How To Listen Through A Song
Most of us just listen to music without giving it much thought other than we like it or we don't. That said, if you've made a commitment to quality audio then you probably want to get serious about how you're listening as well. The studio pros that create the music that you enjoy listen in a completely different, more analytical way than you probably do right now. We listen inside the music to all the musical and audio details that are important to the production, but often get overlooked in general listening.
If you really want to understand an audio recording and hear it in a new way, here are a few pointers on what to listen for. I'm going to break it down to a general technique, and then add an additional advanced technique for musicians and audio engineers, since they already have more refined listening skills.
General Listening Technique
Listen for the instruments that are providing the pulse to the song. All music, even dream-like ambient, has a pulse, and that's the first thing you want to notice.
Listen to the ambience. Does a vocal or an instrument sound like it's in the room right in front of you, or in a club, or a church, or a cave? Is there an audible reverb tail? Can you hear a repeat after it stops playing?
Listen to the clarity of the mix. Can you hear each instrument and vocal clearly in the mix? Are some buried so you can't distinguish what they are? Can you identify all the instruments that you're hearing?
Listen to the clarity of each instrument or vocal. Does it sound lifelike or distorted? Is there an effect used to alter its sound?
Try to identify each section of the song. Is something new happening the second and third time you hear a verse or chorus? Is there a new vocal or instrument introduced? Is one taken away? Is an effect added or subtracted?
Try to identify the loudest thing in the mix. Is the vocal louder than the other instruments or is it lower than the rest of the band? Is the bass out in front of the drums or are the drums front and center?
Identify the hook of the song. What instrument or vocal plays it? When does it occur? Is it built around a lyric? Does it even have a hook that's obvious?
Listen to the stereo soundfield of the song. Are there instruments or vocals that only appear on one side? Are there instruments that appear on both sides? Is the dry instrument on one side with its ambience on the other?
Listen to the overall timbre of the song. Does it seem bright? Bassy? Is there an instrument or vocal that stands out because of it's timbre?
Listen to the dynamics of the song. Does it breath volume-wise with the song's pulse? Does it sound lifeless or do the instruments and vocals sound natural like you'd hear in a club?
What's the mood of the song? Is it happy or sad? Can you tell why? Is it because of the tempo? The key of the song?
Is the song fun to listen to? Why?
Listen for the time signature. Where's the downbeat and how many beats until the next one?
Listen for the number of different sections in the song. Do the sections repeat? Does the song have a bridge? Is there an interlude between sections?
Listen for the number of bars in each section. How long is each section? Is it the same length the next time it repeats? Are there any extra bars of music? All music isn't symmetrical in that it won't necessarily have 4, 8, 12, or 16 bar sections, and in many cases you'll find an extra bar before or after a section.
Listen to the chord pattern(s) of the song. Does the it change from the verse to the chorus or bridge? Does it change the next time the section repeats? Is there a key change in the song?
Listen to the song's melody. Are there big jumps, and if so, in what section are they?
Listen for any delays on individual instruments. Is the delay timed to the track so the repeats are in synch with the pulse of the song? Is the same delay used on multiple instruments or are there different ones?
Listen to the ambience of the song. Is there more than one environment? Does each one have the same decay? Does each one have the same timbre?
Listen for the compression in the song. Can you identify which instruments are compressed? Can you hear the compressor working? Does the song sound more or less compressed than other songs that you're listening to?
Are there any doubled instruments or vocals? Are they panned in stereo?
There are a number of other listening details beside these that experienced studio ears utilize, but they're a good place to start. Of course, don't get so hung up on these points that you lose enjoyment of the song as that would defeat the purpose of what you're trying to accomplish, which is a better understanding of the production details. Good listening!