Guest Contribution by Karen Collins
Listening is the most important skill a sound designer has, and yet, it’s probably the one that’s the most ephemeral and difficult to nail down. What is listening? Are we born with this skill, or is it something that we can learn? Listening is the process that takes the information that we hear and makes meaning from that sound. To listen requires a conscious effort, and it’s this effort that you can learn how to train. Some blind people have learned to listen so well that they can echo-locate: we have a remarkable to hear all kinds of things in our environment that most of us just miss out on.
You’re reading this article, so you’re someone who is probably already listening to sound more than your friends. Maybe you’ve gone to a movie and stepped out with your friend afterwards and said “wow, what great sound in that film” and your friend gives you a blank stare and says they didn’t notice. But we can always improve our ability to listen, to focus our attention on sound. I’d like to take you through some exercises I do with my students when I teach sound design so you can build your listening skills.
- The first step to involves simplifying your sonic environment. Those little cilia in your ears that fire whenever you hear a sound and send a signal to your brain can get tired. We call that tiredness “listening fatigue”, and it comes with other symptoms such as general tiredness and loss of sensitivity to sound. If you’re the kind of person that goes from listening to music in your car to music on your iPod at the gym to music in the background at work to television back at home, you are stressing your ears out. Give your ears a break, turn off the toys, and give them some quiet for a few hours a day at least.
- Write a sound journal. Take ten minutes out of every single day, pick a spot somewhere and write down all the different sounds you hear. You can start just by describing the sounds (“bird chirp”, etc.), but then after a few days, try to re-focus that listening by describing them in terms of their acoustic properties (“short, sharp staccato burst at about 60dB and 2 kHz”). Then try to re-focus again and think about the sounds in terms of what they may mean to a listener, if taken out of context (“morning, daybreak, warmth, sunshine, spring”). Practice this skill each day and in a few weeks you’ll be hearing the world in a whole new way.
- Send yourself a little reminder to stop and listen. We can get distracted pretty easily and forget to live in the moment and pay attention to what is around us. You can get a free timer for your phone or watch, and set it to go off maybe once an hour. When it does (I prefer vibrate to a beep!), take 60 seconds out to sit and listen. Listen to how basic sounds change depending on the environment—your footsteps change based on the temperature outside, what you’re walking on, what mood you’re in, what the weather is, what other sounds are around you, where you are, and so on. Pick a sound and learn how it changes.
- Switch streams. You may listen to a particular part in your favourite music—the drums, the guitar, the voice, and you can learn to separate the streams of sound in your environment too. In a busy sound environment, focus on one particular stream of sound for a few seconds, then switch to a new stream, and try to break down all the streams around you. Listen to the cars going by, then listen to the birds, then the bugs, then the wind in the trees, then the people walking, and so on.
- Watch a movie without watching. A great way to learn to listen to other people’s sound design is to watch a movie without the visuals (after you’ve already watched the movie, so you’re not tempted to cheat). You can turn off your computer monitor’s screen, throw a blanket over your TV, or just sit facing the other direction. Listen to what the sound designer did to create the scenes. Focus on what the sounds evoke in your mind. Listen to a poorly-made film and then listen to a great film, and pay attention to the differences. You’ll get a discerning ear pretty quickly.
One final point to make is that once you learn to listen, it can be hard to turn it off. This is a disadvantage to becoming a listener. I hear the incessant beeping of the backing up of trucks at a construction site about a kilometre away. I can’t stop listening to it. I hear the neighbour’s dog, the chatter outside my window on the sidewalk, and all the other sounds around me, all day long. I focus on the bad sound in the film, instead of enjoying a movie. The more I learn to listen, the more I love quiet, and so it’s important to remember that once you’ve “switched on” this part of your brain, you need to give it regular breaks, because as far as I can tell it doesn’t switch back off!
Julian Treasure Ted Talk: 5 ways to listen better: http://www.ted.com/talks/julian_treasure_5_ways_to_listen_better
R. Murray Schafer “Ear Cleaning: Notes for an Experimental Music Course” A short book that focuses on learning to listen.
Special thanks to Karen Collins for contributing this article. Karen can be found online here. She is also currently running Beep: A Documentary History of Video Game Music & Sound Kickstarter which I recommend.