Soundscapes: Are You Hearing Things?

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Although we have five senses with which to explore and experience the world, we can be so overloaded by the flood of visual information coming through our eyes, that we don’t appreciate the audio backdrop of sounds and noises that is ever-present. By tuning in to this other source of information about the world, we can enrich our experience of it.

This is the third in my series of posts about the five senses. So far, I’ve written about Touch and Smell. (See “Touch — And Reconnecting With Ourselves” and “Sniffing Out Our Sense of Smell”.) Today I’d like to focus on Hearing. Thinking about what I wanted to say in this post, it occurred to me how dominated our descriptive language tends to be by words and phrases related to sight or the lack of it: we describe having an opinion on something as having a ‘view’ or a ‘perspective’; when a new fact is discovered, it ‘comes to light’; forgetting something that you were supposed to do is an ‘oversight’. And so on. I’ll come back to this predominance of sight in our way of thinking in a later post. As with all our senses, I feel very strongly that we have lost touch (Touch — how fitting!) with hearing as a way of appreciating the world around us in all its complexity and richness; I believe that by consciously employing our senses to explore that world, we can really enhance our enjoyment of life.

I’d like to suggest a little exercise to try out. Are you sitting comfortably? Wherever you are — at home or at work, at college, in a cafe, or maybe out in the open somewhere — I’d like you to really listen for a few moments to what you can hear around you. Become aware of all the different sounds that you can hear; try to tune in on different sounds, become conscious of the complex tapestry of noises in the environment around you. What are the constants? The background drone of traffic, with perhaps the occasional car horn or screech of tyres; a light pattern of bird song; or if it’s night time, maybe the rhythmic staccato of crickets? What are the pleasant sounds? Happy laughter; a song you like on the radio; the soft breath of a light breeze drifting through long grass? What are the intrusive sounds? Someone banging around next door; a car alarm going off?

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How focused is your awareness of the background? Can you tune in to the regular rhythm of your breathing, as the air passes in and out of your nose and mouth? What are the noises closest to you? I can hear my dog snoring lightly in the corner of the room, and the low hum of my computer under the desk; I hear the creaks that my chair makes as I shift position, and the tap tapping of my fingers on the keyboard. The regular tick of the wall clock is a background reminder of time slowly passing. From outside the room, I can hear the far away sound of an aircraft droning across the sky, blotted out momentarily by a harshly abrasive pneumatic drill. Beneath that, an autumn gale is whistling in the eaves and every so often, I hear the rattling of a plastic bottle trapped in the corner by the front door. What are the sounds that draw you out of yourself into the wider world around you, and what are the ones that bring you back to yourself in your chair, or wherever you may be?

What do you notice about yourself, having done that little experiment? Is your breathing slower? Does your body feel more relaxed? Do you, in yourself, feel more at ease? I used to run this exercise with trainees when I was teaching radio production — in radio and television, you need to know exactly what your microphones are going to pick up in order to get ‘good sound’ — and I noticed as a byproduct of doing it, that trainees were almost invariably more relaxed and tuned in to their immediate surroundings. Now as a therapist, I find it a useful tool for helping anxious clients ‘turn down the volume’ of the self-critical, negative thoughts which can get in the way of engaging with life as it really is, rather than as the anxious client imagines it to be. It’s a way of becoming mindful of the contents of each present moment, using a sense less often consciously exercised.

Because of the rich source of information that our eyes give us every second we have them open, we tend to overlook (another word with connotations of vision!) the amount of information coming to us via our sense of hearing. But our hearing can alert us very quickly to something being awry in our familiar surroundings, even stopping us in our tracks; when the clock stops ticking or there’s a strange noise in the kitchen, or raised voices just outside in the street. Unfamiliar sounds — or the sudden cessation of those we take for granted — pull us out of ourselves and into contact with the outside world, alert for what might be going on, engaging our other senses (sight in particular) in an attempt to gather as much information as possible, to assess the level of risk or potential danger.

As early humans, we needed all of our senses to keep us out of harm’s way; in the long hours of darkness, before we came to rely on artificial lighting, we depended upon our acute sense of hearing to alert us to any potential threats approaching. If you’ve ever gone outside on a really dark night, far away from street lights or other light pollution, then you’ll know what an extraordinarily rich ‘audio tapestry’ assails you — the world suddenly becomes full of the small sounds of life which are ordinarily lost in the flood of visual information that daylight (or artificial light) gives us.

And then there’s music; one of the shortcuts to our emotional memories, seemingly bypassing the conscious act of recollection, music can trigger memories of past events more quickly than almost anything else (with the possible exception of smell, as I wrote in my post on the subject). Sound, particularly in the form of music, can become a physical sensation in a way that the other senses rarely can — as anyone who has been in the front row of a rock concert next to the bank of speakers can tell you. Sound there is experienced physically in the body as well as through the ears; it can become a ‘whole body experience’ because the lower notes have longer wavelengths that are as much felt as heard as they pass through body tissue (much as in the electromagnetic spectrum, where long wavelengths of infrared are experienced by the body as heat).

But what about the absence of sound? What about silence? Every Remembrance Sunday, I watch the ceremony of the laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph in London, and as soon as Big Ben strikes 11 o’clock and the two-minute silence begins, I feel my throat tighten and the tears well up while I watch the television pictures and listen to the ‘roar’ of silence — the tiny sounds that are usually missing from TV broadcasts, but which suddenly take on a life of their own; an occasional smothered cough from the crowd; a bird call; the clop of a police horse’s hoof on the tarmac. And then when the silence is broken by the Last Post, the emotions take over and I often find myself in floods of tears. This particular ‘silence’ has a powerful and emotive (and widely shared) meaning, of course, but I find it interesting that as a society, we choose to pay our deepest respects and honour through silence rather than through sound.

So next time you’re stuck on a long car journey, or sitting at a cafe waiting for a friend, why not try a variation on the traditional ‘I spy with my little eye…’ game and have a go at ‘I hear with my little ear…’ instead — you might discover more soundscape treasures than you ever imagined.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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