What is the Art of Listening?
Are you the type to listen to music while jogging? Maybe you can’t get through a train ride without an upbeat pop backdrop playing through your earbuds. Or perhaps you prefer audiobooks to physical books or podcasts to vlogs—regardless of whether all of these habits apply to you, one of the most important parts of our lives is the tapestry of sounds we hear on a daily basis. From the sounds of birds in the morning to the sound of wind blowing through tree leaves, all of these are ways for us to center ourselves in our environments and remind us of the time or setting that we are focusing ourselves in.
It is often noted that there is value in silence, but the opposite is rarely said—there is value in noise. Take John Cage’s 4’33”, which is often initially interpreted as four minutes and thirty-three seconds of complete silence. One of the alternative interpretations is this: it is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of ambient noise. What you are listening to may not be noisy, but the environment around you surely has latent audio to offer—the fidgeting of another person, the distant sound of electric humming, the quiet muffle of traffic outdoors.
What Sound Does to the Brain
When we hear a sound, sound waves are directed to our hearing nerves through our ears from the outside world, and by the time they reach our inner ears, they are categorized solely in terms of volume and pitch. As these sound waves travel to the part of our brain that processes audio, a part of our brain known as the subcortical pathway gives more specific labels to the sound that is being processed. Now, our brain can perceive the sound as having a variety of meanings, all connected and associated to the memories we have made throughout our lives as we hear it.
Like it does for many of our senses, the amygdala, or the emotion-processing center of the brain, plays a significant role in our perception of sound. As we listen to various sounds, our amygdala will attach emotion to the sounds we hear based on the experiential memories attached to those sounds. It has been demonstrated that our amygdala will heighten responses in the auditory cortex when exposed to unpleasant sounds, such as the screeching of a knife, as opposed to pleasant sounds, like that of flowing water. Similarly, when we sleep, we probably wouldn’t wake to the sound of rain, no matter how loud it gets, because our brain knows that it is not a sound that poses a risk to us. However, if we hear, say, the sound of an upset family member, no matter how quiet it is, that may wake us–because our brain knows that it is a sound that poses concern to us.
Sound in Mindfulness
One of the most common methods of meditating, nowadays, is through closing your eyes, relaxing, and listening. Of course, there is more to this than simply these three steps, but the simple activity of setting a meditational video to play and listening along as the music plays or the person speaks is already, in and of itself, a form of mindfulness. There are many apps, these days, that allow you to easily experience this form of mindfulness, whether it is in short bursts or in lengthier periods. Here are a few ways to get in touch with your emotions using sound:
Take a moment to close your eyes and lean back in your chair. Maybe set your hands in your lap or at your side. Catalog what you can hear around you–maybe you’re at home with your family, and you can hear what they are saying? Maybe you can hear the neighbors outside, or the sounds of cars driving by. Perhaps someone is playing music nearby–perhaps you yourself were already playing music before starting this activity. You might feel more grounded in the present, taking in the sounds around you that you’ve been tuning out until now.
For some, mindfulness can happen while in motion. Jogging or simply taking a walk while listening to your preferred playlist can arouse all sorts of emotion within you, depending on what you like in that particular moment. Perhaps you are taking a walk in the park while listening to calming piano instrumentals, listening to the various chirps of different birds which could be relaxing. Perhaps you are jogging down a city sidewalk while listening to upbeat pop remixes, hearing the chatter of passerby in bits and bobs, which can be energizing. In the end, whether the music relaxes you or energizes you, the focus it brings within you as you move is also a form of mindfulness.
Try a mindfulness app or a Youtube meditation video. There are several, and all work in different ways–what works for one person may not work for another. Finding what works for you, in terms of sounds–be it the sound of rain hitting glass, fire crackling in a fireplace, or the chatter of a cafe–may be the key to figuring out how best to put yourself in the relaxed state that has you ready to face the rest of the day.
Perhaps just plain mindfulness isn’t what you’re seeking–you’re aiming to get focused on one specific thing, like studying for an exam or practicing for a sport. Are you the type that can’t focus without something playing in the background? The next time you put on your usual study or workout playlist, try to pay attention to the emotions that the music brings up within you. Is a specific song more helpful than others? What about that song strengthens your focus the way it does?
When you use sound to arouse feelings within yourself, your body will remember those memories, and your brain learns to use that sound in both helpful and harmful ways. As part of your self-care, remember those associations, and on those days where you feel as though everything is running ahead of you–just stop, for a moment, and listen for those familiar sounds.