On Listening and Hearing

Contributors
Publication Date
November 12, 2020

The ‘urban roar’—far off traffic?
Long, high-frequency tones at short intervals, at a distance.
Quiet, delicate scratching, within close hearing range.

These are some sounds I heard only when I listened to them and took note of in my “sound journal,” which I keep for the purpose of remembering soundscapes. I hadn’t consciously been aware of these sounds until I sat down in my room one evening and did absolutely nothing except listen to my surroundings. “The ear makes it possible to hear and to listen,” writes composer Pauline Oliveros in her 2005 book Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice, which outlines her understanding of listening and hearing as separate actions, distinguished by consciousness.1 After years of actively, consciously listening as a musician myself, I keep coming back to what it means to hear and what it means to listen: what else am I not “hearing”? Am I “hearing” what I need to hear? How much “listening” am I doing in my day-to-day life, and how much am I trying to “unhear”?

“Noise pollution results when man does not listen carefully,”2 R. Murray Schafer mentions in the opening of his acclaimed 1977 publication The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. The concept of “noise” is generally understood as sound that is “unwanted”—a byproduct to be accepted or abated. The definition of noise, then, is steeped in subjectivity: a sound that I consider as unwanted may be essential to another (consider, for example, white noise apps that promise a better night’s sleep). We can accept noise when we learn to ignore it; once our brain learns that a sound does not need active attention, it tunes them out—but what happens when we become too used to ignoring sounds? We fight against the inevitability of human-made noise using “noise abatement”: noise barriers on highways, noise-cancelling earphones and the like. But what would happen if we shifted our perspective from the negative act of removing sounds we don’t want, to the positive act of listening to and preserving the ones we do? Before we make sound, what if we were to consider its inherent destructiveness?

I lived for six months in Kyoto, where I was so struck by the sonic environment—temple bells ringing through mountain cedar trees, wind rushing through bamboo—that I crafted an album out of self-made field recordings. Tokyo, where I live now, is completely different; there is an endless battle to be heard: conductors shouting announcements at train stations, grocers yelling advertisements at customers, LCD screens blasting music and catch-phrases.

2020 has seen a reversal. What has been touted as “the longest period of quiet in recorded human history”3 has facilitated the return of audible natural sounds to the city environment; birds are even singing sexier songs.4 Despite the havoc wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been provided with the chance to listen to these otherwise hidden sounds, and learn what their presence means for the environment.

The sound journal, as Oliveros puts it, is for “remembering and remembering to remember.”5 We generally forget sounds soon after we have heard them, but making a note of sounds heard can help us recall our reaction to the sounds themselves, as well as conjure up memories and images of them. Keeping a sound journal has helped me reassess how I feel about certain sonic environments and understand what was sonically important to me. I learned, for example, that I had been filtering out a bewitching chorus of crickets outside my window together with traffic noise.

Removing what we deem are “unwanted” sounds is not as simple as switching them off at the source, which is why we have been forced to coexist with them. But where do we draw the line between sound and noise, between listening and hearing? As the world gets noisier, what are we hearing less? The key to understanding this is to focus on listening as an individual and a society. By listening to what cannot usually be heard, we learn what our ears need to hear.

  1. Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice (Bloomington: Deep Listening Publications, 2005), xxii.
  2. R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Vermont: Destiny Books, 1977), 4.
  3. Basu, Tanya. “Lockdown Was the Longest Period of Quiet in Recorded Human History.” MIT Technology Review. MIT Technology Review, July 26, 2020. https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/07/23/1005574/lockdown-was-the-longest-period-of-quiet-in-human-history.
  4. Elizabeth P. Derryberry et al, “Singing in a silent spring: Birds respond to a half-century soundscape reversion during the COVID-19 shutdown,” Science 370, no. 6566 (2020): 575-579. doi: 10.1126/science.abd5777
  5. Oliveros, Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sounds Practice, 18.
Publication Date
November 12, 2020
Volume
6
Number
06
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