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