Most people listen to music when they are doing something else. We turn on the radio, put on our favorite song or album, and it serves as a soundtrack for whatever else we're doing. Perhaps we wash dishes, do homework, read, write, work, ride, or drive. If we musicians want to become better at our craft, we need to learn the art of critical listening.
What makes critical listening different? When you listen to a track or song without doing anything else (no phone, no books, no TV, nothing), focus intently on the song and concentrate specifically on what’s happening in the track, you train your ears to listen critically.
The first time you listen to a song, listen for your role within it.
If you are a vocalist, pick out your specific part. Listen to the melody. Hear the pronunciation of words, phrases, and the inflection of the voice. Listen for when the singer takes a breath and when he or she carries the phrase over. Hear the emotion behind what’s being sung. Listen to how all of the harmonies work together with the melody. Then beyond that, listen to how the music supports the vocals as a whole.
If you’re an instrumentalist, listen specifically to your part, whether it's the tone of the guitar, the rhythm of the drums, and the voicings used by the keyboard player. Listen to the musical hooks. Listen for when you will need to play out and when you will need to lay back. As you listen, begin to internalize the actual form of the song.
Listen to your part, other musicians' parts, and then how they work together as a whole.
Finally, once you’ve developed an ear for listening to your part, listen to all of the other parts in the song. These are like little road signs directing you where to go. There might be a certain drum feel that happens in a spot within the song that serves as your cue to play your musical hook. Listening not only to your part but to all the other parts and how they fit together will help make you a better, more well-rounded musician.
As you continue to develop your musical ear, intentionally set aside time for critical listening sessions. Listen to your part, other musicians' parts, and then how they work together as a whole. This will better prepare you for rehearsals, services, and ultimately take you to the next level as a musician.