The future of listening

September 18, 2020

Alex Doman is co-author of the book Healing at the Speed of Sound. And as you might imagine, we’re very attuned when it comes to the power of listening. “Ultimately, listening is an expression of conscious intention, caring, and compassion for one another. If we take the time to truly connect and to listen, we learn far more than through any words that we speak”, he says.

You can listen to the audio interview or read the transcription below.

Julian Treasure: I’m here in sunny Las Vegas, where I’ve just given a talk at Phonak’s annual conference. And I’m delighted that while I was here the opportunity presented itself for my friend and colleague Alex Doman to fly over from Salk Lake City, Utah. It’s a fair distance but it’s a lot closer than London.

Since we’re here together, the thing that always unites us is our shared passion for listening. I’ve got a TED talk about listening. You’ve got a listening programme, which teaches people in a therapeutic sense. Many people are challenged in one way or another to listen and improve their wellbeing.

How do you see the future of listening? Is it getting worse, or is it getting better?

Alex Doman: I think with the proliferation of video-based technology our listening has gotten worse. We’ve become a very visually-oriented society. If you look at the space that we’re in in this casino right now, it’s all about visuals. And we’ve just been talking about the poor audio soundscape that we’re being exposed to – those people creating the soundscape here obviously aren’t listening.

JT: In case you can’t hear, we’re sitting above an escalator, so there’s a lot of low frequency rumble coming from that behind us. And then up in the ceilings there is ubiquitous, eternal, mindless music. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason in the selection. It’s so high up and the reverb is so long that it’s irritating. It’s at a level where you can’t ignore it but you can’t quite hear it either.

AD: It’s this cacophony of noise that’s ever present and grating.

JT: So, my proposition is that this kind of noise around us causes us just to unconsciously start suppressing sound and we switch off our listening. What’s the way back for this? How can we get people to listen?

AD: I think when we’re exposed to so much noise, it’s a form of self-preservation. We’re protecting ourselves by shutting off our listening. And the way we have to open it up is to help people find comfort in their sound environment… to learn how to turn on their own filters which should be there subconsciously.

We should be able to turn off sound that we find to be a threat or a perceived threat and then switch it back on. But I think because we have such a constant flood of noise in our life that we’re switching those systems off almost to a permanent status. So we have to train people that the sound in their environment is something that could be welcoming, and that they can turn it on and off at will as they need to. But they have to find comfort in their space in order to do that first.

JT: In my work on personal growth, I talk about soundscaping as a verb – to soundscape. As in, taking responsibility for the sound that we make and the sound that we surround ourselves with. As opposed to being victims. It’s good to complain in a positive way to an establishment when you can hear that they’re making sound that’s counterproductive.

So I’ve done that. And I write letters to people or I call them up and explain, “This sound is hurting you. You’re shooting self in the foot all the time.” But grumbling, complaining when it’s not to the person who’s making the sound, that’s useless. I think what’s much more important is that we take responsibility and that means not becoming sodcasters, not broadcasting careless and inconsiderate sound and imposing on other people, which there’s a lot of unfortunately. And it also means if I’m in a space where I don’t feel comfortable, it’s my responsibility to move myself out of that space.

So soundscaping is a step in the right direction. Do you think there’s other things that we can do? You’re into training people in listening.

AD: Well, we’ve made this choice to sit here for two hours and have this conversation in this noisy space. We could have gone outside into a quieter space. It might have been a little bit chilly, but that would have been a conscious choice that would have served us. We have to be conscious sound consumers and sound creators all at once. We’re not victims. We have the ability to express ourselves and choose our own actions and our own course.

Awareness is first. I think a lot of people aren’t aware that they do have that choice. And I don’t think because we don’t see sound we don’t think about sound because it’s not visual. I think if you could see the wall of noise in front of you equivalent to air pollution you couldn’t see past your hand so you wouldn’t tolerate the world that we live in.

JT: Or if it was a smell we wouldn’t sit here in this …

AD: No, we’d be overwhelmed. But we’ve become habituated to the noise. So it’s something that we think we have to accept even when we become conscious of it. But it’s true that we don’t.

We focus on training people’s listening. How do you train listening? First of all, you bring it to their attention: listening matters. Listening affects your learning, your attention, your interpersonal relationships, your ability to regulate stress, your ability to sleep. Our ears are always on 24/7 365.

