What is Listening, prt. II

by jdavidcharles

When did I first listen? This question can have no definitive answer and is as unfruitful a question as “what and when was the first word spoken?” From the moment I had ears to hear within the womb my body heard and vibrated to the natural rhythm of my mother’s pulse. It was from the womb I first experienced aural space, reverberation, the echo, and “entered” into listening. The ethnomusicologist John Blacking notes that just as the child never had to learn the formal structure of language before he began speaking, so too the child responds to aural organization “before he has been taught to recognize” the sounds as such. From our very first memories we are creatures that listen.

Listening is a finding-an-order to sounds, a making sense of the natural depth of the world around us. Because we have listened from such a young age and have learned what to listen for, we often take for granted how complex this finding-an-order is. Dr. Oliver Sacks in his recent book Musicophilia expounds upon the phenomenon of musical hallucinations, when music sounds to an individual seemingly out of nowhere. These hallucinations are usually brought on by a hearing loss and can last for many years—the patient constantly hearing the playing of music, often spontaneous and “composed,” for his or her entire conscious existence. Such hallucinations can also temporarily be induced by stroke, ischemic attacks, or cerebral aneurysms.

Although Dr. Sacks says little in the way of interpreting this phenomenon or what it “means” to how we as human beings listen, one patient does comment that when mowing the lawn, “a motif starts up in my head which I recognize as only happening when the mower is on.” Many of the patients experience similar occurrences, like a high ringing before slowly changing into a recurring theme. The hallucinatory music then is a finding-an-order but to a cognitively dissonant extreme. Whereas most of us notice musicality in sounds, the rhythm and loud voice of the lawn mower for instance, the patient literally transcribes or arranges these sounds into music. Just as visual hallucinations are a way of “making sense” of disconcerting visual phenomena, so too musical hallucinations are an ordering of sound that reveal how listening is an ordering of sound.

Sounds not only arouse the cerebellum, basal ganglia, or any other one portion of the brain, but like language, vast portions of it. These sounds in turn lead to rhythmic motor function, whether that be playing or singing along with the music, tapping, or even sitting still—for listening attunes us to what we are listening to, we vibrate to it, reverberate it back. These aural rhythms felt throughout our body are in turn taken up by the mind. We take up musical structures both on the psychological level of anticipation/fulfillment or appropriation/denial, as well as on the neurological level. Our motor rhythms influence the rhythm that our neurons fire in, taking the rhythms up as a temporal template. Listening as finding-an-order literally influences how our brains “move” in time. As in Plato’s Republic the “rhythm and harmony [of music] permeate the inner part of the soul,” ordering our thoughts and the sounds of the world around us.