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What Is "Deep Listening"?

One of my New Year's Resolutions involves more deep listening, so I thought I would explain what it is and why it's so much fun.

When we listen casually to a song on the radio, we tend to experience it like a novice experiences a football game.


If you, like me, have never played football, then you don’t know the finer points of strategy. You see two colors of jerseys lined up on each side of a ball, someone yells “hike!” and everyone hugs. Meanwhile the quarterback either chucks it or decides he doesn’t want it anymore and hands it to a short guy to run with. Football explained.


When we listen to music, we often listen to the singer, and then “the band”. The band is doing something- clearly the drummer is hitting stuff. But the sound melds together and it can be hard to tell who is doing what and why.


“Deep Listening” is when you take a performance or recording and focus all your attention on a single instrument or part of a single instrument. You may be trying to identify the pitches so you can play along. You could be listening to the timing of the notes, or what is called “phrasing”. You could be listening to the tone of the instrument so you can emulate it. You could listen to the way instruments layer notes to create a chord, or how they interlock their rhythms to make a groove. You could listen for instruments as they enter or exit a song to create an arrangement. You could be listening to the quality of the recording with a technical ear in order to make your music production or mixes better.

Those are seven different ways to listen to music, and I’m sure there are more.


Let’s take an example. Here is a version of “Respect” by Aretha Franklin in a live performance from 1967. Let's listen to the elements that make up the majority of the sound:




Lead Vocal- Aretha is at the top of her game. She brings the attitude this song needs and can riff and grab any note she wants at any time. Incredible. But let’s listen a little deeper…


Bass- Here’s the secret sauce. The chorus and verse of this song are just two chords apiece, but oh that bass! His syncopated rhythm drives the song forward, and makes you want to dance. Look at the audience. Only the stodgiest among them can resist what he’s laying down. On to the last piece…


Snare drum- It doesn’t seem like much, but the bass needs that snare drum as a counterpoint. It just cracks away on beats 2 and 4, but it gives the audience something to clap with and the whole song hangs on it.


Yes, there is a horn section, orchestra, and background vocals, but 80% of the song comes down to three elements: snare drum, the bass line, and Aretha. Cool huh?


There is much more to go into, and we'll take a look at deep listening in future posts, but here is the point:


There are hidden gems to discover in great music when you pay close attention.


Until next week,




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