How to Listen like a Songwriter
When’s the last time you sat and listened wholeheartedly to a piece of music?
The first thing to do as a listener is to stop whatever else you are doing.
Find a comfortable place to sit.
Choose a song — any new or old favorite is fine.
Settle in, take a few deep breaths, and press play.
As the song plays, listen. Try to hear every note.
One song is only a few minutes long – while the song plays, everything else in your life can wait.
How to listen like a songwriter
Listening like a songwriter means paying attention to the song as a song – using what you know about the craft to understand how the song was made. To do this successfully, we must listen repeatedly.
During your first listen, just take in the sounds of the music and the words. Close your eyes, if it helps. Try to really be here for the song, and to hear everything it has to offer.
During your second listen, try to listen like a songwriter. What ideas drive this song? What is this song about?
Of all the myriad ways the songwriter could have expressed the song’s ideas in words, and of all the ways she could have set those words to music, she chose those exact words, and that exact melody. She chose those chords and that rhyme scheme.
What choices did the songwriter make, and why? What obstacles did the songwriter face, what missteps did she avoid, and in what ways did she succeed? How did the songwriter’s choices differ from the way you would have developed the idea?
During third, fourth, and fifth listens, you may choose to focus on specific aspects of the song. For example, maybe you’ll listen to the whole track while focused entirely on the guitar part. You may listen to the way the vocal melody brings the lyric to life. Or you may listen to understand the song’s structure; its pattern of verses, choruses, breaks, and bridge sections.
To focus more closely on the song, you may find it helpful to keep a notebook open in front of you so you can jot notes about what you’re hearing. You may also want to print the lyrics and mark them up with a pen. Underline sections. Write your observations in the margin.
Over time you can learn to listen like a songwriter, and to hear the songs you’ve written the way a listener hears them. You’ll listen like a writer, and you’ll write like a listener.
Listening makes you a better songwriter
Collect albums, and begin listening to them.
When you set aside time to listen, you become more insightful about your own songs and you improve more quickly as a songwriter. You become adept at developing ideas into songs, and when an idea isn’t coming across well you become quicker at understanding why.
Schedule a little time to listen every week. All chefs must eat; all painters must paint; and all songwriters must listen.
photo credit: Markus Spiske. Resized by Nicholas Tozier.