Stephen Webber On How To Listen To Music Objectively

music production listening skills

Music production in any genre whether it’s hip-hop or rap, dubstep, edm, rock or RnB, they all pretty much follow the same principles. However, your listening skills must be refined on a daily basis in order to get to the elite level.

Emmy-winning composer Stephen Webber breaks down how to train yourself to listen to music objectively in this interview with Berklee Online (the college at where he’s the professor of Music Production and Engineering).

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The Skill Of Listening

That skill of being able to listen to something that either you wrote or you’re producing, therefore you’re hearing it for the one hundredth time, to be able to listen to that as though you’re hearing it for the first time is an invaluable skills. It’s like a muscle and you really have to train yourself to do that.

Actually, the class music production analysis is really all about that. It’s about training yourself to listen in that way, to where you can actually be kind of a stand-in for a member of the audience. One of the things we actually do in that class is that we try to train people in the class to use human test subjects, to play their music for their family and friends, not their music but other music and observe.

Fortunately, not only ourselves but with other people, have the entire body as a barometer. You can use it as a human gauge of what’s going on with the music. Is it moving you? Are you tapping your foot? Bobbing your head? Squinting your eyes?…So developing this skill is something we spend a lot of time on.

Distancing Yourself From Your Music

…One mistake that I used to make when I first started producing records…was that I listened to it over and over and over again, and that’s not necessarily the best thing to do. Getting some distance is actually a really good thing and when you’re trying to listen to something in a manner that’s going to give you the tools to listen to it in a way that you’re hopefully going to make some distinction about it.

Stephen Webber inside his studio.The first thing I recommend is to go as long as you can without listening to it. Now if you’re in the middle of an album project, that might only be a few hours. That may be a couple days or that may be a week or two. I always try to take a break at the end of a record project, between the time that we’re done tracking and the time we start mixing.

Now, that’s not always possible. I did a record last year with Emily Elbert and we only had 3 weeks from start to finish so we didn’t have that long to spend away from things. But even then, when I would pull up each individual track to mix, I would put a lot of weight onto that first listen.

So first, try not to listen to it as long as possible and second, turn off your phone. We now have all these distractions around us and what you need to do is to elevate the act of listening to the point where you’ve turned off your phone, you’ve gotten off of Facebook, you’ve turned off all the distractions that you have and you’re just going to listen.

Take Down Notes

What I like to do is I like to write on a legal pad, but you need something where you can take notes. I can do it on my laptop if I don’t have a legal pad…

…You quieten your mind, turn off all your distractions, you take a few breaths and you listen to it from beginning to end and as you notice things, whether it’s an emotion or it’s something you want to change, you jot it down.

Now you don’t want to listen to it all the way through and try to remember all of these things because if you’re remembering a list of 10 things by the time you get to the end of the track, that very act of having to hold those things in your brain is keeping you from being right there in the moment in listening the way you want to listen.

So I’ll jot something down then I’ll go right back to listening. At the end when I take a look at these things, I may listen again but I put most weight on that first listen…

The Danger Of Repetitive Listening

There’s this phenomenon that happens when you listen to something over and over again and it’s illustrated very well here at my classes in Berkley where I have 8 producers that I’m mentoring, and something will bring in a track and they’ll play it for us, and the other 8 people in the room will all basically say “well there was that drum fill that was sloppy and it didn’t end right. You’re gonna fix that right?”.

What often happens is that the producer who’s working on that project who’s heard it 100 times will say “oh you know that bugged me a first too, but it doesn’t bug me anymore and I kinda like it”.

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It’s dangerous to listen to your own music over and over again without breaks in between.

And I’ll usually say “well, play it for us one more time”. So we’ll play it again and usually one person will fall after that. Maybe one other person out of the 8 will go “yea, you know what, it didn’t seem that bad to me that time”. And then maybe we’ll listen to it again and maybe one other person [will say the same thing].

So if we keep listening to it, pretty soon everybody will be like “oh yea, you can leave that. It’s OK”. That’s dangerous. And here’s what’s going on. We humans are adaptable creatures…it’s one of the reasons why we’ve been so successful on this planet.

…But there’s a sinister dark side to that. People get used to abuse in relationships. People get used to a lot of things that they shouldn’t put up with.

Susan Rogers (Stephen’s colleague who holds a Phd in Neuro-Science) says that it’s not only that we adapt, but as human beings, we can so afraid of cognitive dissonance, where one thing was true but we thought something else was true. If we hear that drum fill, and we know it was supposed to end on 1, and yet it was sloppy and so it ended on the end of 1 or the E of the last 16th note of 4, when we play it back, our brain will actually start quantizing it.

…And you’ll listen back to it and you’ll [your brain] start moving it around a bit. So if you’re listening to it 10 times in, your brain will actually clean it up for you. So you’re neurologically cognitively not hearing it the way you heard it the first time. Which is all the more reason why you want to get away from your music for a little while, you want to listen to it fresh and put all of your weight on that first listen.

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