We both use the phrase “We have no earlids.” So what is it that we’re consuming and what’s our experience of that consumption? And we can go to a buffet and choose the healthiest foods at the buffet or the trans-fat at the buffet, and how are we going to feel as a result? We can have more organic sound, spend more time in nature, choose the right music, create soundscapes in our life that block out the noise, create soundtracks that help us get through our day.

JT: Absolutely. I feel so in harmony with this. I think ultimately this is a conversation about consciousness and awareness. I’ve had that conversation many times. When I talk about conscious listening, I suggest sitting in silence, five minutes of silence a day, or trying to distinguish different strands of sound around, exactly where they’re coming from. Enjoy paying attention to sound and try hard to unlock the hidden choir of the sound around us.

These are all exercises in consciousness – in being present. And I think it’s part of our society that in some way a lot of people are trying not to be present because there’s a lot of stuff around us that’s not particularly pleasant to be in. I very much hope that by the efforts that we’re undertaking to teach people how to listen consciously and how to make sound consciously, there’s a growing awareness of sound. Then we have a chance actually to improve it and to start pushing back the tidal wave of noise and create a world that sounds in some way much more beautiful. Are you an optimist in that way, Alex?

JT: I believe we’re moving towards a society that wants to be more mindful. It needs tools and teachers to help them get there, but I think ultimately listening is an expression of conscious intention, caring, and compassion for one another. If we take the time to truly connect and to listen, we learn far more than through any words that we speak. Ultimately, we can become a far more mindful society. I think a lot of the problems that we’re faced with can be solved through listening.

JT: I agree. And I think that’s why it’s so important we teach it to children in schools. We are raising generations of children who’ve been brought up in acoustically lousy schools, who’ve learned not to listen, who’ve learned just to shout or to switch off. And I think that’s absolutely tragic. If we can reverse that, if we can teach children how to listen, then we’d be creating a very different kind of world.

AD: But what a job we have when our kids constantly have their mobile phones in hand. And they’re starting, ending, and carrying out relationships through instant messaging, Facebook, and Twitter. They’re not actually even speaking to each other. You can see two 12-year-old girls sitting Indian style knee to knee, texting one another, making no eye contact, and never speaking. That world concerns me and it’s one of the reasons we’re driving so hard to make the change we are.

JT: Definitely. And there we resonate very much with Sherry Turkle and her book Alone Together, which is I think a magnificent piece of work. I so agree with her and the danger of a world where we have an infinite number of shallow relationships and no deep ones… Where we’re not connecting with the people around us physically at all.

You have this strange experience in the U.K. now. I don’t know about the U.S… You get on a train and there’s this feeling of a party going on in the carriage. It’s all jolly conversation, but none of it with the people in that carriage. It’s worse than what we used to do in the U.K. which was studiously ignoring each other by reading a paper. At least if I was doing that I was acknowledging your existence in some way. But now I sit in a train carriage and there’s somebody next to me talking about the intimate details of their life and absolutely disregarding my existence. It’s actually far worse than the polite ignorance that we were using before. Now it’s completely disregarding that I exist as a human being, which totally disconnects us. It’s the ultimate expression of what Murray Schafer calls ‘schizophonia’.

AD: Well, it’s really a form of narcissism, isn’t it? And it’s easy to be mindless when we’re a narcissist because we’re not mindful, present, or considering others in those moments.

JT: So those are the downsides. But I think it’s great, as Frank Sinatra strikes up behind us, that we aren’t alone on this road. There are quite a lot of people now who are doing different and interesting things. And there have been some great people talking at this Phonak conference. Nina Kraus was wonderful yesterday, who spoke about how 20 minutes of music twice a week stops the effects of ageing on your hearing. I do get a sense of momentum in sound right now – that more people are becoming conscious and long may it continue. I think if we’re working together that’s a good thing.

AD: Oh, it’s so exciting. From companies making assisted hearing devices, to creative generative soundscapes, to listening programmes focussed toward just raising society’s general awareness of noise and of positive sound. Sound can do harm, yes, but it can also heal. And ultimately our first form of healing was through sound of our voice. So we can embrace that and know that we all have that power within us.

JT: Well here’s to happy listening for everybody. Alex, great to be with you today.

AD: Really a pleasure to meet you in person finally, Julian.

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