Tuesday, March 11, 2008


My violin teacher was talking recently about how important it is to listen to a lot of different kinds of music—really listen, not just let the sound wash over you, or use it as a tool to zone out. There’s a world of difference between passively experiencing music and engaging your brain to understand it. I don’t mean simply analyzing the components of the sound, but going beyond that to be aware of every aspect of the music’s effect.

I’ve had all that in my mind during my walks the past few days, and it’s made me conscious of the multitude of sounds I encounter. There are the birdsongs and squirrel chatter, of course, and the creaking of the trees as they sway in the wind. This time of year there are a lot of fallen leaf sounds: the tinkling they make when the wind blows them, the quick scuffle of squirrels and chipmunks through them, the more delicate scutter of groundfeeding birds, and the percussive sweeping noise from the deer as they trot among the trees.

Water is another big noisemaker. The creeks and streams are all flowing fast right now, and I’ve been making a point of walking along them, listening to the particular song of each one, and the way it changes as I move from point to point. Rushing water fascinated me when I was a kid, and I realize now it was the sound that really drew me in—it’s the original generative music. Water makes other, more subtle sounds, too. I went walking after our big snow this weekend, and the woods were full of sound of the trickling melt, accompanied by the drips from the trees. Where the snow remained, my footfall made a squeaky crunch. A lot of the trails were covered with thin ice over mud, so I hiked along to the sound of CRACK-squish, CRACK-squish.

Intense listening is getting to be a habit outside my hiking life, which is distracting, but also has the welcome effect of recasting a lot of nuisance noise as interesting sound. Ironically, the noises that grate on human nerves--the roar of traffic, loud radios, cell phone chatter, the endless beeps, dings and warning bells of modern life—are robbed of a lot of their power to irritate if you actually listen to them. I’ve heard other people make that observation, but I never really understood what they meant until I started doing it myself. It’s as if the auditory signal is intercepted by a non-judgmental listener in my brain, so it never gets to my inner noise-phobe.

I suppose it’s possible to carry this kind of listening too far. If I become oblivious to the meaning of police sirens and smoke alarms we could have a problem, but short of that, finding a way to deal with life’s constant noise seems like a gift. Hell, it’s even making supermarket muzak tolerable. Sort of.

Harmonie, Irma von Duczynska, 1914. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

An explanation of signal-to-noise ratio


Mary said...

Really cool post, M. I love the sound of wind in the trees, or even just the gentle flutter of leaves. I think that's my most favorte natural sound. I like the sound of water, too. Unfortunately, suburbia has become an auditory wasteland of mowers, blowers, and trimmers. Really irritating.
Musically, I've been listening to classical on my way to work every morning...really listening.

Bozo said...

In Frank Herbert's old sci-fi novel "Dune," workers were enslaved (as I remember it) by a drug which played music in their heads all the time. Every time I see an I-pod at the gym I think of that and how noise corrupts and controls thought. But I'm still all for listening since that's the only way to ward off its insidious effects. Great post, BTW.

leopoldo said...

I too love noise. Sometimes I just listen to the birds, the nearby brook, the wind in the trees on my allotment, instead of doing the weeding and the seeding. It's blissful there, truly. you'd love it. And like you sound fills me. We're greedy buggers for sensation, ain't we?

BitterGrace said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Mary. I understand what you mean about the leaves. There's something almost spiritual in that sound, it's so delicate.

I get a little creeped out by the iPods, too, Bozo. I think people believe they're shutting out the world with them, but of course they're actually just turning their brains over to a selected piece of the world. I love music as much as anyone, but it's easy to use it to hide from yourself, which is a bad habit of mind.

We are greedy for sensation, Leo--does anybody know that better than a scent junkie? (I'm wearing at least 4 right now.) Your allotment does sound blissful. I'd love to see it. Post some pics at the Posse when spring has fully sprung, okay?