The Importance of Developing Critical Listening Skills

As a sound designer, the most important tools in your toolbox are your ears and your brain. Forget your microphones, sound library, plugins, and your DAW. Let’s just focus on the act of listening for a minute.

What is critical listening?

Critical listening is the ability to analyze content, breaking it down into its individual components, and then reasoning out why those components are being used.

Why you should practice critical listening

Sound designers need this skill in order to analyze their own work, as well as the work of others. As a result, critical listening is crucial in developing as a sound designer. Just like an arranger can break down a melodic and harmonic passage and analyze what instrumentation is involved, a good sound designer should be able to break down what is happening in a soundtrack, and then think about how that soundtrack fits in with the larger context, be it a film, ad, or video game.

Critical listening is a skill that grows with practice and a muscle you should work to improve. Active analytical listening, in conjunction with practicing your sound design craft, is how you will get better as a sound designer.

Another benefit of critical listening is the ability to discuss sonic ideas with other collaborators, especially those not in audio fields. By its nature, sound can be a hard thing describe with words. But the better you become with critical listening, the easier it will be to describe and discuss your sonic ideas with directors, visual artists, and other sound collaborators.

To sum up, critical listening is crucial for:

  • Improving your own sound design skills
  • Providing feedback and artistic direction to other sound designers
  • Discussing sound with other creatives

Examples of critical listening questions

Here are some things to think about when critically listening.

Broad Questions:

  • What is the overall style of the sound design?
  • How does the tone of the sound design relate to the emotional context of the scene?
  • What’s being emphasized in the soundtrack from moment to moment, and how does that relate to what is happening with the story and picture?
  • What’s happening diegetically, and what’s happening non-diegetically?
  • How do the dialog, music, and sfx interact with each other?

When breaking down individual sfx:

  • What’s happening in each frequency band of this sound?
  • What’s happening rhythmically with this sound?
  • What’s happening tonally with this sound?
  • What kinds of layers are heard to achieve this sound?
  • What different effects are being used to achieve this sound?
  • What visual elements is this sound supporting or emphasizing?
  • What emotional elements is this sound supporting or emphasizing?
  • What narrative elements is this sound supporting or emphasizing?
  • What came before and after this sound? (suggested by @aaronbrownsound)
  • What makes this sound so effective? (suggested by @aaronbrownsound)
  • How will this sound feel after multiple repetitions? (suggested by @DvsSound)

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