Critical Listening: Teach Your Students to Listen to Music like a Pro

Mike Lawson • Audio Tech • November 1, 2019

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We all listen to music, but the problem is that most of the time there are lessons being delivered to our ears on a silver platter that we’re not really grasping.

Having a load of musical expertise under your belt is never a bad thing, but until you’re hip to what’s going on deep inside what you’re hearing, you’re not going to get the most from your knowledge. Luckily, the best teacher for that are the innumerable hit songs that we’ve all listened to our whole lives. The only thing we need to do is learn what to listen for.

Whether we’re listening to a big hit by a superstar artist or something that we’re about to work on or perform, it’s important to able to listen inside the music, and this article will give you a few pointers on how to do just that.

The General Listening Technique

There are a number of the things that an experienced studio ear will hear almost automatically, but even if you don’t have years of studio time under your belt, you can train yourself to do the same pretty easily. Just start with a few of the following tips at a time, and before you know it, you’ll be naturally listening through the song, instead of just hearing it. So pull up your favorite song by your favorite artist, and start to listen especially for the following:

• Listen for the instruments that give the song its pulse. All music genres, even dream-like ambient music, have a pulse, and that’s the first thing you want to notice. What is the element in the song that’s pushing it along?

• Listen to the ambience. Does a vocal or an instrument sound like it’s in the room right in front of you, or in a club, or a church, or a cave? Is there an audible reverb tail? Can you hear the repeat of a delay after the element stops playing?

• Listen to the clarity of the mix. Can you hear each instrument and vocal clearly in the mix? Are some buried so you can’t distinguish what they are (which shouldn’t happen in a great mix except for elements with long sustaining notes or chords)? Can you identify all the instruments that you’re hearing?

• Listen to the timbre of each instrument or vocal. Does it sound lifelike or distorted? Is there an effect used to intentionally alter its sound?

• Identify each section of the song. Is something new happening the second and third time you hear a section? Is there a new vocal or instrument introduced? Is one taken away? Is an effect added or subtracted?

• Identify the loudest thing in the mix. Is the vocal louder than the other instruments (like in a pop mix) or is it lower than the rest of the band (like in a rock mix)? Is the bass out in front of the drums (which was the case in a lot of 60s and 70s hits), is the kick and/or snare louder, or is the entire rhythm section relegated to the back of the mix like in big band songs?

• Identify the hook of the song. What instrument or vocal plays it? When does it occur? How many times does it occur? Is it built around a lyric? Does the song even have one?

• Listen to the stereo sound field of the song. Are there instruments or vocals that only appear on one side? Are there instruments that have a wide stereo sound field so they appear on both sides?

• Listen to the overall timbre of the song. Does the mix seem bright or is the low end emphasized? Is there an instrument or vocal that stands out because of its timbre?

• Listen to the dynamics of the song. Does it breathe volume-wise with the song’s pulse? Does it sound compressed or do the instruments and vocals sound more dynamic like you’d hear in a club or concert?

• Is the song fun to listen to? Why?

These are just a few listening techniques that hopefully you’ll find useful from now on. By being acutely aware of what’s happening inside the mix of hit songs that you hear every day, you’ll also be aware of new techniques to try, and also when trends in recording and mixing change. Not only will you find yourself aurally x-raying your favorite songs, but also the songs that you’re working on. You’ll be more aware of where the groove lies, how the arrangement works, and the things that are missing from a mix or performance. By listening in this way, you’ll find it easier to hear through the mix and spot things that you might not otherwise be aware of. All it takes is a little time and focus.

Happy listening!

Producer/engineer Bobby Owsinski is one of the best-selling authors in the music industry with 24 books that are now staples in audio recording, music, and music business programs in schools around the world, including The Mixing Engineer’s HandbookSocial Media Promotion For Musicians, The Music Business Advice Book and more. He’s also a contributor to Forbes, and he’s appeared on CNN and ABC News as a music branding and audio expert. Visit him at,, his podcast is at, and his website at

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