Listening Challenges

For the past few months there has been an exhibit at the Rubin Museum in New York called The World is Sound. The Rubin is a museum that brings together art and science, and allows us to see things in multi-faceted and often new ways. In this exhibit visitors were invited to slow down and consider their bodily engagement with sound, space, and personal perceptions.

As part of the exhibit a series of listening challenges were presented. They were not directed at people with hearing problems in particular. In our world of quick give and take I believe we can all learn about more creative hearing and listening. Here are a few of the listening challenges from this program:

Touching sound – observing the physicality of sound. Sound is vibration, and sound waves travel through the body. We typically think of our ears as our organ for hearing, but actually the ears, eyes, skin, and brain play a part too. When you get near a speaker you experience the physical presence of sound as you feel the bass notes vibrating in your body.

Try this: Change the way you experience sound by deprioritizing your ears, and “listen” with other parts of your body. First, put your hands on your throat and chest and play with your voice. Make high and low pitch sounds, in short bursts or long tones. How do the vibrations vary? Play music through a speaker – touch it – can you feel the sound?

From one artist: “A sound is a vibration in the air, then the vibration resonates inside the ear canal and you process it. Sound has a physicality to it.” And another, the percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who is deaf, can feel vibations through her body, so her whole body becomes an ear.

It’s more than the words. We communicate through the words we say but also the way we say them. Much of our personal communication is non-verbal. Voice, tone, and body language are very important in how we understand each other.

The challenge: listen differently – instead of relying on words, pay more attention to tone, volume, and gesture. Is the eyebrow furrowed, which words are emphasized? Stay focused on what the other person is conveying, both verbally and nonverbally. Don’t interrupt…do you understand new layers of meaning? Does this change how you understand others? Are you learning something new?

Tuning in – what sounds are you missing? Sound surrounds us. Doors closing, car’s brakes, and construction hammering are some city sounds, but when we enter a park, new sounds emerge – wind in the trees, bird chirping, mosquitos humming.

Listening challenge: go for a walk in your sonic environment. It should last at least ten minutes. Wherever you are, listen intentionally to the sounds you might typically “tune out.” As you move through different spaces, what do you notice? If you can, use your phone to record the sounds of your walk. After your walk, play back the recording. Are you hearing anything you may have missed during the walk?

These “challenges” encourage us to try different ways to listen. Remember, we can hold a visual image on our eye – we can stand in front of a painting and keep looking. But sound is different. It’s not permanent…so listening mindfully may open all of us to more creative hearing.