A Musician’s Guide to Listening With Empathy

band rehearsing in studio together

band rehearsing in studio together

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Ever feel like it’s tough to separate the ego from the song?

When we’re in the thick of writing, producing, and releasing, there may be an overwhelm that finds its way into our mind. And that can cloud us from listening with empathy, leading us to focus only on the negative aspects of our music, and dismiss constructive criticism from our peers.

It happens to everyone — myself included — but it’s important to recognize when we’re in that state; and to switch to a learning mindset.

A learning mindset is essential here, whether you’re giving or receiving feedback. It means that you approach listening to songs (yours or others’) from the perspective that you are only here to grow, not to promote or confirm if a song is “perfect.” This opens your mind to how other people are hearing and understanding your song, beyond your own biases and perceptions.

With this approach, you can start to listen empathetically and take feedback notes in a way that doesn’t hurt so much, and actually benefits the song.

How to Receive Feedback With Empathy

Remember: you are not your song.

To truly get into a learning mindset, keep reminding yourself: no matter how personal your song is, you are not your song. By letting go, you are actually doing the best for your music and allowing it to serve beyond yourself. This song that you’ve written that brought you comfort can start to bring comfort to others.

Take your time with this. Use a Post-It note as a reminder if you need it, a visual affirmation to look at every so often. This isn’t easy, and sometimes it takes a couple of weeks from writing the song to when you can say, “I’m ready to make this song the best it can be.” But that’s the thing — you should feel ready.

There are some songs which you may never feel ready to detach from yourself, and that’s okay. Start recognizing those instances and try to save it for the truly personal songs.

Re-frame the criticism.

This is important when we’re critiquing a friend’s song, but sometimes even more important when we’re editing our own. We can be our own worst critics but forget this little fact when we’re in the midst of editing. If we are unforgiving in the critiquing process, we will remember this as a painful experience and will end up writing or editing less; getting frustrated throughout the creative process.

The next time you’re listening over a song you’ve been working on and find yourself being a little harsh, re-frame that thought to be a little more empathetic. Ask, “How would I say this to a friend? How can I rephrase this to say this more constructively and positively?”

The way we use language can make a huge difference in how we feel about our songs.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Feedback: How to Deal With Exposing Your Songs to the Public.”

How to Listen With Empathy

Another advantage of a learning mindset is being able to give feedback more effectively.

While we should always be kind, allowing the insight from others leads us to becoming more empathetic. We can understand the struggles a songwriter goes through, as well as where the listener comes in and develops their own relationships to song material. Listeners probably don’t have the same ideas, thoughts, and memories attached to music that we do.

When listening with empathy, keep the following things in mind.

Listen without assuming.

We tend to listen to music with bias and assumptions. Whether it’s because of patterns in a certain genre or our own opinions of what a song should do, we can intentionally put those aside. All genres are valid, even the ones we don’t like.

And not all songs need to tell a story. Not all songs need to have a big, Katy Perry-esque chorus melody. Not all songs have to be in Verse-Chorus form, etc.

Instead, ask this question: “What does this song want to be, and how can it effectively communicate that?” If the song wants to be a pop hit, it probably needs to grab attention and use rhythm effectively. If the song is more of a background supportive track, it might need to have more subtlety in its melodies.

By thinking along these lines, we can let go of assumptions and be able to empathetically critique any style or genre.

Don’t fall for “all-or-nothing” thinking.

Whether it’s your song or a fellow songwriter’s, don’t think about whether the song is overall “good” or “bad.” When we receive criticism, we tend to fall for the “all-or-nothing” thinking, in that if there’s a lot to fix, it’s a “bad song.” No song is completely terrible, and even if you decide to scrap everything but the chord progression, that still means you gained something from writing it.

When we’re giving feedback, we are still susceptible to this line of thinking and can be too dismissive in our critique.

Try to focus on the individual aspects of a song, perhaps the technical ones like which beat the melody starts, or how often the harmonic changes happen. You can do this with lyrics as well, focusing on how the story progresses or the different devices used to express the emotion.

Approach the song with, “What is interesting about this song? What can I learn from it?” By doing this, you will be more empathetic with your feedback and will not write off songs upon hearing them.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “How a Positive Listening Habit Will Make You a Better Musician.”

In Conclusion

Practicing empathy in our songwriting process means we are taking those steps required to keep growing.

By understanding the individual aspects of a song and re-framing our thoughts about it, we can enter a learning mindset and no longer feel afraid of criticism and feedback. We will start to understand what it means when famous songwriters talk about writing hundreds of songs to get to the ones they were proud of.

That’s the beautiful thing about art: we can always strive for something new and unheard.

Don’t stop here!

Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, DIY home recording and production, composing, beat making, and so much more, with Soundfly’s artist-led courses, like: Jlin: Rhythm, Variation, & Vulnerability, RJD2: From Samples to Songs and Kimbra: Vocal Creativity, Arranging, & Production.

Jlin: Rhythm, Variation, & Vulnerability

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