3 Critical Listening Exercises Music Production School Students Must Try

Posted on July 22nd, 2016 - Written by: Trebas Toronto


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Critical listening skills are essential for music production school graduates

What’s the secret to becoming a top producer? While having extensive knowledge of different recording techniques and equipment is valuable, what really separates a good recording professional from a great one is critical listening skills.

In recording, critical listening is the art of analyzing various components of a mix, and evaluating how they fit into the overall soundscape. And while a ‘good ear’ comes more naturally to some people than others, there are a number of exercises music production students can do to hone their abilities and produce more polished, distinctive work.

Want to improve your critical listening skills? Read on to find out how.

1. Music Production Colleges Teach Students to Analyze the Elements of a Mix

One of the most straightforward critical listening exercises involves choosing a song and deconstructing different elements of the mix, analyzing how they contribute to the recording as a whole. In his book The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook, Bob Owsinski suggests that every mix has six principal elements:

  • Balance: The prominence of each individual track in the mix
  • Panorama: How different tracks are spaced from left to right in the stereo field
  • Frequency Range: The prominence of the bass, mid, and treble ranges in the mix
  • Dimension: The sense of movement and space in the overall sound
  • Dynamics: Changes in volume, tempo, time signature, and key
  • Interest: Anything that makes a mix memorable, such a melodic hooks, tonality, or effects

Try listening to some of your favourite songs and note anything that you can pick out under each of these headings. Hopefully, you’ll begin identifying specific techniques that producers you admire use regularly, which you can then apply to your own work at music production school.


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Students in music production colleges can listen to songs and note the different sonic elements


2. Music Production Students Learn How to Isolate Individual Tracks

While the first exercise can be very effective, it can often be difficult for beginners to identify specific tracks or instruments, particularly in heavily layered mixes. If you’re having trouble with this, try and get your hands on a master file of a multitrack recording, and listen to it through a mixing desk. Then try the following exercise:

  1. Mute every track on the recording except one, such as the bass line.
  2. Listen to the individual track in isolation to familiarize yourself with it.
  3. Listen to the full mix and try to pinpoint the individual track within the overall soundscape.

This can be a great way to train your ears to isolate specific sounds, and identify their place in an overall mix more efficiently. And thanks to the various projects completed by students each year, music production colleges tend to have large stocks of multitrack recording files available, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice.

3. Train Your Ears with a Blind Listening Exercise at Music Production School

Of course, you don’t need sophisticated studio equipment to practice critical listening. In fact, one of the most effective exercises you can do is to simply find a busy outdoor space, close your eyes, and listen. The lack of visual distraction will force you to pay more attention to the different sounds around you.


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Blind listening in open spaces can help music production school students train their ears

You’ll be surprised by how quickly you learn to distinguish certain sonic characteristics, such as the direction sounds are coming from, and how far they are away from you. This simple technique can do wonders for your ability to evaluate certain elements in your mixes, such as panorama, frequency range, and dimensions.

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