I was watching this video showing the behind-the-scenes recording of Ed Sheeran's 'Perfect' single, and I noticed that everyone in the orchestra (that I could see) is wearing headphones with one ear on and the other off (or just with no second ear at all).

I suppose they need one ear to hear their own instrument. What are they listening to in their headphones and is this common for an orchestra recording like this?

  • 3
    That’s common among all kinds of musicians when recording as an ensemble. Jun 14, 2019 at 11:20
  • 2
    Just to be clear: this isn't common when recording classical music. Jun 15, 2019 at 3:17

3 Answers 3


One ear isn't covered, so they are able to hear their own playing / instrument.

The headphone on the other ear is usually playing a click track to keep them in time. This is also very important to synchronize movie scenes for example. Sometimes they do multiple runs, a few with click track to be exactly on time and a few without click track to make it more 'expressive', if you can say it like that... :P

On this headphone they sometimes also hear some other instruments like prerecorded percussion or even synths if it's a hybrid trailer track for example.

  • 2
    is usually playing a click track to keep them in time This probably necessitates expansion. The orchestra itself has little need to a click track to play in time (then again, there are also concertmasters and conductors for this). The click track (or a guide percussion track) is of great importance for multitrack recording in general, and indispensable when there is a tempo map to be followed for ease of editing (which is almost all the time, these days). i.e., it's not orchestra-specific. An acoustic guitarist would play to the click as well. Jun 14, 2019 at 21:40
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    I think this needs expanding to explain why they need a click track at all. There's a conductor there, whose job it is to keep the orchestra in time with each other. They're recording a song, not a movie soundtrack. Jun 15, 2019 at 13:26
  • @DavidRicherby Well, because at the end a conductor is a human and no electronic, steady, 100% accurate click track :P They often record some runs with the conductor to get a more expressive or real live performance feeling, but if you want to record something exactly on time, you record to a click track (usually still with the conductor to guide the orchestra). Another point is that if you hear the click track with your ears, you have one less thing to focus with your eyes, and can focus a lot more on the score.
    – Andy
    Jun 15, 2019 at 14:47
  • 1
    When you need to sync to something like a movie, sure, but this isn't a movie soundtrack. Why does an Ed Sheeran record need to be "exactly on time"? If I go to see a symphony orchestra, I don't care (or even notice) if the tempo isn't perfectly even, so why would I care when listening to four minutes of Ed Sheeran? Jun 15, 2019 at 17:43
  • 1
    You wouldn't see them wearing headphones when you hear them live, performing on any stage. However, this is a recording session and orchestral recording sessions just always have them. It doesn't matter if it's a movie scene, a trailer track, an orchestral track or just a pop song. I don't even say, that they've used a click track for this song, but that would still leave the other options open that I've talked about. Maybe they heard some prerecorded instruments, percussion loops or synths while playing. You won't be able to say it for sure unless you ask one of the players ;)
    – Andy
    Jun 15, 2019 at 18:41

Nowadays pop songs are nearly always recorded one layer at a time (the exception being really "old-school" bands). The first track will be a click and/or drum track, then typically bass, keyboards, guitars, brass, strings and finally vocals. Each person recording has to listen to the previous layers, hence the headphones.

String players (and very often woodwind and brass players) always record with the headphones only on one ear so they can hear themselves acoustically in the section. In the phones they will listen to whatever they need to play in time and in tune with the pre-recorded layers. In a situation like this (a pop ballad) they will probably need the keyboards or guitars more than the click.

'Perfect' is a good example of this. If you listen to the finished product you can hear how much had already been recorded before the orchestra got to the studio. That (plus click) is what the musicians are hearing in their phones. The only unusual thing here is recording the lead vocals simultaneously with the orchestra. They presumably had a lot of faith in him to get it right every time.
Note that what you hear and see on the video might not be the take they actually used. You normally don't want a camera crew in the studio making noise and distracting you while you are recording. They probably already had a take they wanted to use and played through the piece one more time just for the cameras.

Even in a situation where there is no pre-recorded or click track headphones are nearly always used, except for classical recordings. In the studio the instruments are very often acoustically separated, so headphones are needed to hear the other players. I've experienced recordings where the orchestra was in one room, the choir in another and vocal soloists in another. That can't be done without headphones.

  • I concur with your answer. I add that the OP should take note of how thin the instrumentation sounds in the video There are places where the instrumental accompaniment ends. Clearly they are playing to add layers to what is already recorded. Jun 26, 2019 at 18:42

If you can see the orchestra, it is indeed a movie, albeit a short one. Click track makes sense to me. They could also be miming to a track recorded elsewhen.

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