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How a Positive Listening Habit Will Make You a Better Musician

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By Carla Malrowe

You learn from other people’s music. Good listening and critiquing habits serve the song, the songwriter, and you. Yet positive listening, and the delivery of constructive criticism, are habits that are not as easy to execute as they might seem. The problem is this: Pessimism starts at home. We, as musicians, are too hard on ourselves when it comes to our own creations, and this affects how we listen to the music of others.

I’m always amazed at how much material exists online on the subject of musicians and artists “being too hard on themselves.” It’s clearly a pandemic. A major symptom is that we end up being too hard on other musicians as well. Let’s try to remedy the affliction by adopting an open-minded, growth-focused approach when listening to the work of others (…to start with).

Your friend, fellow songwriter, or even your favorite professional musician, just released a song, and you are about to listen to it for the first time. Before you just hit play, I encourage you to get into a specific mindset and try out a unique new approach. Firstly, listen like a music lover (passive listening), listen like a musician secondly (active listening), and thirdly, develop your critique from a growth mindset. Finally, you’d want to practice these methods to the point that they become habits; habits that will bleed into the way you listen to, and critique, your own music.

Positive Passive Listening: Listen Like a Music Lover

It becomes quite difficult to listen to music passively as a songwriter or producer already accustomed to active listening. We tend to start dissecting and analyzing and critiquing without even realizing it. This is a problem because if you listen to a song for the first time, and you start zoning in on the drums, that you find to be way too snare-heavy, you’ll miss out on “experiencing” the song as a whole. Ricky O’Bannon, for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, tells us:

“Passive listening allows the listener to step back and see the grander macro structure.”

Although active listening as a musician is extremely important, we should try to experience a song in its entirety before dissecting and analyzing it. Aristotle tells us that “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” When first listening to a song, it’s important to consume the song as a whole before dissecting the parts. This idea endorses the power of synergy. The whole carries something more than the parts. It carries emotion. Listen passively in order to get a feel for the song.

O’Bannon continues to explain how passive listening will also help you to keep a positive mindset when moving into the active listening phase. This is due to the idea of familiarity, and its effect on your subconscious mind. The “seed of familiarity” having been planted, the subconscious shock-of-the-unknown will be eliminated, which will, in turn, influence your judgment.

Practicing Positive Passive Listening

How do we do this?

Listen to the song while engaged in another activity that requires some level of attention, such as driving, dancing, dining, washing dishes, etc. Another great way is to close your eyes and imagine what the music video would look like (not while you’re driving, please). You will now get a feeling for the song — if it’s moved you, saddened you, energized you, and how it generally makes you feel. Only then will you be able to determine if the song is effective in evoking the emotion it sets out to.

With this in mind, you should also employ positive passive listening when listening to your own new music. trying to imagine the music video is a great tactic for this specifically. This allows you to experience the song as opposed to playing the “spot the flaws” game.

At Which Point Do You Start Really Listening?

The musician that gave you the song to listen to, must have given it to you after it reached a certain version or draft. They did not give you Draft # 0.1, I promise you. Just like you work up until a certain phase before allowing others a listen, you should allow yourself ample time before you start listening to your own music critically.

Being too critical of your music at the early into your process will sever your creativity and stunt your willingness to experiment, whether in this phase or later on. You need enough time to experiment, to try a whole bunch of different things, and basically feel free to make a bit of a mess. Mistakes are often diamonds in the rough; the opportunity to chisel them down will come in due time.

Positive Active Listening: Listen Like a Musician

Active listening is imperative to building your skills as a musician. Active listening, in short, is to attentively listen to the various elements that make up a song, to clearly define each element, and to continue to map your findings, analyze them, and so, learn from them. You need to get into a critical mindset, but don’t let “critical” and “adverse” become synonyms. This is bound to be a fruitful process with the song’s “feeling” established and familiarity confirmed, achieved through the first step of passive listening.

