Sound is generated by vibrating objects (a string, a speaker, a falling rock) which displace air, creating pressure waves that sometimes find their way to our ears. Sound is also a sensation — our perception of these vibrations.

In order to find methods for organizing and processing sound, it is helpful to investigate both the physics of sound (acoustics) and how we perceive sound (psychoacoustics). There are characteristics and behaviors of sound that will help us to discuss, visualize and work with it. When we talk about sound, it is good to keep in mind that it has physical characteristics that can be measured, like amplitude and frequency, and perceived characteristics that are subjective, like loudness and pitch. Even the wikipedia definition alludes to this dual nature:

In physics, sound is a vibration that propagates as a typically audible mechanical wave of pressure and displacement, through a medium such as air or water. In physiology and psychology, sound is the reception of such waves and their perception by the brain.

‘Hearing’ and ‘listening’ are often used interchangeably, but it might be helpful to make a distinction between them. Let’s define hearing as primarily a passive activity, something you do without conscious effort. Then listening becomes an activity that requires active, focused effort and various strategies for attention. Hearing might be described as monolithic in nature, where listening takes on various forms and modes depending on the situation.

deep listening

Pauline Oliveros was a composer of both acoustic and electronic music. She was also a performer and teacher well known for developing the practice of Deep Listening. From the Deep Listening Institute’s website:

Deep Listening, as developed by Pauline Oliveros, explores the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature of listening. The practice includes bodywork, sonic meditations, and interactive performance, as well as listening to the sounds of daily life, nature, one’s own thoughts, imagination, and dreams. It cultivates a heightened awareness of the sonic environment, both external and internal, and promotes experimentation, improvisation, collaboration, playfulness, and other creative skills vital to personal and community growth. 

from the center for deep listening

For an introduction to some of these ideas, I recommend the two short texts below, but there is a lot more to read if you are interested in these ideas. You can find some of her music online — I’ve added Accordion & Voice below. It’s her first solo album, from 1982, and it introduces. Pauline touches on some of the deep listening ideas in her talk. (disregard the “keep it simple” TedX tagline, as Pauline surely would).

Pauline Oliveros – Accordion & Voice (1982)

Accordion & Voice was the first of my recordings as a soloist. I was living in an A-frame house in a meadow just below Mount Tremper at Zen Mountain Center. I had a wonderful view of the graceful saddle mountain top. When away on a performance trip I would imagine the mountain as I played Rattlesnake Mountain. I followed the feelings and sensations of my many experiences of the mountain – the changing colors of the season, the breezes and winds blowing through the grasses and trees. Horse Sings From Cloud taught me to listen to the depth of a tone and to have patience. Rather than initiating musical impulses of motion, melody and harmony I wanted to hear the subtlety of a tone taking space and time to develop. The tones linger and resonate in the body, mind, instrument and performance space. My thanks to Important Records for bringing these pieces to be heard again.

~ Pauline Oliveros, 2007

Christine Sun Kim is an artist currently exploring and expanding on how we listen–in her own words…

Christine Sun Kim: The World is Sound