The Difference Between Hearing And Listening

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:03 am

At several points during work this afternoon, I was thinking about my post and subsequent comments discussion about comprehensive listening, and I tried to put it into practice–as Pauline Oliveros puts it, “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear.” It was difficult for me to do this while doing something else–getting a drink from the water cooler in the kitchen, for example–because when I’m listening intently, I have a tendency to focus my eyes intensely (on nothing in particular) to minimize visual distractions. (For some reason I focus intensely on nothing rather than close my eyes; I’m not sure why that is.) So it was difficult to listen intently when I had to keep my eyes moving normally, as I tried to listen while I went about a normal task. But hard as it was, I did succeed briefly, and I was surprised by the difference. To quote Oliveros again, “hearing happens involuntarily,” while “listening is a voluntary process.” We get so used to hearing the sounds around us that we hardly ever listen in a comprehensive-listening sort of way, and when I tried the latter I could definitely tell the difference.

It’s hard to describe, but it felt as if I was listening to the sounds around me with my eyes closed, even though I was moving and had my eyes open. Listening with one’s eyes closed is slightly unsettling, because we’re so used to relying on our eyes, and it makes us focus more on the sounds we hear, because hearing becomes our primary sense when sight is removed. As I tried to listen comprehensively this afternoon, I heard the same sounds that I normally would hear but I heard them differently; somehow I was more detached and yet more focused.

It happened again on my drive home from work at a point or two; I stopped hearing and focused on comprehensive listening, and I experienced the same phenomenon of “hearing” differently. It was a remarkable sensation. I imagine Pauline would tell me I’m making progress.


My Plans For The Weekend

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:33 am

My lovely girlfriend is out of town for the weekend, and I remain in town, so the weekend that I would normally spend with her is now up for grabs. Since I’ve hardly done any composing since I moved to Irvine at the beginning of June, I think I may lock myself in my room and work on “Flutey and the Beast” for Jeff (title still a work in progress). And I also plan to blog. Upcoming topics include three CD reviews: Coldplay’s new CD Viva La Vida (a review highly anticipated by my brother), a CD by an independent Fullerton artist and a CD by one of my coworkers. So you can look forward to those and more over the weekend and next week. In the meantime, you can enjoy this post written a short while ago.

This is pretty cool. I discovered this on StumbleUpon: it’s electronic music using only sounds from Windows XP and 98. Pretty well done and fun to listen to. My favorite part is the login sound tuned down… and back into the rhythm. The middle of the song starts to remind me of Megaman music, which, for me, is an awesome plus rather than a diss. If you watch the whole video, it demonstrates which sounds are used and how he split some of them into multiple parts to create the sounds in the song. Interesting.


… I would be remiss if I failed to mention that TLB was honored to receive a visit by Pauline Oliveros herself–the inventor of Deep Listening and the “quotee” of this blog’s header quote. She asked me to clarify some comments I’d made, and we had a brief exchange in the comments section of my last post. I encourage you to check it out, and if Ms. Oliveros happens to stop by this post as well, thanks again!

N.B. Unfortunately the date in the email below will reveal that my previous post and this one were written quite a while ago. I hope you find them intriguing nonetheless.

No sooner had I written my post about comprehensive listening than I saw this email, forwarded to me from the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the American Composers Forum (of which I am a member)….

“…the coolest ride of the year…sure to permanently change the way you think about – and listen to – SF” – Nitevibe

“AudioBus create[s] unique participatory sound experiences” – Reyhan Hermanci, SF Chronicle 96 Hours

“…what better place to have a city music festival than on a bus…commuting takes on new meaning…” – Jennifer Maerz, Last Tango in Traffic, SF Weekly

MOVESOUND, SoundwaveSeries’ third season, launches the first of five AudioBus events this Saturday July 12 at New Langton Arts. The AudioBus is a moving venue giving audiences an adventurous sonic experience like never before. The sound artists and musicians curated for the AudioBus compose their San Francisco route and perform live scores to the scenery moving past them.

We are also excited to announce Sennheiser has come on board to become a major sponsor of AudioBus suppling quality microphones and headphones for the series. Sennheiser joins CitySightseeing San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the American Composers Forum as crucial support in making AudioBus a reality.

Saturday, July 12, 2008
AUDIOBUS: HUMAN STREET TEXTURES: Live Processed Sound on a Moving Open-Top Double Decker Bus by David Graves (San Francisco) and [ruidobello] (San Francisco)

Composer David Graves & sound artist [ruidobello] devise a tour route collecting live moving street sounds. David & [ruidobello] will mix, and manipulate the soundscapes into an alternate sonic reality for audiences equipped with headphones atop a CitySightseeing open top double-decker bus moving through the city.

Sounds pretty cool to me! Almost makes me wish I lived in San Francisco…. (But not quite.)


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.”


Several weeks ago my lovely girlfriend and I went to a concert in Long Beach. I had received notification of the concert through the LA chapter of the American Composers Forum (of which I’m a member); but when we arrived at the location it almost felt like an underground gathering. It was held at an art gallery that had a stage ringed with red curtains in the back. Plastic folding chairs were set up for the audience, and all manner of interesting folk were there.

The first piece was what (I think) is usually designated “sound art,” where four people made a bunch of noises with different instruments or electronic devices; the noises were picked up by microphones, which ran into sound boards that looped the noises so they would play several times before dying away. Occasionally the noisemakers would adjust various attributes of the sounds as they played, such as the panning (left to right), the delay (echo), etc. It was mildly interesting, but more tiring than interesting, and it seemed to me more like four guys playing around with technology and seeing what they could make their stuff do than artful music, or even artful sound.

The second piece, or rather set of pieces, was the best of the evening: a set of Lou Harrison guitar pieces, played by a musician named John Schneider. But we shall return there in the next post.

