What is Listening? prt. 1

by jdavidcharles

All of us listen. Even the deaf feel the rumble of the passing train or the low humming bass of the rock concert and are alarmed or drawn by these noises. Who has not shushed another for talking during a concert or movie? We take such offense because something about certain sounds calls us to listen to them. My roommate who begins chatting during Casablanca offends me because he is interrupting something I feel called to listen to and, by my showing him the movie, I want to share with him. We all have favorite songs or sounds or passages of music we “take up with us” throughout our day, certain listenings that become part of who we are. What is it about the human mind that transfixes itself insatiably on melodies, rhythms, and timbres? And how does this affect our bodies and those around us? What is listening?

The ears do not have eyelids. This simple observation has lead some, like Peter Szendy, to make a distinction between listening and “hearing or perception.” Hearing is the aural background of noise you cannot stop taking in, the buzz of the fly or gentle hum of the air-conditioning unit. Although one can listen to these, they seem to rarely “call” to be listened to—unless the fly interrupts our train of thought or the air-conditioner suddenly turns off. We tend to listen to what is marked by an existential order—the event organized into meaning. We listen to conversation, the music bearing the trace of another, or the sounds of the tide that seem marked by a natural order. Listening then we will define as a certain focus of hearing that is usually, but not always, intentional and active. And how to define music? In the hopes to include all sorts of music and sound-art we will define music as composer Edgar Varese did, as “organized sound.” At times however reference will be made to traditional or tonal music, which is music consisting of melodic structure, rhythmic pulse, and pitch.

Music does not exhaust listening, but it exemplifies it and helps us to see the phenomenon better. In the same way hearing and listening impairments through their negation help us to clearer see the importance and depth of listening. Many of these are neurological, like musically induced seizures, which help show that listening is not necessarily seated in the motor functions of the ear, but often in the mind. Some of these conditions will be sketched out later to show how listening for organization is an essential dimension of existence like language, critical for developing proper brain function and intersubjective relations. Also the importance listening has on the body will be expounded on. For listening gives us a spatial opening on the world, what phenomenologist Don Ihde calls a “field-space,” which not only gives us a sense of presence and interior depth but also is an integral part of motor-balance and equilibrium. Music, specifically through rhythmic pulse, also similarly “places” our bodies in and with a sense of time, allowing for synchronization between music, our bodies, and other people. Which leads finally to the importance of common sound-experience, how music and sound elicit similar reactions in the brains of diverse people, allowing them to “share” listening with each other. Thus we will come to see how sounds in the world, the self, and others can cohabitate the same aural space through the act of listening.

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