On Music Production’s Repeated Listenings

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“My work is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me.
Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality.”

 – Iris Murdoch, in Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head, p. 127

“I can’t begin to describe how that simple act of repetition back then made me so ecstatically happy—but it did. It was probably the happiest I have ever been.
The sad thing is that I wasn’t aware of it back then.”

– Lee Rourke, The Canal, p. 193

Each day I write about what I can remember about the previous day’s production work as a way to remember what sounded good (so I can feed that back into my working) and also to reflect on process in general. Recently I wrote: 

Yesterday I found myself…enjoying some of the music’s depths, twists, and turns instead of wincing and wanting it to sound otherwise.

My notes described something I do that I hardly consciously think about, which is to listen to the same pieces and the same bits and pieces within those pieces over and over and over again. So, in case you were wondering: yes, music production does involve an immense amount of repeated listening:

 :: you listen to the full mix,
you listen to a section,
you listen to one bar,
you listen to one beat,
you listen to part of one beat,
you listen to a fraction of a part of one beat,
zooming in on a waveform to see and hear what’s up :: 

What’s up is a track seemingly always in need of fixing and adjusting on multiple levels and in multiple places at almost every moment. So you hit the spacebar to play, listen, and then hit the spacebar again to stop. Play and stop. Play and stop. Play, play, play, and then stop. And you repeat this without thinking about it, until you realize that the middle finger of your right hand is sore from all the spacebar tapping. 

For some reason though, for me repeated listening never gets tiring. Instead, the sounds draw you in—as if the repetition of hearing the same bits of music over and over induces a trance state inspired by trying to get things sounding right, or at least somewhat better. There is also an element of desperation at play, a low-level fear that the music will never come to life in the way you had hoped. So you keep at getting to know the music’s sounds more and more intimately. Repeated listening to the music on its various levels of form—a section, a bar, a beat, a fraction of a beat, a waveform—leans towards compulsive behavior driven by…what, exactly? The possibility that maybe you will be rewarded for having paid close attention the music at all of its resolutions? Perhaps the music producer produces with the stubborn hope that the investment of repetition will pay off when one day she hits the spacebar and boom—the music comes alive. 

Whether you’re cooking, running, or playing a musical instrument, repetition in practice connects the mind with the actioning body to achieve at minimum two results: you extend your skill set, and you make various actions feel easier to execute so that they seem automatic. It is said that one of the training secrets of the world’s best marathon runners (such as Eliud Kipchoge) is that they do most of their training at a relaxed pace. Among its other effects, this easy and intensely repetitious training maintains a refined level of flowing and automated running form. When combined with long distances (and training at high altitude), this builds an aerobic base upon which runners layer more punishing workouts.

When applied to music production, a base of easy repetitions produce results: 

if you apply your attention to a track repeatedly over time,
it will eventually become tighter and its relations clearer.
 

Obsessively listening and editing a moment of music extends one’s skill set too, in that it builds patience for sitting still (!), for close listening, and develops a more acute sense of knowing what needs fixing and how to do the fixing. And like long easy runs, repeated editing moves gradually make producing music feel more intuitive…but only to a point. For me, production’s repeated listenings feel like deliberate, case-specific, and perpetually trial and error-based work whose output exactly mirrors the accumulations of my attentional investments. In plainer English: you get out of it what you put in. So keep at it, because the potential reward of enjoying some of the music’s depths, twists, and turns may be just one more spacebar tap away.   

2 thoughts on “On Music Production’s Repeated Listenings

  1. As often with your workflow posts I feel like you’re writing my diary (though I expect our results are different even from having the same day objectively). Like you, I find it absorbing, and marvelous considering what modern technology allows.

    When I need a break to reboot that focus, I tremendously enjoy the near-opposite of live free-improv without recording, where there’s only “the moving finger writes and having writ…” and all decisions are “final” and modifiable only by the next decision.

    1. Well said. My version of the reboot is the start of the process where it’s always freeform playing, upon which everything else is eventually built.

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