Making Meaning From Sound
The power of Listening
What are the sounds in my head as I read these words? Can I hear them? Where do they come from? Am I listening?
It is possible to ‘read’ an entire paragraph (or page, or book) of words and have no idea what the heck it is about. This used to happen to me all the time, and without conscious effort still does. I would read a page in a book, and get to the bottom and have no idea what happened in the story, or what the information was which I was studying. For me, learning to listen was the key. Learning to listen both externally and internally. Learning to put aside my inner dialogue for the genuine acknowledgement of another communication.
The first person to show me the power of this and what it builds between humans was my psychology teacher in the 12th grade. He was a teacher that nearly every student would talk about as being a mean and cruel man. I did not jump on the band wagon of hate for this late- middle aged high-school teacher, but I did vigorously argue with him in most of the classes until one day, about two-thirds of the way through the semester. That day, our heated debate took us out of the room and into the hallway after the class had ended. We were going at it for the whole duration of time between classes and I did not care one bit about being late to my next class. I wanted his blood. At one point, he stopped arguing and said to me, “Brent, you are not even listening to a word I am saying. You seem like you are just standing there, with a head full of thoughts waiting impatiently to yell them at me.”
I took a step back. He was so right and for whatever reason, I heard him, checked in honestly and listened. I could feel my entire body in that moment, shaking and nervous. I could hear the intensity of my inner fire. I took a few breaths, standing there stunned and in rage. I said nothing. I offered my hand to him. He shook it. No words were further uttered and I silently walked away.
In that interaction I felt for myself truth that human decency and dignity are vastly more important than being right, a lesson I still wrestle with today. For the rest of the semester, this teacher treated me with respect and admiration. In listening, a bond was created and years later this teacher had me back to present to one of his classes on the nature of ‘toxic relationships with substances and people’.
Hearing and Listening
The distinction between hearing and listening is very important in this consideration. Our ears pick up the field of sound through our sense of hearing twenty-four hours a day, whether we tune into it or not. Listening is making meaning of the sounds we hear. The meanings we make, although based largely on our internal scripts and personal positions we take as individuals, give us the possibility of understanding and connection.
In order to consciously listen, a person works to deactivate the habit of personally overlaying what they think a sound means, or labeling a sound too quickly and missing the underlying intentionality of what is being expressed.
Yoga teaches us that with conscious listening, the listener can entrain and merge with the source of sound. The deeper meaning is then conveyed to the heart, bypassing the lower/formative mind.
Opening up my faculty of hearing – and learning to listen deeply both outwardly and inwardly – has been one of the most rewarding and happiness-inducing endeavors of my life. And, it has been a very difficult struggle. I literally had no idea how much I could not hear and to what degree I had not gained the ability to listen. It has taken time and effort and I can say now, after years of practice, that the effort is more worth it than I could have ever imagined. I am continually inspired to practice and apply more knowledge of the world of sound.
The Ear and Music
I have been a musician since the age of 6. I started on piano and viola. When I first started playing piano it was entirely by sight. I would stand next to the piano as an older brother of a friend would practice. I would attempt to memorize where his fingers would go and then go home and try to replicate the movements. When I started playing viola I would stare at the strips of tape on the fingerboard to visually measure out where I needed to put my fingers to make the notes. This went on for years and my experience was that “no one told me” how important cultivating the ear is to playing music, but now I look back and wonder, “was I just not listening?”
Along the way I discovered that the ear, through hearing and listening, governs what sounds come out of a musician. Whether they are playing an instrument with their hands, or using their voice and body to make music, the ear is the chief source of musical creation. Furthermore, just because someone is not born with naturally great hearing or listening skills does not mean they cannot cultivate these abilities.
Joy and Connection
One of the most ecstasy producing experiences I have ever had was while listening to a tanpura, a four to six stringed instrument that creates a resonant drone in Indian music. This instrument is constructed in a way that allows the harmonic overtones of a fundamental tone to ring out and be more audible. The moment that I was able to hear and consciously listen to one of these harmonic overtones, a wave of organic delight swelled in me. As I listened the boundaries between inner and outer sound started to fade. I was hearing the overtone inside my head just as much, if not more than in the room, and a sense of interconnection pervaded my mind/body. My sense of hearing and ability to consciously listen was being matured in that moment. I now take time almost every day to practice conscious listening skills.
10 min per day of listening to a tanpura (or any resonating string(s) where the harmonics ring out) can greatly improve one’s hearing and listening skills.
Steps for improving listening skills:
- Sit in a quiet place with no distractions
- Play the tanpura at a volume which you can comfortably hear (check out the app itanpura)
- Pay attention to as many other distinct sounds of the room as you can, then slowly start to consciously listen to only the tanpura
- Listen for the lowest tones you can hear
- Listen for the highest tones you can hear (the harmonics)
- Relax, breathe, savor
Start your conscious listening practices at home today! Share with your loved ones by enacting your listening skills. Show your love and interest in their lives and in the thoughts they express. You will be amazed at what can be created with this faculty of humanness.
By: Brent Kuecker – Yogi. Musician. Educator.