Comprehensive Listening

Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:26 pm

Sorry I haven’t posted in a few days–back to your regularly scheduled TLB….

It’s an interesting exercise to try to listen to every single sound around you–actually quite difficult, harder than you might think. It’s an exercise that is espoused and encouraged by Pauline Oliveros–the composer whose quote is the header of this blog. She was a member of a panel discussion at Cal State Fullerton’s Women In New Music Festival several years ago (2004, I think), and suggested it as a profitable experiment. Oliveros’ particular technique, which she calls “Deep Listening,” pulls in elements of New Age-ish meditation, involving a “heightened state of awareness” and connections “to all that there is.” I find these mislead and unnecessary, but her idea is a good one for musicians and particularly composers. (And, it seems, bloggers.) Perhaps a better term could be “comprehensive listening.”

As I wrote this post on a Friday afternoon at work, this is what I could hear:

– The keyboard and mouse clicks from my coworkers around me
– Conversations and one person down the hall whistling
– The quiet clicks and hums of my computer tower
– A deep, strong, oscillating hum which perhaps could be an air conditioning or air filtering unit
– The muffled sound of a plane overhead (my office is close to the airport)

It wasn’t only the hearing of sounds that I typically don’t notice (e.g. the last three things in the list) that was interesting as I tried the experiment, but a certain kind of heightened awareness where my hearing was more sensitive to the sounds that were happening around me–the kind of heightened awareness that doesn’t require or create an altered “state.” Like an eye darting around to catch sudden movements in different directions, I felt like my ears were darting around to focus on “movements” or sounds all around me. It’s an intriguing feeling–you should try it out.

As a postlude, here is the quote from the front page of Oliveros’ website. The comment about the difference between hearing and listening is particularly instructive.

“As a musician, I am interested in the sensual nature of sound, its power of synchronization, coordination, release and change. Hearing represents the primary sense organ – hearing happens involuntarily. Listening is a voluntary process that through training and experience produces culture. All cultures develop through ways of listening.

Deep Listening® [sic] is listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, or one’s own thoughts as well as musical sounds. Deep Listening represents a heightened state of awareness and connects to all that there is. As a composer I make my music through Deep Listening.”



  1. Gravatar

    paulineo on 08.19.2008

    Thanks for commenting on Deep Listening on your The Listing Blog.

    I would like to know more about why “heightened state of awareness” and connections “to all that there is” might mislead according to your blog. Also why would “comprehensive listening” be better as a title for the PRACTICE of Deep Listening?
    Further what is meant by “New Agish”? Deep Listening is not a technique it is a practice.

  2. Gravatar

    paulineo on 08.19.2008

    Sorry for mispelling The Listening Blog!

  3. Gravatar

    AJ Harbison on 08.19.2008

    Thanks for stopping by TLB! I checked out your blog–having a “virtual ensemble” in Second Life is an awesome idea.

    As far as my comments on Deep Listening: I must confess that I’ve never truly researched the concept, so I could be misrepresenting it. But from what I’ve heard and from the two paragraphs I quoted from the website, it seems that Deep Listening involves unnecessary elements of metaphysics. My own worldview doesn’t allow for connections “to all that there is” (in a metaphysical sense), nor do I think that a “heightened state of awareness” is necessary–that’s my personal opinion. The exercise of listening to every sound doesn’t need to be spiritualized. For those reasons I believe it to be misled, which is what I intended to write rather than “mislead”–my apologies for that.

    So I was looking for a term that would communicate the action of listening to every sound while not involving the metaphysical connotations; thus “comprehensive listening.”

    I hope that answers your questions, and I hope you might find the blog interesting enough to stop by now and again!

    AJ Harbison

  4. Gravatar

    paulineo on 08.20.2008

    If you would like to know more about Deep Listening I have written extensively on the subject. Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice, iUNIVERSE 2005 is a starter.

    I appreciate your criticism of my practice. Your criticism might change over time or you could start your own Comprehensive Listening without any spiritual trappings.

    In any case I am glad that you are listening.

  5. Gravatar

    Ryan Fleming on 08.20.2008

    I believe that both of these titles are suitable for this practice. Comprehensive listening leads me to the idea of trying to to take in every sound that exists at a particular moment. Deep listening reminds of having a “deep” or focussed concentration on the noise that is around me. Both of these ideas convey the same meaning to me.

  6. Gravatar

    AJ Harbison on 08.20.2008

    I agree that each label emphasizes slightly different aspects of the same activity. I have nothing against the label of “Deep Listening,” and would gladly have adopted it myself, were it not for the metaphysical connotations I talked about. As the quote in the post indicated, “Deep Listening” is actually trademarked, apparently. Not for fear of trademark infringement so much as respecting Ms. Oliveros’ label for her own practice, I feel that my activity without “spiritual trappings” needs its own title.

    AJ Harbison

  7. Gravatar

    ryan fleming on 08.20.2008

    I see! I will have to further read into the meaning of “Deep Listening”. I am not sure what is meant by these spiritual trappings. It is an interesting thought that some people would use the listening of music and sound as a means to some sort of spirtuality. I suppose that sound is one of the main senses and should be used in this sense. Some might use music to connect with “all that there is” and others would use music as a means of worship.

  8. Gravatar

    michelle on 08.23.2008

    interesting thread of comments. speaking for myself, having been officially a deep listening “practitioner” for about 8 years, i’d say you take/make what you wish of this practice…listening is what’s really at the heart of it. whatever gets you there is less important than actually just being there.

  9. Gravatar

    AJ Harbison on 08.23.2008

    Thanks for joining in the discussion! I appreciate your comment. Comprehensive listening, I suppose, is what I am taking for myself from the specific practice of Deep Listening. And as you say–and as Ms. Oliveros stated earlier–the important thing is the listening itself!


  10. Gravatar

    Shannon on 08.24.2008

    I think it’s interesting that the phrases “heightened state of awareness” and connections “to all that there is” are construed as new-ageish or spiritual. I’m wondering if it is because our culture considers overt action to be the predominant method of connecting (talking, for example).
    It seems pretty obvious that an active listening practice will lead to a heightened state of awareness, regardless of the spiritual belief system of the listener, and probably greater connectivity as well, based on the heightened awareness that is bound to develop.
    Great discussion – let’s keep it going!
    Shannon Morrow (Deep Listener)
    Durham, NC

  11. Gravatar

    AJ Harbison on 08.27.2008

    Hi Shannon,
    Thanks for contributing to our discussion! You make some good points. I suppose my construing of those phrases that way is more an issue of semantics than substance. There are many New Age-ish and spiritual writers/speakers/concepts that have used those phrases with the metaphysical connotations I noted; and I think there are more uses of those phrases in that context than in any other (except perhaps drugs, regarding the former). And so my own listening conditioned me to hear (read) those phrases with those connotations. But it seems that not everyone has the same perspective, and certainly no one grows up with identical listening environments. If nothing else I suppose this discussion will cause me to be more thoughtful when discussing these topics and phrases in the future!

    AJ Harbison

  12. Gravatar

    sachu on 12.06.2011

    i wish to know about the listening around me

Leave a Comment