Tag Archives: listening

The Primacy of Sound

Source: Wikipedia.org

We may see lightning first.  But only when it’s roar reaches our ears has the drama begun

The writer and musician Robin Maconie calls sound “the second sense,” ceding the top spot to vision.  But I think he’s wrong.  In its varied forms, sound more directly nurtures our capacity for language, serving as the gateway to the richest forms of consciousness and communication.  The modern preference for content that comes via screens sometimes encourages us to miss our indebtedness to the aural.  But even when our eyes have shut down at the end of the day, we have a consciousness of our environment through the 24/7 sentries of our ears.

Ultimately, a reduction of our senses to simple binaries is usually not helpful. But it is important to understand how a sensory platform supports what matters most in our lives.

The common property of language visits us first as sound, years before it is converted into the diverse media we know in later life.  As linguists remind us, oral speech is the source of learned language. Our consciousness depends heavily on the verbal. We think in words. Words trigger experiences that know because they can be named. In addition, beyond speech as the generative driver of all communication, other myriad elements of the auditory world carry us deeper into every corner of the world.

We hear by sensing minute variations in air pressure, which are subject to the vagaries of wind, weather and even degrees of humidity.  The thin tissue of the tampanic membrane, must work with the small bones and nerves of the middle and inner ear to pick up tiny variations in air pressure that we convert into sensations of hearing. Altogether, this is a fragile enterprise. Our visual capacities may be robust, but our auditory acuity is more subtle. On a clear day it may be possible to see the spine of the Rockies on the distant horizon about 80 miles away.  But sound as heard by humans has no such range. We measure the audible in feet rather than miles.  And single sources are easily swamped by noise.

Air is the mother of all media.

In the vacuum of space astronauts may still see each other, but they can talk only through visual signs or radios. The essential medium of air is absent except for the very thin layer of mostly nitrogen and oxygen that rings the earth. Even so, films about space are awash in wall-to-wall music and effects. On the ground and in a theater, Dolby ATMOs can drop a single unit of sound behind one ear.  It’s another reminder that air itself is the mother of all media.

This localizing capacity of binaural listening sometimes compensates for what the eye misses. Sound offers the advantage of insights and warnings at 360 degrees, not the limited 90 or so of our vision.

More than we realize, the clamor of everyday life never ceases to contribute to how we understand the places we inhabit and the people we know.  What we finally express in response is our bridge back into this world.  As musician and naturalist Bernie Krause has noted, “Without sound…there would be no music, no legend, no voice to stir the soul, evoke the memory, or transport the spirit.”

 

Looking for Listeners

                                Photo: Moira Clunie

The smartphone has a special role in our drift towards inner-direction. By its very nature it is primarily self-referential.  Who has called or texted or mentioned me?  Has my tweet been shared? Has my post been sufficiently “liked?” 

In any hierarchy of communication deficits, the availability of receptive and interested listeners must be near the top.  Good listeners are in relatively short supply while eager talkers are a dime a dozen.   What the composer Igor Stravinsky lamented about pipe organs applies to the overly loquacious: they can be “monsters” that never seem to take a breath. The challenge is finding those souls whose lives are sufficiently centered in their lives to be open to experiencing all that another has to say.

We pay to hear others perform music or theater pieces, maybe stand-up comedy or an occasional TED Talk. As Neil Postman famously noted, if our culture fails in some ways, we are at least ‘the best-entertained society on earth.’  If not to hear what is on Aunt Bertha’s mind, we will still make time for the biggest spectacles our media giants can produce. By contrast, we rarely expect to be enchanted by the everyday thoughts of others.

This means that the verbal and digital traffic that clutters our lives is mostly outbound. Many of us are on lifelong quests to find others who might want to consider our thoughts. By contrast the incoming lanes that can reach into our consciousness are mostly empty, or sometimes closed for lack of use.

Few teachers would perhaps acknowledge it, but one of the joys of having students is that they are a captive audience. Even if they are not exactly in the thrall of a teacher’s words, students will humor their instructors enough to allow them to believe it.

 

The ‘me decade’ never ended.  It’s becoming the ‘me century.’ 

 

This problem of a shortage of truly open ears extends to nearly every realm of human contact. Nearly all of us who write books receive modest returns as royalties. Theater and even motion picture producers usually know the dread of a nearly empty house. I’ve been the organizer of public meetings and town halls where a sense of doom sets in when the invited presenters show up to see a room of mostly empty chairs.  Most of us are simply too insistent that we be the recipient of our own attention. Figure in hours for digital grazing, and we hardly have time left to give ourselves over to others.

The heavies that contribute to a problem are represented in the self-mocking phrase, “Well, enough about you.” They include over-indulgent parents, work culture that easily robs employees of a sense of agency, dismissive judgments couched in mental health categories, and commercial messages that insist that we should treat ourselves as if we are ‘Number One.’

I’d reserve a special role in the shift away from other direction and toward inner-direction for the smartphone.  (If you know this blog, you knew this was coming.)  By its very nature it is primarily self-referential.  Who has called/texted/mentioned me?  Has my tweet been shared? Has my facebook post been sufficiently “liked?”

So if others like us are broadcasters more than receivers, we must arm ourselves to go into the world ready to absorb the self-referential barrages. It’s one reason that more of us sense the need to rebound from an evening spent listening to overactive talkers with enough solitude to help us rediscover the joys of the larger universe.