Listen, my friend!
We’ll define an acoustician simply as “someone who has a feeling for sound.” (The word comes from the Greek akoustikos, from akouein, “hear.”) Every human being is an acoustician of some sort, including totally deaf people—who perceive sound as vibrations that pass through their bodies. You can be an informal amateur acoustician, or a more dedicated and organized one.
To put it differently, you can really gain something from deepening your listening skills.
Your path toward acoustic awareness starts with exploring two modes of listening. We’ll call them acquisitive and receptive. These modes apply to all domains of awareness, including the visual, kinesthetic, spatial, and olfactory, to list just a few.
You’re acquisitive when you have a goal, the desire to capture information precisely, the need to pay attention to something or someone, or the obligation to reuse, later on, the information you’re capturing. You’re acquisitive when you use analytical capabilities, labels, comparisons, and judgments. You’re acquisitive when you want to be better than someone else at the game. It’s a wonderful ability to have at your disposal: when you’re skillfully acquisitive, you get a lot of things done. It represents the adult in you, responsible and focused.
You’re receptive when you put aside goals, desires, needs, obligations, comparisons, and judgments. Having no objectives, you might not get anything done, although you’re likely to have all sorts of rich sensorial experiences. It’s another wonderful ability to have at your disposal. It represents the child in you, innocent, curious, and open to everything.
When you’re acquisitive, your mind works as a kind of vacuum cleaner, sucking things in and holding them in place. Of some people it’s said that their minds are like steel traps, and this is a big compliment. Such people have the ability to see things clearly and quickly, and to remember things reliably. It’s good to know how to gather information and retain it, but the overly acquisitive fellow becomes a hoarder who can’t keep track of all the hairballs in his collection.
When you’re receptive, your mind becomes an empty space, where things come and go. You become free of hairballs, but at the price of holding and owning nothing. It’s possible to be very receptive and very generous at the same time. Then you let go of everything that you receive. This might become a form of inattention and forgetfulness. What happens when you need to retrieve important information from your memory? It’s gone. You gave it away, or you let it pass without taking notice of it.
When you’re acquisitive, you go toward things, information, people, situations, and sensation. When you’re receptive, information and sensation comes toward you. Acquisition is more active, reception more passive. There are pluses and minuses to both approaches. Balancing them, alternating between them, and putting them into dynamic opposition is far better than using either of them exclusively.
Two long-lost cousins come for a visit. They’re descendants from an aunt you’ve never met, and they still live in the old country far away. They’re full of familial love for you, and they express it with generosity and urgency. The only problem is that they don’t speak a word of English. Their native tongue is literally foreign.
If you’re acquisitive, you’ll desperately try to listen, wanting to understand and feeling that you should understand. Instead of listening, though, you’ll spend your energies primarily on wanting something you can’t have, having disagreeable emotions, and passing judgment on yourself and on your cousins.
If you’re receptive, you’ll capture sounds, vibrations, moods, and all sorts of information other than the technical sense of the words being spoken. You might still not understand anything intellectually, but you’ll have an experience of the thing itself (the cousins expressing your love for you in a foreign language) rather than an experience of your filters and blockages. Receptive listening, in our imaginary situation, improves the emotional experience by allowing you to let go of intellectual demands that are impossible to fulfill. It can be good, then, for you to listen to foreign things without trying to understand them: movies without subtitles, TV shows from incomprehensible cultures, sermons preached in a language you can’t identify. YouTube has millions and millions of clips for you to enjoy in this manner. And after you get good at the game, listen to people you used to judge harshly and let them be interesting foreigners to your ears.
Sound has a spatial component. In a café, sounds come at you from all directions; it’s as if you’re listening to a very informal composition in spatial music. Receptive listening accepts the space, so to speak; it isn’t bothered or confused by sounds coming from multiple sources and traveling unpredictably in space. Acquisitive listening is more linear, since it tends to concentrate on one strand, one location, one set of sounds that become somehow separated from the environment.
In the busy café of our example you can direct your listening toward a group of people or toward a single person within a group. This means you can bend, shape, and reshape the field of listening, contracting and expanding it at will. You might decide to block out most sounds so that you can concentrate on writing an email. This is a contraction of your listening. Or you might relax and let all sounds come at you willy-nilly. Then you’ll be expanding your field of listening. Spatial listening, with its expanding and contracting capabilities, allows you to sit in the back of the second violin section in an orchestra and actually hear the double basses, the first oboe, the harp, and whatever else you want to hear, be it for your pleasure or for the purpose of placing your sounds.
While attending a concert, practice the skill of expanding and contracting your listening field. Decide that you’ll tune the music out. Sit there looking like a normal concertgoer, but contract your listening field until the orchestra on stage virtually disappears. Then start expanding. Decide you’ll concentrate on the clarinetist, regardless of what else is happening sonically. After you listen linearly to the clarinetist, decide to scan the hall. Use your eyes if you wish, or close your eyes and use your ears only. Scan the orchestra from left to right, from right to left; go from the back of the stage to the back of the hall behind you; take in the public and their sounds, the coughing, the chairs squeaking, the occasional cell phone ringing. Go inside yourself and listen to the sounds you’re making, your breathing, the crackling vertebrae when you turn your head sideways. Then go back out of your head and return to the concert.
It’ll be quite a trip.
©2016, Pedro de Alcantara