Taking The Time To Listen

"Listen" by Flickr user ky_olsen

In my last post I mentioned that Monday was World Listening Day. To commemorate this day, I talked about reading out loud and how that could change the way we interact with a text. Today I bring up my experience of listening to my environment, a practice I like to call “active listening.”

One of my academic areas of interest is sound studies. If you think about it in the vein of cultural studies, American studies, disability studies, etc, sound studies looks at everything related to sound (noise, sound, listening, music, among others) and how it is constructed in society. The basis of sound studies is to think critically about the sounds that surround us, and how we interpret them. For some time now I’ve been working with an academic blog called Sounding Out!, and month after month we roll out posts that look at our relationship to sound. This has changed my relationship to my sonic landscape, for now I try to pay attention to not just the sounds around me, but also to how people talk about these sounds and in what context.
Because I hadn’t done a listening exercise in a while, I decided to take Monday afternoon to do just that. While my daughter napped and my boyfriend worked, I took the time in the late afternoon to sit on the terrace and pay close attention to the sounds around me. I’ve done soundwalks before (and blogged about them here and here). But this was the first time I had practiced this in my new apartment.
I stood in the terrace that afternoon and took stock of what I heard:
  • wind chimes
  • air conditioner
  • cars
  • fans whirring (from the ACs?)
  • airplane
  • paper rustling
  • bugs buzzing
  • birds chirping (in this Kansas City heat?!)
  • car muffler
  • car horn
  • pen click
  • no people other than me?
Even though the afternoon seemed very still, there was a lot happening. The longer I stood there on my terrace, the more activity I heard. What caught my attention was that I caught myself itching to check my phone, go inside, turn the tv on. I told myself to stay still and just observe. I wanted to really listen to what was around me and not tune out by doing something else. But I found it so hard to do just that! I got out of my chair, I walked around the terrace, I swatted bugs…eventually I caved and looked at the time on my phone. Ten minutes had passed. My attention span was just too short for the listening activity. And I felt a little guilty.
Even though I knew I wasn’t going to stand outside for too long (goodness sakes, it was nasty hot outside!), I thought I’d be able to sit still and listen for more than ten minutes. However, my short attention span isn’t a unique thing; I’m sure we all complain about how we can’t focus on one activity and we must always be multitasking. Some time ago I complained about not being able to read for long periods of time like I used to. But these exercises are nonetheless important. Sounds walks and exercises in active listening of your surroundings help us learn to be aware of the sonic dimensions of our surroundings. They also remind us to keep an ear out for how we use sounds to transmit messages, or how we define the elements of our sonic landscape. (Think, for example, of the difference between sound and noise; how much of that is rooted in what we hear and in how others define sound and noise?)
My exercise on Monday reminded me that even though I’m quick to analyze a song or how some may define certain sounds, I have to work on listening to my surroundings. I may have an ear for “fabricated” sounds, sounds that come from elsewhere (like the tv), but I also need to pay close attention to the soundscape I inhabit. If anything, it will allow me to get to know my new hometown better.
Please, dear readers, take the time this weekend to really listen. It doesn’t have to take that long, and you don’t have to take copious notes. Wherever you are, take a minute to tune in; you might be amazed at the sounds you pick up on. Don’t forget that you make sounds too.
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  1. It’s amazing how difficult it can be to allow ourselves to be still – even when we are purposely being mindful. We’re so used to constant stimulation that at first it can be a little scary to seek out the world around us, without it coming straight at us. Interesting observations!

    P.S. I saw you’re in KC – I live in Wichita.

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