How to actively listen: Beat Making Basics #2

Active listening

Music makers listen to music in a different way to music consumers – we call that difference “active” vs “passive” listening. Active listening is simply about listening to something to understand how it was made: What key is this in? How has that drum sound been tinkered with? Did they use hardware to automate that effect? 

Active listening is a skill, and it takes practice. But the rewards are worth it. Becoming an effective active listener is like being a well-read author – you’ll subconsciously pick up new skills and apply them as you’re making music in Serato Studio

Here are some tips on how to start being a better active listener.

Start with a song you know and ask these questions

This is especially helpful if you’re unsure what genre of music you want to make yourself. 

Begin by taking a song you like and asking the questions like:

  • How many instruments can I hear?
  • How does the producer introduce each instrument? 
  • What happens just before the chorus? 
  • What sounds add suspense?
  • Is there a drop – what happens before and after?

Try to avoid abstract phrases like “it’s a good vibe” or “this goes hard” – that will be hard to emulate when you go to work up some tracks of your own. Instead, breaking it down into smaller pieces will help unearth practical techniques you can then apply yourself.

Think about layers

This takes the last point and goes further. Thinking about specific layers will help you understand how the different elements come together to form a cohesive piece of music.

How many layers can you pick out just by listening? Drums, bass, keys, vocals, and a sample? Chances are, there will be far more that you can’t pick out just by ear – but starting to understand how the different layers work together is a great way to start thinking like a producer.

Studying song structure

Depending on what genre you’re making, the structure of your song may have a rule of thumb. When you’re still teasing out the genius producer within you and experimenting with different styles, having a solid grip on the structure of your song is a great way to alleviate any of the chaos you might start feeling.

A traditional pop structure is as follows:

Intro – Verse – Pre Chorus – Chorus – Verse – Pre Chorus – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus x 2 – Outro 

Whereas, a hip hop song structure might look like:

Intro – Hook – Verse – Hook – Verse – Hook – Bridge – Hook – Outro

When actively listening to your favorite tracks, see if you notice similarities or differences between song structures across different genres. You can then use this to help you when it comes to arranging your own music.

Are there samples?

Samples often have a crucial part to play in production – especially in hip hop. Going through songs you like and discerning where the samples are, how they were manipulated, and how they sound compared to the original audio is an excellent way of understanding why producers love to use them. 

Who Sampled is a great resource for connecting the dots between samples used in a track, and where a song has been sampled elsewhere.