Sounding Forward II: Revitalizing our Listening Sense

September 29, 2021
Minute Read

This article is the second installment of a two-part series on listening, culture, technology and health by John Connell and Quentin Notte. Check out Sounding Forward I: The Lost Art of Listening


In the first part of this series, we argued that the prevalence of the visual in our culture has deteriorated our ability to listen. We discussed the metaphorical distinctions between the senses and what is at stake when listening plays a diminished role in our lives. Let’s now take a look at the benefits of revitalizing our listening sense, some of the research findings that support them, and the Soundworks content you can use to explore them in your own way.

Using sound and music for focus

Sound often plays a key role in capturing the attention of the listener. Yet while the glut of services using sound for this purpose leads to a sense of being overwhelmed and impacts the quality of our concentration, many of us consciously use sound as a tool to deepen focus: to enhance not just the quality of our attention, but to optimize our performance in specific tasks. 

This is the basis for how a large portion of the music ecosystems we use are organized. Spotify classifies this as ‘Cx’, or Context-based: playlists of tracks, categorized by mood, activity, location and seasonality. Figures from 2018 shows these playlists have on average highest follower counts and fastest growth of 370M users worldwide.

Neuroscientists specializing in sound and music, like celebrated author Daniel Levitin, have begun uncovering the neurological underpinnings of how music affects our mood, attention and performance in fascinating detail. Levitin’s study on the neurochemistry of music (with Mona Lisa Chanda) deconstructs the brain functions at work while we listen to music, and how our subjective experiences can be correlated with increase in neurochemical activity and arousal in different regions of the brain. 

Soundworks’ daily sound meditations and Extended Sessions use duration, timbral and  rhythmical elements, and narrative novelty and fulfillment to create the perfect balance for meditative sound compositions that enhance, rather than overwhelm, the attention of the listener. This was also the topic in discussion with artists and neuroscientists at our panel at MUTEK Forum 7.

Refined attention as a tool for self-inquiry

We often think of attention as being simply about focus and concentration, but when we delve into different types of listening techniques, we discover there are many ways to shape our attention - both inwardly and outwardly - for different aims. In the 1960s and 1970s, pioneering artists like Eliane Radigue, John Cage, Lamonte Young, and Brian Eno began cultivating new methods for exploring self-awareness and depth of experience through sound and listening, giving rise to new sonic palettes and approaches to performance. 

Pauline Oliveros, founder of the Deep Listening method and movement, made strides in shaping the discourse about the power of listening and its capacity to positively benefit the human experience, with the aim of accessing a wider spatio-temporal perception beyond our normal waking state through meditative sound sessions.

Our first Fundamentals series, Sound & Listening, charts some valuable listening techniques inspired by both Radigue, Oliveros, and other meditative disciplines, to enable you to examine your inner experience in very precise and nuanced ways: emotional listening, bringing our attention to the emotional quality evoked by music without losing ourselves in it, for example.

Regaining a sense of balance and calm

Then there is perhaps what most people associate with sound and mindfulness - using sound meditation as a technique for balance and sense of calm. Recent studies show that an hour of meditating to sound can alleviate a range of physical and psychological ailments, from anxiety, stress and depression, to eating disorders and other psycho-somatic conditions. There is also a niche but rapidly growing global movement around different kinds of breathwork. Working with the breath is a fundamental aspect of almost all mindfulness practices, and sound can be effectively used to enhance these techniques, acting as a sonic guide to syncopate smooth and rhythmical breathing whilst deepening the emotional quality of the experience. 

We delve into practices applying this knowledge in our Fundamentals courses with a series of listening techniques you can use to center yourself and access refined states of awareness about your inner experience that bring your neuro-physiology to a resting or homeostatic state. In particular, our course on Sound & Breath uses meticulously-designed sonic guides and accompanying sound meditations to help you gain deeper relaxation, stimulate healthy cardiovascular and nervous system response, and achieve balanced mental and physical energy. 

Deepening our connection with the environment and our place within it

Listening as a practice can cultivate heightened sensitivity for the world around us, and refresh our sense of existing within it, not as a disconnected entity simply observing from the outside. The late composer R. Murray Schafer, who popularized the concept of ‘soundscape’, pioneered the field of acoustic ecology and developed practical exercises to help rebalance the relationship between sound, people and the environment.

One way of achieving this through a mindful sound practice is by refining our understanding of spatial cognition in listening: by gaining a direct and personal experience of how our auditory system contributes to the internal model of how the world works, we become aware of the unconscious filtering out of elements we’ve developed over time, returning our child-like sense of detail and wonder about our environment and the nuance of interactions we enjoy within it.

We delve deep into the role of spatial awareness in our course on Sound & Space, with a series of practical listening exercises using spatialized audio to reset our experience of dimensionality and depth in the everyday.

Improving the quality of our sleep

Disconnecting at night from our endless to-do lists, constant notification streams, workday conflicts and tight deadlines, has been increasingly challenging to most of us. Yet improving the duration and quality of our sleep is one of the simplest and most effective ways of bettering our wellbeing.  

One study shows that listening to music at night reduces the time it takes to fall asleep, and another that the quality of our sleep is quantifiably improved by listening to music before going to bed. While slow-evolving, smooth and tonally balanced sounds have been shown to be relaxing, well-crafted music has the ability to evoke vast imaginary landscapes that lift us off from the logistical routines of our complex lives and take us elsewhere.

Our daily sounds can be used to meditate but also to fall asleep, and our Sleep Course and its related Extended Session are a powerful gateways to sleep.

Solving problems creatively, at the interpersonal and societal levels 

Revitalizing our listening sense and developing listening skills also help improve our relationships with those we love and work with, leading to a renewed sense of harmony at home and increased well-being and effectiveness at work. Countless research over the years has shown that the average person listens at only about 25% efficiency, and that listening more effectively systematically leads to reduced conflict, increased trust and commitment to each other and enhanced problem-solving abilities.

Beyond interpersonal listening, we have also increasingly lost our ability to engage in dialog as a society. The advent of social media, which systematically incentivize speaking at the expense of listening, has made any conversation around nuanced topics challenging. Reorienting our culture around listening and the pursuit of compassionate dialogue is a critical prerequisite in solving the considerable political, social and environment challenges we are facing. 

Our upcoming course on listening, visualization and creativity will explore these topics in depth.

From its functional use as a gateway to focus or sleep, to its ability to help us inquire about the nature of self and rebalance our relationships with others and with our environment, the mindful practice of listening is a key to personal and societal wellbeing that our culture has lost. A healthier world is possible by revitalizing our listening sense, and we can enjoy exquisite, profound and fun experiences along the way.

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