all this, I've found, is to go and see a good live performance - be re-infused with the magic of it all.
  3. MrGreen
    There are many forms of critical listening and listening is a highly complex process.

    As a trained jazz musician I'd have to type an exceptionally long-winded piece of work to explain the many shades of my listening process, particularly regarding the purpose of my listening - enjoyment, transcription (including both note and tone transcription), relaxation, 'jamming' etc.

    Long story short, sometimes its about tuning in (transcription, jamming, enjoyment), other times its about tuning out (relaxation, enjoyment).

    Part of the enjoyment of music for me is not only the "music" but also the sound, difficulty of the piece (at times), or emotions/scapes/colours conveyed during the piece. The latter I feel a LOT of headphones get wrong (>90%)

    For me it is becoming more and more about tuning out, but I wouldn't surrender the ability to tune in the way I do for anything (although I honestly believe it stops me from enjoying a large amount of popular music).


    Originally Posted by LFF /img/forum/go_quote.gif
    Of course some people say that what I do is analyze music and not listen to music.

    You're the one listening to music, not them. Whilst it is completely possible to appreciate music without an appreciation for both the contents and sound of music, an appreciation of the contents of a piece will enhance the appreciation of the sound.
  4. Happy Camper
    LFF, I'd enjoy a chat on this topic as our listening habits are similar. You listen and want the facts of the delivery that includes the recording process, environment of venue, the skill of the mixer, etc. To some, that may sound like critical listening. I agree with your analysis of music being a language of the soul. It communicates with your emotions (or should) as deeply as the vocals telling the story or the melody. I can't understand a word of Chinese but love the sound of folk music.

    I'll listen at all times of day and that dictates the material. Early in the day, energy music like Zep or Rush, symphonies, fast jazz. In the afternoon, I like to go progressive rock, blues, pop for the less edgy but still energetic pace. After dinner I usually stay with mellower prog. rock and some new age and jazz. For evening listening, I like the easier energy material. I usually end my listening with a few favorites to put me in the frame of mind to sleep on. Mostly solos or simple instrumentals.
  5. LFF
    Happy Camper - anyone who knows me knows that I enjoy a chat about music. When I listen I do want all the facts - especially when I am mastering music. I like to know as much as possible as I feel this only enhances my listening pleasure. Like you, I don't know a word in Chinese. I only know a few in French, much less in German and no Japanese but I love all their music just the same. I can really feel the passion in Jacques Brel's voice and delivery as much I can feel it in Billie Holiday's. That's why I feel any music is really universal.

    Feel free to PM me or continue posting here. [​IMG]
  6. andymodem
    Alot of the times when I'm listening to music I'm usually doing something else on the computer, or via my iPhone at work. I certainly would call any of those activities critical listening. When I really want to get into the music though and just escape, I grab the MacBook Pro and my headphones, and listen in my leather reclining theater chairs in the dark. Absolute best way to relax and "go" to a different place.
  7. TheAttorney
    I'll go along with kmarthis, Fitz and mark-h. But I'll take this further to say that listening in near total darkness, whilst standing up/walking around, can add thousands to the value of your hifi system. This does have it's downsides: I once yanked out my headphone cable when I trod on it, which cost a fair bit to repair - and more than once I've jumped out of my skin when I didn't hear my wife open the door. Haven't actually fallen over...yet.
  8. The-One
    I think the first thing is not to be distracted, for example, if I am writing an essay for a deadline, I might play loud music (because a wall of sound is oddly calming in such a situation), but I will notice little of it.

    So just when you're relaxed and reclining in a comfortable chair I think. Also I have to stress this, if your playback equipment is poor, you might constantly criticise it mentally, but I hardly think that's critical listening.

    A good playback system when you're in the right mood will draw you into the music without any further concentration on your part.
  9. sbtruitt
    What a great discussion.

    I cannot be doing something if I want to serioulsy listen to music as I stop what I am doing to hear the melody, try to figure out the key structure or what chords the guitar player is playing. I can never listen to music at work as I would never get anything done [​IMG] (to bad my work isnt listening to music as for some of you).

    Sometimes, I want to sit and listen more analytically - like wanting to be sitting next to the artists to hear every little thing - e.g. listening to the Beatles remastered CDs for all the studio sounds I'd never heard before.

    but then other times I just want to be back in the audience, 10th row center, kicked back and just enjoying the overal sound or melody without keying in on any particular instrument. Depends on my mood on what I want to listen to and how I perceive it when listening.

    I also try to change up the types of music I listen to - last week it was Steely Dan, this week I'm listening to alot of Mozart. Keeps me on my sonic toes so to speak.

    Someone mentioned a book about this discussion - anyone read 'This is Your Brain on Music'? Very intersting read.
  10. WalkGood
    89.5% of the time I listen for enjoyment almost all day long and even portably, which means no critical listening, no matter what mood I’m in or the music involved, I derive great pleasure from listening to music. Although if I want to compare equipment to write a review or verbalize my opinion on what I hear, I listen to music I enjoy and that I am familiar with, music that has numerous instruments with a good representation of vocals and I take notes so it’s easier for me to write about it later. I’m a bit surprised that no one has mentioned taking notes already o_O or am I the only one that forgets.

    I agree with indydieselnut and others, when I try to listen critically, here what I do:
    - Lighting – dimmed room
    - Seating comfort - I prefer laying down or laying back comfortably
    - Clean ears - I like being clean all over too, with clean comfortable clothing
    - No impairment (no alcohol)
    - Volume Level – not loud but a realistic listening level
    - If comparing iem’s/headphones – I’ll try different levels, isolating different instruments and vocals, with and without eq, increase volume between tracks, test levels on pause and a few other test like: cable microphonics, outdoor testing, ect. …
    - Eliminate all distractions
    - Focus on the task at hand
    - Take notes - only when I want to write about it later

    Although like I said above, unless I’m trying to compare my equipment with others, I prefer to just enjoy the tunes and yes I do realize we all hear things differently and what I enjoy you might not [​IMG]

    BTW the percentage above is only my sarcasm.
  11. Prog Rock Man
    I have my corner of the living room. My kit is on a sideboard and I sit at the end of a settee with a laptop on a laptop table. The laptop is my source. I look out of French windows into our little garden where we are surrounded by trees and a good view of the sky.

    When I listen to music I am either surfing, usually about hifi and computers or looking out of the window or dozing.

    Just now, as I was typing this out I stopped and listened to the music for a minute as a part of a track caught my attention (Showdown at High Noon from the album 'Dear Monsters, be Patient' by Followed by Ghosts).

    I do listen critically, but also for relaxation as I enjoy following different parts of a track. I am Prog Rock Man, so much of the music I listen to is quite complex, layered and with many different sounds, styles and instruments. So I like a system that delivers clarity and detail. So my main cans are AKG K702s.

    If I listened purely to relax, I would want something a bit smoother and at the moment I have Goldring NS1000s.

    If I want to rock, the SR80s come out. That is a joy of head-fi that those with speakers miss out on.

    For me the absolutely best music is well recorded and played by superb musicians. I really like it when recordings suggest the track was played 'live in the studio' where all the musicians were together at the time and the track was done in a take after they have practiced it. Neil Young and Crazy horse are one of the best examples of that.

    That does not mean I do not appreciate other recordings. I know Pink Floyd are the complete opposite. A read of Nick Mason's book about the band shows the music was usually recorded and recorded again and again with each part worked on separately before it was mixed to make the final product. (I am talking about the albums from Meddle onwards). But I could hear that anyway and I find it interesting and satisfying to know that.

    So, for me analytical listening is the pleasure as I am into hifi.

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