Exercise is important. Some people like to jog. Some people lift weights.
I listen to music.
That’s right, there are ways to exercise your ear by listening to music. There are five exercises that I like to do – and they can increase your listening skills and improve your ear.
First things first. In order to do these exercises, you need to listen at an appropriate level on a decent system. Appropriate level means not too loud (maybe 85 dB is a good place to start), and a decent system can be studio headphones or monitors, or a decent stereo system.
The first exercise is the “focus” exercise. This one will help your mixing. All you have to do is listen to your favorite records and try to solo out a single sound. Block out everything else and focus on just the one sound. Start with an easy one like the vocals, but then move on to the hi-hat, snare drum, etc.
The second exercise is the “big picture” exercise. This one’s hard for me, but it’s a necessary skill. It’s basically the opposite of the “focus” exercise. Listen to the entire sound as one sound. Hear the relationship between all of the elements and take in the sound as the “average” listener would do it.
The third exercise is the “quiet” exercise. Set to the music as soft as you can while still hearing all of the elements. Then, turn it down very slowly until you lose the first element of the mix. Sometimes it’s the kick drums, sometimes the keyboards. Make note of the order of “disappearance” in the parts. Some parts may even stick out a great deal more, like a snare drum that seems to stick out of a quiet mix. A great mix won’t fall apart at different levels.
The fourth exercise is the “low end” exercise. Place a low-pass filter on the track, maybe around 500 Hz. Analyze the low end and how the mix works in those frequencies. Then, bypass the filter and keep focusing on the low end. Hear the way that the low end works in the mix. It’s similar to the focus drill, but it deals more broadly with the entire low end.
The fifth exercise is the “high end” exercise. It’s similar to the “low end,” but use a high-pass filter set to around 500 Hz. Analyze the high end and hear it by itself and in the mix. Both of these exercises help you to focus on frequency ranges so that when you’re mixing, you can better hear the way your mixes sound, ultimately leading you to make better decisions.
Try these out and feel free to share your own favorite ear-training exercise with us!