Critical Listening vs. Analytical Listening

Two Ways To Listen To Music Productions

Critical listening, and analytical listening are two basic ways to listen to music productions when working on them professionally. These two methods of interpreting recordings are the foundation for all of your music production work.

The purpose of this audio program is to distinguish the two different methods of listening and how you use them. You need to listen to music as both an engineer and as a producer to achieve great results. Both methods play a huge role in how music is perceived and accepted by the consumer.

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Critical Listening

Critical listening primarily comes from the engineer's point of view. From the engineer's perspective you would be listening to the physical details of music. Frequency response, dynamic range, tone, imaging, and how your instruments are blended together.

Having control of the technical aspect of sound is important because it allows you to work with the issues that are present in musical performances and the way they integrate together. Sometimes, specific frequency areas between performances overlap each other and prevent each performance from being heard clearly. Sometimes the sound of the particular instrument wasn't quite what it should've been and needs some form of processing to come across more realistically in the production.

Understanding the critical listening aspects of sound is the foundation of engineering work but it is not everything. Technically perfect productions don't always feel great and can easily come across as cold or lifeless. It is equally important to understand how the technical aspects of sound affect the feeling of a performance.

Analytical listening

The other type of listening is analytical listening. Analytical listening is all about feeling and meaning. Sound gives us meaning and perspective in our lives. For example, someone talking to you can say hello. On the surface it seems friendly, but the way they say hello to you can convey a lot of different meanings. If they say it in a very short and abrupt way, it may be apparent that they are angry at you, not happy to see you.

These gestures come across in a more subtle way with music. It is important to understand that the emotional intention of a musical performance is reflected in the sound. Everything in a music production must reflect this intention in order for the feeling of the song to be properly conveyed to the listener. The following will go into more detail about the different aspects of Analytical listening.


Meaning is the essence of every music production. If the meaning of a song does not come across clearly in the production, you will confuse the listener. The meaning of a song is conveyed by adapting the characteristic feeling into the instrumentation. The setup of each instrument and way you choose to record them will greatly influence the way those instruments express themselves.

If the sounds don't weave through the vocal performance and support the meaning of the song then you will be missing something that is critically important. There is no such thing as a perfect sound for every style of music. There is no one drum sound that works for every type of recording and every style of music. As a producer or engineer you need to be able to define what type of feeling or "sound" it is that you're going for. These decisions go way beyond the critical listening characteristics of frequency.

Each Song Is Unique

Most of the sound and meaning of a recording goes into controlling the performances of the musicians and asking them to respond according to the needs of the song. However, if you use the same miking techniques, equalization, and other forms of processing that you would use for a heavy rock track and apply them to a ballad it's going to sound off. It will also impair the ability of the musician to interpret the meaning of the song.

Just because the musician changes what they are playing doesn't mean that the sound translates to another style. Even within the same style of music, a change in the tempo will greatly affect the sounds. If the tempo is slower the sounds can be more open and sustaining than it would for an up-tempo song. The selection of instrumentation, their sonic tuning and the performance is critically important.

With analytical listening, you're looking for the meaning and interpretation of what is being played. Your ability to see discrepancies in the approach, and adapt those performances accordingly, is all you really need to get great sounds.

Language is something that we've grown up with our whole lives for the purpose of communication. Because we have done it most of our lives, it is very easy for any person to interpret the meaning and emotions that come across from another person. The same process can be applied to music but the meaning and feeling maybe a little less obvious. The meaning must be conveyed on a deeper level that may not be so consciously apparent.

Educating Your Ears

Educating your ear to any music production style is like studying language. It's really important to listen to music you want to record. Whatever type of music you enjoy, you will need to listen to it with both an analytical and a critical ear. You need to study the best of the best. Study the people that really convey the feeling and emotion of a particular style of music well. When you study in this way, you learn the nuances and subtle things that are done in the music production that make it work. The selection of sounds, the performances, the balances of instruments all will allow you to understand the essence of the style.

Understanding and applying this concept is really a make or break thing for any song. Ultimately the critical aspects of the audio recording will have importance, but a poorly recorded track that is an incredible performance can still strike peoples feelings. Conversely, a well engineered recording that is a very poor performance will not reach anyone.

Balancing Analytical And Critical Listening

The secret to making great recordings is to plan the critical listening aspects of the recording around an environment that allows the artist to be the most expressive. This is a balance that works well for both the engineer and the artist. Remember that analytical listening is really about the interpretation of meaning and feeling. The critical listening aspect deals with the different types of sounds and the frequencies areas in them that are most important for capturing the intended feeling.

It may be warmth, brightness, or a shrill harshness that's conveys the emotion of a performance best in a particular type of music. If a song is about being agitated and angry, a shrill harshness may help to convey that feeling across to listener better. In a love song, that harshness and abrasiveness will not convey a feeling of love. You will likely be going towards warmer sounds with an open high frequency response. Analyzing different styles of music, in this way, is critical to learning how to convey the feelings and emotions associated with them.


Critical listening is much more about engineering skills and the interpretation of how different frequencies areas affect us emotionally. It is a huge part of educating your ears. Understanding what frequencies play the most significant role in different instruments is fundamental to engineering work. Understanding the harmonic content of any given instrument and being able to work with it is also a key component of making those instruments sound alive.

A deep understanding of frequency and harmonic areas will allow you manipulate and move the sounds around the speakers. Knowing what frequencies with different instruments interfere with each other when being blended together and which frequency areas add clarity when blended together gives you enormous control of your recording and mixing. There are many approaches and many ways that you can work with these concepts.

The ability to hear compression and know how to use compression is also a critical listening aspect of sound. There is a significant difference between the amount of a frequency are versus the density of a frequency area. Density adds power without interfering with other frequency areas. This is the art of compression. For example, if an engineer is working on a record and the producer asks for the drum sound to be bigger and more aggressive, the engineer might be more inclined to add compression to the drums rather than EQ. Compressing a particular frequency range may help to help bring out the ambient energy of the drums and thus make the space around the drums seem larger.


The ability of an engineer to analyze and interpret through the eyes of a producer or artist what is needed on the critical level is the definition of an engineer. This requires a lot of critical listening and analysis of great mixes. Once defined, those approaches recording and mixing must be practiced with a critical mindset until they become second nature. Experience is always the best teacher.

In the next audio, Educating Your Ears, a practical approach to this process is outlined. The sooner you begin to use these techniques and practices, the sooner you will be able to get great results with your music production and engineering work.

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Anatomy of the Ear

Protecting Your Hearing

Temporary Threshold Shift

Audio Ear Training

Physics of Sound

The Decibel

Fletcher and Munson

Selective Hearing

Speed of Sound and Wavelength

Acoustical Phase

The Sound Envelope

Return to Audio Basics

Return to Home from Critical Listening

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