Sounding Forward I: The Lost Art of Listening

August 24, 2021
Minute Read

The shift towards visually-oriented mass media arguably began in earnest with the invention of the printing press in the 1400s, bringing with it a slow but inevitable transformation in learning and information exchange. Prior to the arrival of the printed page, human culture was predominantly shaped by the aural. The ability to listen and recount skillfully was central to our communication and a highly valued ability. Debates were held collectively; stories were recited orally in groups. Knowledge was transmitted from mouth to ear, generation to generation, making our ability to listen fundamental in the betterment and development of communities and society. It also made the process of transmission far more participatory: without fixed texts to adhere to, facts were malleable, and every listener and teller in the chain played an active role in capturing the essence of an idea or story worth sharing. 

The industrial era, from the late 1700s on, represented a step change in both the type and quantity of media in circulation, and with it a more direct but passive role in media consumption. Industrialized production chains systematized the proliferation of printed media, which in turn became dominated by the captured image, as photographic journals rose to prominence. 

The arrival of television - first black and white and then color- signaled the slow demise of radio as the main means of broadcast, and led to a shift in demand and expectation for news formats, storytelling and public gossip in ever-briefer bursts of information. Wider practices of communal listening evaporated in the post-war West as ownership of TV became an essential signifier of middle-class status, with individual households avidly consuming increasingly personalized media controlled by a small number of influential broadcast conglomerates.  

This transformation of our mediascape set the grounds for the corporate-owned, ‘ocular-centric’ world of today, dominated by the hypnotic allure of the visual. The average US teen spends 9 hours a day staring at screens, and studies show they are twice as likely to suffer from mental health problems as a direct result of its impact on our psychological and emotional state: FOMO, low self-esteem and information fatigue are now normalized and tolerated fallouts from our media diet. In this screen-obsessed culture, an exponential evolution of the industrialized media complex, attention is arguably the most valuable currency. Sound plays a subjugated role, a supporting act to the visual applied in effective but surprisingly limited ways: to amplify the emotional power of films through evocative soundtracks and functional sound design; to trigger our awareness dozens of times a day through the pings, beeps and bleeps of a plethora of apps vying for our attention; and to link brands and branded experiences with catchy sonic logos and jingles. 

It’s a highly sculpted and intentional use of sound and music, but principally invasive, designed from the findings of consumer and neuroscientific research on how to effectively hack our attention systems. Our media treats the listener as a passive consumer whose attention has to be disrupted and repeatedly grabbed from competing voices, rather than supported and enriched in a more fluid and cohesive way. And while there is a wealth of innovation and entertainment flooding out of this hyper-accelerating space, it’s also contributing to a loss in long-standing communicative modes that ground and bind us, like the death of the art of conversation.

Let’s reflect for a moment on the legacy of this techno-progression of media on music. The vast majority of mainstream and genre music comes from the industrialization of music into an industrialisation of music into an assembly line that profits from consumption of the ‘hit parade’. Major labels invest millions in creating potential hits following a subset of well-honed formats, composition and production formulas that explicitly direct our emotional response. Rooted in musical tropes well-established and reinforced through repetition over the years in broadcast media, all too often this music tells us exactly what to feel in short, snackable bursts- the 4 minute pop track model revolving around a limited number of chords and keys with culturally defined emotional characteristics- rather than encouraging a culture of wider exploration of global musical concepts and expressions, that creates space for us to calmly reflect and explore our rich psychological world in more nuanced ways.

In our towns and cities, Noise pollution has increased decade on decade, with the average city dweller being exposed to upwards of 60db as they go about their day. This is the late acoustic ecologist R Murray Schafer’s ‘universal deafening’, daily noise levels that create measurable psychological and physical stress. Some of it is intentionally created: music blares from shops and cafes, to either influence our comfort levels or desire to spend more money (quicker turnarounds in cafes and bars, slower browsing the aisles of grocery stores). But much of it is environmental, spilling out from congested roads and industrial machinery, and it is making us sick. High intensity noise pollution from neighbourhoods around airports leads to increased levels of heart disease and strokes, directly inhibiting our cardiovascular system. The stress from excess sound literally chokes our blood vessels.

Our response to this is to blot out the overwhelming noise around us, often with more sound, as we routinely shut everything out by turning up the volume of music on (often poor quality) earphones. While there are some benefits to this mass ‘Walkman Effect’- gaining some sense of control to our experience as we move around urban spaces, as an example- critics suggest this significantly contributes to an increased sense of social isolation, along with research highlighting the rise in hearing damage and tinnitus and risks of being inattentive of the traffic around us.

As musician and author Joachim-Ernst Berendt outlines in his wide-ranging exploration of sound and spirituality The World is Sound, we only need to briefly reflect on the significant metaphorical distinctions between the two senses to consider the psychological impact of over-emphasising the visual sense over the aural. Vision is ‘sharp’, it ‘pierces’ and inspects from a distance, dissecting elements into their constituent parts for scrutiny. The eye acts as a precision tool, inherently exclusive and reductive, ignoring all but the single point we want to focus on. Such qualities direct us towards the rational, analytical and executional- the basis for the scientific method, but also for our single-minded economic focus on growth, without consideration or care of the wider costs.

The aural, on the other hand, encompasses and envelops; the listener is immersed, wrapped in a world of sound that flows not just around but through them. In this way the listening sense is inclusive, all-encompassing. It includes the listener in the very experience they are listening to. To listen is to participate, to resonate and vibrate in sync with that which we hear. The qualities of listening therefore invite us towards the emotional, the reflective, the holistic and empathetic- all qualities badly needed in a time of empathy deficit, fragmented communities and increasingly divisive societies.

But what if sound played a revitalised role in our society? Not just a new way of engaging with listening as a meaningful practice in and of itself, but a return to a capacity for deeper self-awareness, insight and nuance that we’ve lost? Might this lead us towards a shift in more open and egalitarian values, a refreshed desire for intimacy and honesty, and an appreciation for vital new ways of thinking and feeling about our role and responsibilities in our world, that the distractions and demands of modern life rarely allow us to access? 

There are signs that this is beginning to happen. The rise of interest in sound as a medium for mindfulness practices, accelerated by the dire impacts on mental health and need for meaningful social connection triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, is part of a wider shift towards reappraising the listening sense and its importance in our lives. A wide range of innovation is happening around audio technologies and media, from the rise of social audio like Clubhouse, to new ways of enjoying storytelling through screenless story boxes for kids, and experiments in participative audio games. These trends point to a desire to return to the old ways of communicating so deeply embedded in our collective psyche and behavior, using technology to enhance rather than dramatically transform it.

And in the health and wellness space, an increase in scientific studies examining the relationship between sound, neuro-physiology and the felt experience is now establishing the evidence-based benefits of sound practices in promoting calm, reducing anxiety and depression. and even using low-frequency sound and vibration to tackle chronic physical ailments like fybromalgia. 

In the next installment in this two-part series, we will look at some of the science around sound as a tool for health and wellness in more detail, and highlight some interesting new technologies and creative applications (including our own!).

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