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How to Train Your Ear: Active Listening vs. Passive Criticism

The first time you listen to a song, it should be for enjoyment. Suspend your preconceived notions as to what constitutes “good” music and be along for the ride.


Then listen again with a critical ear. What is your ear gravitating toward? Why?

Do you hear the guitar first because that’s your main instrument?

Do you gravitate toward the lyrics because the meaning meets you in the moment?

Does your head bob or your leg bounce because the drums ground you?

Do you start humming along because the melody is catchy?

There is always a facet of the song that sticks out to us first.

Now listen again. Try and find something different from what your ear naturally pulls you. It may be the entire suitcase piano part. It may be a neat little run the vocalist did. It may be the lockstep of the bass and kick.

Then listen again for something different. It could be the frequency sweep pushing the verse into the chorus. It could be two tambourines that are pitched slightly different from each other. I could be the dropped beat to create a compound meter.

This time, listen through a different medium. If you were listening through ear buds, try your car speakers. If you were listening in you car, try the built in speakers to your computer. If not the computer speakers, mixing monitors. If not those, a home theater system. You get the idea.

You will be surprised the new details you can pick up through various qualities of listening mediums. For instance, it wasn’t until dozens of listens to District Sleeps Alone Tonight by the Postal Service that I heard the echo of “context,” “complex,” and “door key” after the instrumental break. (Give it a listen — the texture those echos add to the song are tasty!)

Music is an escape. Music is also meant to be digested and feed multiple facets of the soul. Don’t be a glutton for only a fraction of what a song has to offer. Listen with a critical ear and find more reasons to love what you hear.


About the Author

Alleli Hull is a 33-year-old Midwesterner freezing in the sub-arctic weather of Wisconsin. She went to school for music performance and can play anything in your typical garage band. She also has a pup named Skander that is infinitely more charismatic than she is. Her room and car might be disasters, but at least all the apps on her phone are clear of notifications.


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