The Case For Learning Critical Listening

listening on headphones
(Peter King, Getty Images)

Back in college, as a music major, I was required to work through the great audiologist F. Alton Everest’s Critical Listening And Auditory Perception audio course. This meant countless hours of playing and replaying clips of sine waves, audio recordings with and without distortion, panning examples, etcetera, following along with my book of charts and waveforms, comparing what I was hearing to what I was learning.

“This is a 100Hz tone.”

“This is a 10dB peak at 500Hz.”

“This noise band is one octave wide.”

“This is 500 milliseconds of reverb time.”

And so it went, day after day, as my classmates and I waded through hundreds of audio clips. To the teenage me, it was repetitive, it was tedious, and I would have rather been listening to music—any music.

Slowly but surely, I started to develop an ear for how these sonic treatments actually sounded, and began to be able to identify them in music. More significantly, I learned how to actively and critically listen to the nuances of the sounds all around me and incorporate that step into the processes of mixing and recording.

Whether you work in recording or live sound, being a great engineer means being a lot of things. It requires some innate talent; to many, a musical background is important, although some of the most iconic engineers have done just fine without formal musical training. On top of that, you need proficiency with your tools, a theoretical understanding of sound—how it interacts with a space and system, and how it is manipulated to express ideas—and an ability to listen critically and make sound judgments.

The good news is, almost all of those things are learnable. Yet how much time have you dedicated to actively refining your listening skills? You could compare studying critical listening with woodshedding: You can be a good jazz musician without memorizing your scales and modes, but there’s no doubt that having them in your pocket takes your improvisational skills to the next level.

Whether you’re just starting out or you’re a seasoned road dog, there’s always room for improvement. Here are a few resources to get you started:

Download a free critical listening lesson from Berklee College of Music.

Harman’s R&D group offers a free “How To Listen” desktop software application.

An updated edition of Everest’s guide, Critical Listening Skills For Audio Professionals, is available.

While you’re at it, consider getting your hearing tested.

Your ears are your most important tools. Why not take them to their fullest potential?

Sarah Jones is a writer, editor, and content producer with more than 20 years' experience in pro audio, including as editor-in-chief of three leading audio magazines: MixEQ, and Electronic Musician. She is a lifelong musician and committed to arts advocacy and learning, including acting as education chair of the San Francisco chapter of the Recording Academy, where she helps develop event programming that cultivates the careers of Bay Area music makers.

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