To keep a positive mindset in this process, consider managing the external factors that will influence your listening experience. Before even starting; prep your setting to be comfortable and distraction-free; choose a time of day when your stress levels are at a minimum and your concentration span is at its best; make sure you have access to quality speakers or at best, studio monitors or headphones; and finally, dive in with an optimistic attitude.

Try exactly the same methods when you enter the “clean up” active listening phase of your own music. However, in this step, you need to have taken a break from listening to your songs before starting the process. Listening fatigue is a dangerous thing. It will make you crash, and your music will be the thing suffering from the whiplash. You two should take some time apart.

Steps to follow when practicing active listening:

  • Define the song’s goal.
  • Define the structure and map each section.
  • Define each instrument’s progression.
  • Define the timbre: the sounds and the effects used.
  • Define the time signature and tempo.
  • Define the lyrical message.
  • Pinpoint where elements repeat and where they change.
  • Analyze the methods used to build and release tension.
  • Analyze how the different instruments relate to each other.
  • Analyze the hooks and what makes them catchy.
  • Analyze how the music compliments the lyrics, and vice versa.
  • Analyze the vocal delivery and mood.

With your parameters defined and your goals mapped out, draw your critical findings and conclude if the song meets or misses its goal. Forget about deciding if it’s good or bad. Instead, consider the goal, and decide how close the musician made it to the mark, or how far they missed it by.

In the mindset of not classifying music as good or bad, but instead on how it relates to the goal, start your own musical process with a specific goal in mind. Define your goal clearly. This will equip you with guidelines as you move through your own creative process.

Positive Criticism: Critiquing with a Growth Mindset

Ethan Hein, in his article, “Critiquing Creative Work with a Growth Mindset,” explains that there are three imperative questions to ask yourself when critiquing music in a constructive way:

  1. “What was the musical goal?
  2. How successful was the [musician] at attaining that goal?
  3. And most importantly, what can they do to build on what they have?”

Asking yourself “What can be done to build this song?” as opposed to “What isn’t working?” is the shift we need to make in order to think constructively. Critique should not be a roast or a slander. It should be helpful. The process of delivering your critique is just as important, if not more. In an attempt to spare the musician’s feeling (and as mentioned earlier… they seriously need sparing), it is common practice to deliver criticism in the following format:

  1. Compliment
  2. Critique
  3. Compliment

The negative feedback is comfortably sandwiched between the positive feedback. It looks better, but it’s still going to taste bitter. I would like to suggest an adjustment to the formula:

  1. Compliment
  2. Critique
  3. Suggest
  4. Compliment

The step of making a suggestion is key. As a rule, don’t break anything down if you can’t offer a solution on how to rebuild it.

Once you get into the habit of doing this to the songs of others, you will start doing it when critiquing your own material as well. This means, instead of finding fault and falling into a slump the moment you do, as a habit, you will start thinking of ways to solve the problem before you have a chance to get discouraged by it.

Building Positive Habits for Your Own Process

The secret to staying positive when critiquing your own work, is practice. You need to train your mind and cultivate practical habits. As musicians, we are all equally tainted by doubting our creations from time to time. Don’t listen to “spot the flaws,” and don’t inflict harsh criticism by handing out proverbial bitter sandwiches. Following the steps of positive passive listening, positive active listening, and critiquing with a growth mindset, will allow you to learn more from the music of your fellow musicians, and give you the opportunity to improve your own creative process.

Good luck. Stay positive.

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Carla Malrowe is a singer, composer, keyboardist, writer, and music industry marketer from Johannesburg, South Africa. She is the co-founding vocalist, keyboardist and contributing songwriter for industrial goth-rock band Me’ek. As copywriter and content marketer, she develops marketing strategies for various music events companies to the purpose of  growing the South African alternative music scene. Marlowe is excited to announce that she is currently working on the debut EP of her new electronic project “Shiver Kiss.”

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