“Diagnostic” Causal Listening

Michel Chion defines causal listening as “listening to a sound in order to gather information about its cause (or source).” [1] By listening to the timbres and other aspects of noises, one can learn about the source of the sound. An example I have included is some of the noise in a dining hall; one can ascertain that there are people nearby, and the sounds of plates and utensils indicate that they are eating. The sounds of the U-Heights North stairwell indicate that there are other people on the stairs, and that I was ascending rather quickly.

Many of the sounds of my daily life can be listened to with a different form of causal listening; the person responsible for the sound listens to it to learn about the source. A simple example is me walking through deep snow. The distinct noise made by my boots helps me figure out the best path to take, and whether I am walking through slush or more packed snow. In another vein, earlier in the week I was sick. By listening to the timbre and pitch of my cough, I can figure out information about the amount and location of phlegm in my system.

A huge part of my life at UVM is my involvement in the pep band. I play the baritone saxophone in the band several times a week at basketball and hockey games. I have included a clip of some of the band members (including me) tuning before the game. In tuning, musicians listen to the comparative pitch of their instruments to learn what adjustments need to be made to be in sync with one another and ready to perform for an audience.

One cheer for which the pep band is famous (perhaps even infamous) is the “Cowbell Cheer,” in which all band members except the drummer take up cowbells and play and dance to an infectious rhythm. This past saturday, the children from Edmunds Elementary School came to a women’s hockey game, and we gave them cowbells and let them play the cowbell cheer with us. The children did their best to listen to the beat of the drums and stay rhythmically accurate, comparing the sounds their cowbells were making to the rhythm of the drums.

As a music student, I spend countless hours of my week in a practice room. For my lessons, I am currently working on several etudes, pieces written to sound pleasing and also improve musicianship of the player. Practicing is an excellent example of sounds to which a sort of “diagnostic causal listening” can be applied.

In the relatively short time I have between classes, I always make tea to both calm me down and provide some extra caffeine stimulation to get me through the day. Boiling water is, of course, essential to making tea, and the sound of the water coming to a boil is calming in its own right. Additionally, I can tell by the sound the water is making whether it has come to a rolling boil and is ready to use for tea.

I play the clarinet in the Vermont Wind Ensemble, a group composed of adult community members and some advanced UVM music students. We rehearse on thursday nights, and the fifteen or so minutes before rehearsal actually starts, one can hear dozens of talented musicians warming up on everything from scales to famous solo pieces. Like tuning, warming up is an exercise musicians use to prepare to practice and perform, and a way for them to gauge the response of their instrument under the current circumstances.

My roommate is a singer-songwriter, and his guitar playing and singing can be heard in the background of many of the things I do while in my room. The clip I have included is of him experimenting with a new song he is writing and figuring out which chords to include in what order and what is the most pleasing combination of sounds. While it is nice that I am in the room and get to hear him play, in this case he is not playing for me or any audience.

I approach all of these sounds causally to determine attributes of the source; for many of them, I am the source, and listen to the sounds for my own practical benefit. This type of causal listening is an integral part of my daily life as a musician and a student.

[1] Michel Chion, “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Comp. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012