The third and final piece (the concert was too informal and not really long enough for an intermission) was some ever-popular Cambodian classical music. It was performed on two marimba-like instruments (except the wooden bars were suspended rather than fixed), two instruments that formed rings around the players and were some other type of pitched percussion, a drummer, a bored-looking woman playing small finger cymbals, and the apparent leader, a flutist playing some sort of straight Cambodian flute (as opposed to the western flute which is played to the side). It was interesting music; the theme of the concert was microtonality–music that uses intervals smaller than a half step, or more informally, music that uses notes that would fit in the cracks between black and white notes on the piano. The Cambodian music was interesting because it was based on a type of pentatonic scale, but somehow a microtonal one. The traditional pentatonic scale is formed of five notes (penta-, five, and tonic, tone) that correspond to the black notes on a piano:

The scale that the Cambodian musicians used was similar to this one, but some of the tones were slightly different than those–a little “off.” That made the music a bit more interesting than typical pentatonic music, which tends to get old fast because there’s very little dissonance and thus few opportunities for tension. But it still grew tiring after a while, because there wasn’t too much variation in the texture and even with the microtonality in the pentatonic scale it still lacked harmonic variety. But, all the same, I was grateful for the opportunity to experience Cambodian classical music, since that opportunity doesn’t come along every day.

Tune in in a few days for part II–”The Well-Tuned Guitar!”


John Cage Performing One Of His Compositions

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:13 am

Although he doesn’t post much anymore, in the past I’ve enjoyed reading Greg Wilbur’s blog. Wilbur is the director of music for a PCA church in Tennessee, and his blog most often deals with topics regarding music, worship and the church. He recently posted this video of John Cage performing one of his compositions on an old TV show. John Cage was a controversial American composer of the 20th century (he died in 1992) who experimented conceptually with the line between music, noise and silence. His most famous piece is probably 4’33″, which consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence–or, as Cage understood it, of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear for the duration of the piece. He was also famous for the invention of the “prepared piano,” in which objects such as screws, coins and paper were placed in the strings of the piano, altering its sound. The video is nine and a half minutes long, but intriguing, to say the least.

Wilbur’s comment on the video: “This is long, but the absurdity of what is meant as ‘music’ is worth watching.”

I commented on his post and said this: “At least people back then had the good sense to laugh at him. It’s all too easy to imagine a concert hall of musicians and composers from academia sitting and listening quietly today. I take it as a sign of my musical sanity that I laughed as well.”

His response: “I agree. Even the host’s need to express that this was ‘serious’ music but that people would laugh is a far better indicator of musical judgment than ivory tower academicians. It’s an interesting thing to see how someone’s artistic philosophy actually serves to destroy that which they say they value. In this case, broad theories of sound as music replaces that which makes music music.”

It certainly brings up some intriguing questions. What makes music music? What is the line between music and noise? Does that line remain constant through different times and different cultures?

What do you think? Leave a comment and join the discussion!


Walking Music

Posted by AJ Harbison at 6:15 am

Two weeks ago I was sitting at my desk at work, minding my own billings, when I noticed the sound of one of my female coworkers walking through the office. She was wearing the kind of shoes that have heels but are flip-flops at the same time–they look like this (image courtesy of timeout.com). So they look dressy while still making the “flip-flop” sound when you walk. I’m not sure what the combination of sounds was, exactly, but it was in this rhythm:

which sounds like this:

Powered by Podbean.com

Although I must confess I don’t know how that rhythm was created just by her walking, it sounded cool. And it would work well as a drumbeat rhythm, which (spread among different drums, with added cymbals and a cheesy ending) might sound something like this:

Powered by Podbean.com

All from a pair of flip-flop heels.


Light vs. Sound: Light Wins

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:19 am

Since most of our ears are still ringing from the fireworks yesterday, here’s a post I wrote on the subject a few weeks ago and haven’t posted yet.

I recently attended a party in Anaheim, at a house just a few miles from Disneyland, and as my girlfriend and I were leaving the party, we saw the fireworks from the nightly show lighting up the sky to the east. We had a pretty good view, so we stood outside for a while and watched. There was a rather long delay between what we saw and what we heard–between the exploding of the fireworks and when we heard the boom. The delay was a little over three seconds, by my count. But it was interesting to note that the ear didn’t want to accept a different timeline for hearing than the eye was getting for seeing: when we heard a boom, we really wanted to associate it with the fireworks that were going off when we heard it, even though we knew it wasn’t. We have a strong desire for our various sensory inputs to line up, even when our brain tells us otherwise. It’s a strange phenomenon that light travels so much faster than sound, and it’s also strange that our brains don’t like to recognize that fact.


My Shaver Sings Again

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:28 am

As I wrote about in my previous post regarding my electric shaver and the vent fan, when my electric shaver is on it sounds a definite pitch (I’ve never bothered to check what note it is, unlike some other instances). The interesting thing is, the pitch it sounds creates a harmonic above it, and the harmonic is the interval of a tenth–an octave displacement of a major third:

And you can listen to it in the player below:

Powered by Podbean.com

A much nicer sound than the minor ninth, to be sure. But I wonder why the shaver creates a harmonic.


Listening to the "Whistles of Death"

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:49 am

I just saw a fascinating article on CNN.com; it’s a story about a mechanical engineer who is experimenting with and replicating ancient Aztec whistles, flutes and noisemakers. The story makes an interesting read on its own, but when you’re done reading it, click on the “Slideshow” tab at the top of the article. There’s a short slideshow of images, but it’s accompanied by demonstrations of the instruments, and good demonstrations too–ones that are varied enough to showcase their versatility and complexity. Pretty amazing. Check it out:

Recreating the sound of Aztec ‘Whistles of Death’


« Previous PageNext Page »