What Your Ears Have Been Missing
by John Justice
illustration by Chuck Farmer
“(It’s) too hot! This town is too hot!” Ok, to be fair, the heat isn’t really the town’s fault. Focused rage just sounds so much more compelling than vague complaining. I couldn’t really get your attention by exclaiming, “I’m slightly more uncomfortable than I’d like to be!” But we’re getting off topic. My real point is this: I kind of miss the rain…
Maybe this focused rage has joined forces with some kind of heat-induced delusion, but I really do miss the rain. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t cherish the idea of being stuck inside for three days. I’m not talking about geography-altering catastrophes. I’m just talking about afternoon showers, quickly passing late-night thunder-storms.
These regularly occurring cycles of Earth’s irrigation system can have a very interesting effect on homo-sapiens that our family, our educators, and even our friends can’t produce: it actually makes us shut up and listen!
If you’re standing in a group outdoors and it starts to rain, 90% of people will stop filling the air with the sound of their own voice and begin to pay attention to the suddenly changing environment. More so, most people will actually listen to the sound of the rain. It may only be for a brief moment, but the rain has this effect on almost everyone.
This is interesting not only because it induces a quiet, meditative mindset, but amazingly it produces this effect even when we’re with other people! I believe this behavior is one of the last mental remnants of a long-lost ancient practice known as “social listening.”
It’s not just a dream. Humans used to sit around in caves, in huts, or out under the stars and just listen. Even before we discovered music and the inherent “Harmony of the Spheres” as Pythagoras described, we got together to practice listening.
I love this idea so much! There is something beautiful to me about the idea of a group of people getting together just to listen to the sounds of our planet. There was no goal, no magic level of listening to be attained. Listening was simply recognized as a part of our life that was important enough to practice. Listening was its own reward.
I smile with great joy at the vision of a society that one day again gathers together in this humbling way. I can only imagine how far mankind will venture when all of its children again sit in peace on a daily basis. But now let us journey back brothers and sisters, back to the land of iPods and Starbucks.
Has anyone else noticed that we have this crippling fear of “silence” in our society today? My favorite comedian, Patton Oswalt, theorizes that we have this strange internal “countdown of doom” that starts once we realize no one is talking. A long enough period of time goes by and BOOM, someone feels awkward so they go blurting out whatever insignificant thought was occupying their tuned-out minds before the silence-demons jump out and murder us all.
I have a lot of problems with this scenario, as I hope we all do, but my biggest problem is that… I just don’t believe in “silence.” Unless you’ve been lucky enough to visit an anechoic chamber, (a room designed to kill reverb and soudwaves,) you may think you’ve encountered silence, but you never truly have. The truth is everything around us is constantly moving, changing, shifting, and thus creating sound.
So while we have this fear of “silence,” sadly I don’t think we’re ever actually encountering the event we’re so afraid of. It’s because of this that I label our fear as “crippling.” Our fear never protects us from silence; it only prevents us from ever truly listening. And yet, the saddest fact of all can also be the most liberating. There is a simple and miraculous key to these ear-cuffs and you might know it by the name: “Active Listening.”
We’ve finally broken down to the nano scale with visual microscopes, we can see things a billionth of a millimeter thick, but everyone knows you don’t need a microscope to learn something through our eyes. If we look deeply at a picture, all the details jump out. We see so many things we’ve never seen before.
It’s my belief that in the same way, if we can only focus our ears to one event at a time and truly listen deeply, we can experience so many realms of detail, both through nature as well as recorded sound.
I want to share this gift of active listening with all of you. You can think of it as a game. The rules are quite simple and I assure you, you’ll always win.
First choose a recording you love. A song that’s popular at this moment in time is perfect for this example. Listen intently to the soundwaves pulsing towards you from the beginning of the song until the end. Identify all the different sounds you can hear, i.e. Trumpet, Guitar, Weasel, Chainsaw, etc. and that’s it! Simply be aware of everything your ears can perceive.
When we taste, we don’t just taste, “sandwich.” We taste bread and peanut-butter and bacon and soy-sauce and bleu-cheese and fruit loops and so on. We need to stop hearing, “A cool song” or “A cool section of a song,” but truly start deeply exploring each ingredient of a recording.
Each character in this musical theatre has its own soul, its tone, its placement in the left, right, or center, its dynamics, etc. A recording truly is a performance. In a typical recording, so many characters are arranging themselves in a play for your enjoyment. So many ingredients are combining at specific times to deepen your experience. In the same way wine compliments cheese, guitar compliments the flute. Beautiful and sometimes even ugly canvases are assembling themselves into something far more beautiful than anyone of them could be on their own.
When we start actively listening to a recording, focusing deeply on its moving parts, only then can we truly appreciate what this machine is doing. The next time you eat a sandwich, eat slowly to identify and enjoy its ingredients. And the next time you listen to music, even music you’ve heard millions of times before, listen slowly, identify and enjoy every ingredient. You’ll be surprised at what your ears have been missing.