In and Out of Listening

In completing this assignment, I tried to think of what aural elements of a typical day I wanted to portray. I was thus forced to open my ears, and try to objectively hear my surroundings in a way that I don’t always do. I won’t claim to have listened critically for the whole time that I was making recordings, but I did stop and consciously listen more carefully on many occasions. One thing that I became more conscious of, was how often I chose to put on my headphones in my commute between classes. When and where I would take my headphones off and switch from an isolated, immersive, musical experience, to the ambient sounds around me, became a focus of my interest on this assignment. In the past month or so, I’ve been using a new pair of headphones, and in many ways there ability to isolate sound so effectively has changed my soundscape significantly on the days I choose to bring them with me. I tried to portray the jarring nature of going between a few songs that I might listen to throughout the day, and the sounds I hear when I don’t have them on.

Having the frequent juxtaposition between absence of ambient noise, and then the sounds I hear upon removing my headphones—at times a bombardment of external, ‘random,’ sounds—can be bit jarring at times, but it also provides insight towards the different nature of the two sound types. It often takes a fraction of a second to readjust to the wider soundscape provided in the real world around me, one that headphones fail to simulate effectively. I think the move from a single recorded sound source—played in an enclosed circumaural acoustic environment—to the array of different sound sources going on in most areas of campus during the day, takes a brief adjusting to. I am reminded of both the Chion and Horowitz articles; on the one hand because of the kind of listening I am practicing, and on the other because of the potential impact my choice to listen to electronic music through much of the day may have on my overall ability to discern and pick apart different elements of the ‘natural’ sounds around me.

Depending on when, where, or why I choose to take off my headphones, I am most likely moving from reduced listening of the recording to causal, and/or semantic listening of my surroundings. As the muffs come off, I begin to consider the location of whatever it is that I’m hearing first. If there’s talking, I simultaneously process what is being said, whether it relates to me or not, and discern meaning from the words. When I’m listening to music, it is typically in the realm of reduced listening, though at times it is a combination of reduced and semantic if there are lyrics that I’m focusing on. Interestingly, Chion says that “reduced listening is an enterprise that is new, fruitful, and hardly natural. It disrupts established lazy habits and opens up a world of previously unimagined questions for those who try it” (Chion, pg. 51). This contradicts, to some extent, Horowitz’s assertion that “Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload” (Horowitz, pg. 2), because I am, in affect, able to more closely listen to certain sounds because of the technology I own. Let me explain this further in the context of the recordings.

The first sound that plays in my playlist is that of me brushing my teeth, next you’ll hear the sound of the toilet flushing, and then the sound of the shower running. These sounds have become so routine, that it wasn’t until I listened to the recordings and could replay the sounds, that I could start to hear them more objectively. It is the recording capability itself that allows me to focus “…on the sound itself, independent of its cause and of its meaning. Reduced listening takes the sound—verbal, played on an instrument, noises, or whatever—as itself the object to be observed instead of as a vehicle for something else” (Chion, pg. 50). The tin sound of the water hitting the drain grate of the sink, the almost metallic nature of the toilet flush, and the subtle change in sound as I closed the shower curtain all became apparent to me after my initial listening. After showering I get dressed (which I didn’t record), and head outside with my headphones (I simply uploaded a portion of a track I might listen to on any given day to re-create the affect). The next sound after that is of my first Tuesday class convening—before the teacher has begun the lecture. After sitting down, the instant I take my headphones off I actually feel that I am more in tune with what I’m hearing. After having been so focused on the music, and so isolated from the sounds of my surrounding, the sudden confrontation with those sounds forces me to consider more of their elements than I might have if I weren’t fluctuating between ambient and electronically sourced listening. After my class, I went to the library, and the first sound I heard upon taking my headphones off briefly while on the third floor was that of someone highlighting a paper on a desk near me. I could almost feel the felt tip grazing against the tooth of the paper. This took almost no time for my brain to locate, identify, and then imagine. I looked over the edge of the desk, and sure enough—a highlighter on paper. This is another example of the causal listening Chion was talking about, however it wasn’t until I listened to the recording again that I could analyze why my mind knew it was the highlighter on paper. This was very interesting to me, because though I knew what it was, I couldn’t articulate the reason(s) why, until I had given the sound a reduced listen.


Works Cited

Horowitz, Seth. “The Science and Art of Listening.” The New York Times, 11 Nov. 2012. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.

Chion, Michael. “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Ed. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 48-53. Print.

Songs used in the order they appear (artist, then song title):

Barika. Good Morning

Lupe Fiasco. Daydreamin’ (feat. Jill Scoot).

Black Keys. I’m not the one.

Gramatik. Don’t Let Me Down

4 thoughts on “In and Out of Listening

  1. I found your passage about the highlighter on paper especially fascinating. You explained the urge to find the source of a sound and confirm it visually very well. I can think of many times when I’ve had similar experiences, though I have never viewed them the way you described. Even without listening to your sounds, I could hear the highlighter on the paper, although I did imagine it slightly differently from the sound you recorded. It’s just another example of how remarkable our mind and memory are.

  2. I really liked that you talked about the relatively new experience of headphones and earbuds and their impact on listening. It would be interesting to see more research in the next few decades as to how humans behave differently with music and how the durational use of headphones over time affect how they hear the environment.

  3. I find it interesting how you find that you listen more during the moments right after you take off your headphones. That instant of awareness of your environment is due to technology but you are also not hearing the majority of the soundscape as you walk to class which is part of what Horowitz is trying to say.

  4. Your point concerning the shift in hearing from listening to music with headphones to removing them is quite insightful. I have been considering adding music to my commute, but never gave any thought as to what experience I would be losing and how my soundscape would be altered. I also like your comparison of the two types of sounds, mainly this idea of the bombardment of “random” sounds. We create an ordered aural environment when we put the headphones on, but we lose that control when we remove them. I think it would be interesting to see the change in public use of headphones over the last 20 years. This could help support Dr. Horowtiz’s case in how technology is damaging our ability to listen.

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