Critical Listening Skills: An Audio Producer’s Guide

Audio Producer leaned against a building critically listening to her work.

Listening is the most critical skill of an audio producer and the most overlooked. The importance of just listening to the music cannot be overstated. You should make music that sounds good to your ear. It is nearly impossible to know if something sounds good without listening to it. Ear training takes time and is something that will evolve over your entire career.

With an audio production program at a creative arts college, you have the unique opportunity to learn how to listen to music, not just passively, as many do when listening to the radio or attending a concert, but critically. This means you can train your ear to automatically identify and analyze the intricate patterns, sounds, and nuances of music. This is an essential skill for those pursuing careers in music and audio production. They must engage with music and sound at a deep and complex level. Here is a basic guide for developing your critical listening skills. This way you can hear and think like a musician.

Intervals: Notation

The good news about most aural theory classes, even at the collegiate level, is that they do not require perfect pitch. Rather you have relative pitch, which can be developed through repetitive exposure and practice. So, you don’t need to hear a note and automatically label its pitch (which is an innate skill of only some lucky few); rather, you are given a reference pitch or chord that you can use to analyze other pitches or chords.

Intervals: Ear Training

Listening to intervals is often the trickiest part. However, knowing how to notate intervals is important to accurately describe what you hear. The simplest way to start training your ear is by playing two notes, one after the other, on a keyboard or other instrument. Then, you can hum the notes from the starting (relative) pitch to the second pitch. This will give you the number of the interval. Then, to find the quality, think about size. For example, using our hierarchy, a M3 (major 3rd) sounds one half step larger than a m3 (minor 3rd).

A fun and easy way to internalize intervals is to memorize them based on popular songs or tunes. For example, a M6 is used in the first two notes of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”. A m7 is used in “Somewhere” from Westside Story, and the Star Wars theme song melody is based on a P5 (perfect 5th). Humming these intervals, one note at a time, will help you internalize them. That way you can eventually begin to analyze several notes amidst complex textures.

The more you practice, the faster and more accurate your analysis will become, and the more you will catch yourself identifying these intervals as you attend concerts or even listen to songs in the car. Most importantly, being able to correctly identify and label intervals are skills that will benefit you tremendously as a musician or audio producer.


A solid understanding of intervals is crucial to hearing and analyzing harmony, which describes the relationship between chords and multiple voices. Once again, this concept relies only on relative pitch, which, fortunately, can be learned through practice.


Melody dictation also requires interval skills. To identify and write the correct notes, listen for the contour (or shape) of the tune, using your knowledge of intervals to analyze any leaps or unexpected patterns. For example, if you hear a note jump a P5 up from C, you would write G. This can be tricky for descending notes, but the same strategy still applies: analyze the note based on the relative pitch. It may be easier to reverse the notes in your head, making the second note the “relative” pitch so that the notes are in sequential order.

Final Thoughts

The aural theory classes provided in college music programs drill students in these strategies so that you can write what you hear and produce what you write. At the most basic level, you will be trained to hear intervals and other figures of relative pitch, and as you progress, you can apply these skills to complex pieces of music, hearing and understanding the minuscule details and patterns that the ordinary listener wouldn’t even notice. These critical listening skills are useful for any genre of music, and while the analysis methods vary based on the style, you will be equipped to effortlessly utilize any of them, and bring your musicianship and creative output to a whole new level.

Ultimately, trusting your ears is the best way to train for critical listening skills. Mastery of ear training is the best way to improve your professional capabilities and, best of all, it doesn’t require expensive gear or complicated equipment.

Audio Production Program

The Audio Production and Engineering Program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the Audio Production and Engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.