The lost art of listening

'Music for young people. The Art of Listening. Dr George Firth director of Scotland of the Arts Council for Great Britain. Mary Firth (pianist). An Opportunity for those under 35'. This last item, The Art of Listening, was a favourite subject, often repeated. In Sir George Trevelyan's view listening was as active as speaking, neither was to be undertaken casually.
That course, which was organised by Sir George Trevelyan at Attingham Park in Shropshire in 1948, introduces a theme later pursued by Benjamin Britten and others. In 1964 Britten wrote about the 'holy triangle of composer, performer, listener' which 'demands as much effort on the listener's part as the other two corners of the triangle'. But in today's technology obsessed age that holy triangle is so often reduced to a profane duo of composer and performer, with the listener consigned to the passive role of technology jockey.

This is an absurd situation, because music literally cannot exist without the listener. A musical instrument or a loudspeaker only produces a series of air pressure waves, it does not produce sound yet alone music. The human ear and brain work together as a miraculous transducer (referred to subsequently as 'ears' for the sake of brevity) that turns these pressure waves into sound, just as a television receiver turns invisible high frequency signals into pictures. Without at least one pair of ears present there is no sound or music, just pressure waves.

To understand this, let us visit for a moment an imaginary anechoic chamber. We enter the chamber to hear a high quality audio system playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. We then exit from the chamber and close the sound proof door behind us. As the heavy door slips into place there is no longer music inside the empty chamber. The CD continues to spin and the loudspeaker diaphragms continue to move. But all they are producing are pressure waves, because there are no ears present to decode the waves and turn them into sound and music.

In fact, despite the audio system playing O Freunde, nicht diese Töne at full volume, there is complete silence in the empty anechoic chamber. The pressure waves produced by the speakers are simply transitory physical phenomena, just like the humidity and temperature changes that occur in the chamber, just like the binary data encoded in the CD in the player, and just like the printed musical notations in the score of the Beethoven symphony. As Richard Williams has written:
... music exists within silence; only by acknowledging it can a listener become wholly involved.
No ears, no sound, no music leads us down an interesting and important path. Likening the ear to a television is an important analogy, because just as televisions vary in quality, so do ears vary in quality. And just as television sets can be retuned, so can the human ear and its linkages to the brain be retuned. This retuning process can take many forms, such as tuning out our inbuilt preferences for conventional tonality and melody.

There are links to Buddhism here, particularly to the concept of satori, which in Zen is the acquiring of a new viewpoint by intuitive observation, rather than by traditional intellectual and logical understanding. John Cage, seen above, understood this, and in 4' 33" showed how the human ear can create its own music from ambient sounds. Here is Zen practicioner Alan Watts' description of the process:
What may not be generally understood about John [Cage] is that he is an extremely accomplished musician who has, however, realized that we do not know how to listen. Conventional music, as well as conventional speech, have given us prejudiced ears, so that we treat all utterances which do not follow their rules as static, or insignificant noise. There was a time when painters, and people in general, saw landscape as visual static - mere background. John is calling our attention to sonic landscape, or soundscape, which simultaneously involves a project for cleaning the ears of the musically educated public.
In a much more modest way On An Overgrown Path is living proof that the prejudiced ear can be retuned. In the five years that I have been writing this blog my ears have retuned dramatically to appreciate an ever increasing diversity of music and non-music. Just look at the range of sounds covered in my 2004 posts compared with that in recent articles to confirm this. My readers also seem to be able to retune their ears, because as the range of music on the blog increases, so does the readership.

Music appreciation is all about retuning the human ear. Learning to sing or play an instrument is the best way to appreciate music. But if that opportunity is not available, learning the art of listening is the key; which is why it is such a tragedy that music appreciation, along with music education, has virtually disappeared as a taught subject. In my own case I am eternally grateful to the Fitznells School of Music in Ewell for many years ago setting me on the never-ending path to music appreciation.

Great animateurs of the past such as Leonard Bernstein and David Munrow were teachers of music appreciation. That is Lennie above with members of the audience after one of his New York Philharmonic Young People's Concerts which reached a peak of twenty-seven million TV viewers. The article you are reading is influenced by the work of another great and largely forgotten animateur and apostle of music appreciation, Antony Hopkins. You will learn more from one page of Antony Hopkins' books than from one year of listening to the current generation of classical jocks on our 'smooth classics' stations.

Like meditation, music appreciation works best as a group activity, particularly in the early years. As Sir George Trevelyan stipulated it should not to be undertaken casually, and unfortunately most listening to music these days is undertaken very casually thanks to iPods. But in the right circumstances music appreciation can work as a solitary activity, and personally I find listening to sounds beyond what Alan Watts calls 'conventional music' a productive way to retune my ears.

An excellent example of what I think of as 'ear candling music' is the CD below by the Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir which uses electronics to explore the space between rock and classical music. There are some very beautiful and powerful abstract sounds in Without Sinking, but for me this kind of contemporary music ultimately lacks development and argument. Which is almost certainly because my ears are not yet fully tuned to this gentre, rather than any inherent shortcomings in the music itself.

After listening to Without Sinking I immediately turned to Britten's Cello Suites to appreciate once again how beautiful abstract sounds can be developed by powerful musical argument. But the continuing retuning of my ears means it is perfectly possible that in twelve month's time I will have completely changed my view of Without Sinking. Because music appreciation, like music itself, only exists only in constant flux and flow.

* The excellent recording of Britten's Cello Suites seen in my header image is by William Butt on the super-budget Apex label. The 2 CDs are currently selling on for £6.98. Which means if you don't have these masterpieces in your collection you can further explore the art of listening for very little.

Opening quote is from the highly recommended Sir George Trevelyan and the New Spiritual Awakening by Frances Farrer, Floris Books ISBN0863153771, but out of print. All featured CDs were purchased by me at retail price. In fact I bought Hildur Guðnadóttirthe's Sinking Feeling at the recent Gavin Bryar's concert. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said…
Email received:

“…'holy triangle of composer, performer, listener' which 'demands as much effort on the listener's part as the other two corners of the triangle'”


I would hazard a guess that most people in Western society no longer know how to listen to music, since it is basically relegated to background noise, whether driving your car, or listening to your iPod, or working at home or the office. And the term “technology” is a contradiction: sound technology has deteriorated almost irreparably to the point that only the well-monied, and well-heeled, can actually afford first-rated sound equipment. The rest is mass-produced garbage. What people think they are listening to is actually no more than amplified distortion, and that cannot be good for our own hearing.

This may also explain why musical attention spans have decreased dramatically since the 4-minute side of a 78 (or a 45 for that matter).

Listening is a dying art. One thing Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer pointed out is that the words “silent” and “listen” contain the same letters. I say, we lose one, we lose both.


David Cavlovic
Pliable said…
Email received:

I expect that someone will have reminded you by now of the impact made by the much-admired Antony Hopkins when, in the early sixties, he succeeded Heathcote Statham as conductor of the Norwich Philharmonic.


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