When I step out my door for a walk, the next sense I am aware of is sound.
The typical North Carolina summer mornings between 6 and 10 a.m. are anything but quiet – at least where I live. As soon as the door closes, the sounds envelop me. Depending on the time of day, the first think I will hear are the insects: crickets, katydids, and cicadas, mostly. Next come the birds: robins, jays, sparrows, wrens, and more, all greeting the day with their calls. Along with the creatures, I usually hear the sound of wind moving through the trees surrounding our house and lining the sidewalks of my journey.
Then manmade sounds crash in on nature: depending on the direction of the wind and the time of day, I will hear cars zooming up and down I-77, about a mile away. If it’s rush hour, oddly enough, it’s quieter – the cars aren’t traveling at speed limits, but creeping along much slower, and therefore much quieter.
Again, depending on the time of day and the wind pattern, I will hear the sounds of aircraft on approach to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Though I’m over 16 miles away, there is a landing approach pattern that circles above and to the west of my house, and during busy times I will hear one plane after another slowly cruising north and then turning west over Lake Norman before turning south to make their final approach. Having flown enough, and curious about planes enough, I can often identify the type of plane by its engine sound.
Continuing the walk brings a mixture of these sounds: dogs barking, AC units humming, lawn crews at work, construction machinery working on the foundation of a new house, road crews repaving, splashing water at the neighborhood pool, mountain bikes crashing through the trails behind the house, the infrequent train whistle of freight moving on the rail spur a mile away, and the various human sounds of families beginning their day, from the slamming of doors to music playing to laughter to arguments to silence.
We are able to hear a great deal in our daily lives, but do we know how to listen?
According to the University of Maryland Medical, here is how the ear works normally:
- Sound is transmitted as sound waves from the environment. The sound waves are gathered by the outer ear and sent down the ear canal to the eardrum.
- The sound waves cause the eardrum to vibrate, which sets the three tiny bones in the middle ear into motion.
- The motion of the bones causes the fluid in the inner ear or cochlea to move.
- The movement of the inner ear fluid causes the hair cells in the cochlea to bend. The hair cells change the movement into electrical pulses.
- These electrical impulses are transmitted to the hearing (auditory) nerve and up to the brain, where they are interpreted as sound.
Hearing is a physical process involving sound waves and the body. We know about it because it is easy to study; listening, the interpretation of those sound waves, is harder to quantify.
To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived, both acoustically and psychologically.
Composer Pauline Oliveros
If you want to tune up your auditory sense, try the following exercises from Michael J. Gelb’s How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci:
Once or twice each day, pause for a few moments, enjoy a few deep exhalations, and listen to the sounds around you. First, you’ll hear the loudest, most obvious sounds: the air conditioner, traffic outside, the background noises of people and machinery. Then as that “layer” becomes clarified, begin to notice the next layer down – sounds of your breathing, a gentle breeze, footsteps in the hall, the shifting of your sleeve when you move your hand. Keep moving your awareness deeper into the next layer and then the next until you hear the soft, rhythmic beating of your heart.
Listen for Silence
Practice listening in the spaces between sounds – the pauses in a friend’s conversation or your favorite music, and the silences between the notes in the song of a bluebird. Make silence a theme for a day and record your observations in your notebook. Do you have access to a place of complete silence, away from the humming of machines? Try to find such a place. How does it feel to be in a place of complete quiet?
Taking the above exercises one step further, composer Pauline Oliveros encourages people to “listen to all possible sounds.” When one sound grabs your attention, dwell on it. Does it end? Think about what it reminds you of. Consider sounds from your past, from dreams, from nature, from music.
To walk and listen. To some extent, this would be an exercise in playing close enough attention to name what we hear. Simply giving a name to a sound can change the experience of it: when we see the thing that clatters or moans or sighs, we hear it differently. Naming, though, is not the exclusive reason for listening. Indeed, at times naming a sound aborts the experience of hearing altogether, shutting us off from continued listening and exploring the nature of a sound.
Alexander Horowitz, On Looking
inspired by Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking
and Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing