The Value of Objective Listening

With subjective listening, you’re usually too easy or too hard on yourself.

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Listening to musicObjective listening simply refers to your ability to hear your own music without being unduly influenced by the fact that you are the one who wrote it. It’s not an easy thing to do. Listening to your songs with objective ears means that you must develop the courage to fairly assess how your song sounds, and that can take a lot of courage and cause a considerable amount of discomfort.

We tend to listen to our own music subjectively, which can mean any of the following:

  1. We are overly critical of our own musical efforts.
  2. We are not critical enough of our own musical efforts.
  3. We “fall in love” with our musical ideas too quickly and too easily.

Being overly critical is every bit as detrimental as not being critical enough. There are songwriters (psychologists call such people “prevention-focused” people) who see every song they begin to write as a potential failure, so they write slowly, playing it safe all the time. They can produce beautiful music, but are more likely to engage in harsh self-criticism.

Not being critical enough can be detrimental to the songwriting process by masking real problems with our music. People who listen with this kind of subjectivity tend to gloss over problems in song structure, and are likely to ignore problems in the production of a recording. They take little notice of pops, miscues, and bad performances because they “hear” the real intent of the music in their head.

For those who fall in love with their musical ideas too quickly, this is more a problem with mental “inertia” more than anything else. Once a melody is created, there is a quickly developing belief that “that must be the melody”, and there is little incentive to change it.

All three of those problems can be career stoppers if you let them. To cure the problems that come from subjective listening, and develop your abilities to listen objectively to your songs, do the following.

  1. Play recordings of your music and listen as if they are something you just bought online. Are you happy with your purchase? What did that song do for you? Where do you feel the weaknesses are? It takes courage, but you must do it. This kind of “it’s someone else I’m listening to” activity helps you apply the same discerning pickiness to your own music that you apply to others, and your music will improve because of it.
  2. Analyze every individual component of your music, and have the courage to change what isn’t working. If you find yourself feeling uneasy with a line of lyric, change it. Don’t assume that the first thing you came up with is the best. In fact, it usually isn’t.
  3. Don’t put a time limit on writing a song. Songs can come together quickly, but the final polishing can take days, weeks or months. That’s OK. Record yourself often, and keep honing. Have the courage to change what isn’t working.
  4. Listen to other songwriter’s music, and pretend it is your own. Ask yourself, why do I like this? That’s a great thing to do just before listening to one of your own tunes. Professionally recorded hit music will have an enviable polish that can help remind you what you should be aspiring to.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. Gary, objective listening is clearly an essential skill well worth the dedication and commitment it takes to learn how to do it well. I hope that you post more on this subject (or if you have other resources I can explore, please let me know about them). I can see that every songwriter would benefit greatly from this information.

  2. Another excellent post, and it’s the reason that Many Learning Writers, give up too quickly
    most convinced their songs are as good as what’s on the radio.

    Many post on forums , looking for pats on the back and many get them from peers who also have no idea what makes a hit song, this sounds harsh, “Oh he thinks he knows”
    some will say , experience has told me by wearing the Hat of the Publisher/ or A and R man
    it’s sad but true lots of money is wasted on unfinished songs.

    Dare to comment and even encourage writers , Wow! big mistake ,did it a
    couple of times the abusive replies When did you last have a hit ?? or “That song has been published so what do you know,” needless to say the Publisher is in most cases
    someone who is on every don’t touch them with a barge poles list.

    But back to your post learning to critique your own work is difficult it took me ten years to do it properly. I like to slip a new song in on our stage show , and when someone from the audience asks me who recorded or where can they buy it I’m quite chuffed so to speak.
    Sometimes just the reaction to a new song tells you it’s there and if not you learn to hone it a bit more.
    The Beatles did a lot of song writer learning, playing endless long hours in Hamburg
    thats how they learned their excellence.

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