To hear is not always to listen. In the strictest sense, to hear is the ability to perceive sounds; to listen is to make an effort to specifically hear something and pay attention to it.
Now that I’m thinking about the act of listening, my mind has begun to go beyond just hearing.
I’m aware of the soft whooshing of the central heating system fan, as warm air is forced through the ductwork and out through the vents. I shift in the chair and notice a crunchy squeak from the support post. Just now, the refrigerator compressor just turned on with a click. I focus to hear the whirring of its motor. At this moment, the small cooling fan of the laptop PC activated and is groaning. Now it has turned off. Now, the refrigerator has cycled off. The furnace blower has halted. All I notice is the clunking of the keys as I type this sentence. I also hear a very soft hum coming from the LED bulb in my desk lamp.
To listen is not only interesting, it is also instinctive. Do you remember walking down a street, vaguely aware of traffic sounds and the buzz of activity, when suddenly you hear something that sounds out of place? You instantly focus your attention on your sense of hearing. Your survival instinct has kicked in so you automatically begin to listen. You must quickly determine whether or not the strange sound is a threat to your well-being.
If you use a search engine to locate a page about listening, you may find one or two titles that promise how to listen, in general. The vast majority, though, announce ringtones, how to listen to music, ways to acquire streaming “radio”, how to make others listen to you and the like.
To purposely listen is increasingly difficult these days. There are so many sources of artificial sound. There is a virtually unlimited supply of music. Voices come at us on YouTube, podcasts, television, radio, and public address speakers. We are subjected to loud engine exhaust noise from cars, trucks, motorcycles, and aircraft. Then there are the voices of people struggling for our attention. The level of and the variety of sounds is unprecedented in the history of our species. However, we are still able to listen.
To listen fully, is a personal artform. The trick is to go beyond our particular points of view. The practice of transcending our lack of patience, abundance of opinions, and prejudices about certain sounds is part of this process. To effectively listen, there must be inner silence, freedom from straining to hear, a relaxed state of attention that is neither too slack nor too tense.
One of the most effective ways to learn how to really listen, very well is the cultivation of enjoyment of classical music. I selected the classical music category as a prime example, because it offers all the obstacles that I mentioned above. Foremost is the aversion to classical music in popular culture. The dislike of classical music is one of the few remaining, socially acceptable prejudices of today. When people hear a snippet of classical music, they fall back on their opinions of music.
When some people finally decide to open their minds to the possibilities of classical music, they strain and force themselves to pay attention and analyze what they hear.
Classical music listening should not be a chore, nor should it be just relaxing, ambient background sound. You may wish to begin your practice with something readily available like a relatively short Beethoven sonata or concerto. You can borrow a copy free from the public library, tune into a public radio station, or download something from the Web. Once you have the music source, select a place to sit comfortably and also maintain alertness away from any distractions. You can listen through loudspeakers or a quality headset. Then open your mind and start the playback.
You may notice the melody and harmony of the piece. Does it begin softly or dramatically? Soon, you may find yourself paying attention to the string section, brass, woodwinds, etc. Perhaps the solo instrument, like a horn or piano grabs your attention. Acknowledge and enjoy what you have noticed, then let it go. Allow yourself to concentrate with balanced attention on the entire presentation.
It is best to begin with an instrumental-only piece, so you won’t become distracted by a message of words in a song or an opera. Really allow your mind to open to the blending and construction of sounds from a chamber group or symphony orchestra. When your mind tries to formulate or fall back on opinion, gently bring it back to focus on the musical piece.
You may soon find yourself sharing the mindset of Ludwig van Beethoven as he composed the music. You may begin to understand the unspoken mental environment of a nineteenth century audience member. Savor that fantasy for a moment, then let go of it. Simply, comfortably, become one with the music.
Once you have become accustomed to this type of “musical meditation”, you might expand into longer pieces or even opera. Or, you might not. Personally, I love many of Mozart’s symphonies and concertos, but I haven’t developed the patience to take in one of his operas in a single sitting. I’m working on it though.
After you’ve tried this exercise, you might find yourself appreciating your own favorite category of music more completely and fully.
The art of listening is the art of patience and the art of empathy. It is rare to find someone who truly knows how to listen to music, or fully involve themselves in the voices of nature, or the “sounds of silence”. We know that it is a delight to discover another human being who knows how to really listen to us. Some of us come to realize that we haven’t satisfactorily practiced the art of listening.
If you really want to expand your awareness and do some hardcore listening practice, listen to somebody who harbors differing opinions than your own. If you cultivate conservative views, silence your mind temporarily and take in some opinions from somebody who has a liberal orientation; and likewise if you’re liberal, hear out a conservative. Similarly, if you’re devoutly religious, sincerely listen to someone who doesn’t identify as religious; or again, if you’re not religious, hear what a religionist has to say. The choices of difficult practice are numerous. We are presented with many opportunities to either close our minds by not listening or to understand better, by listening.
We can listen to a friend or an adversary. We can listen to music we don’t understand. We can listen to the world around us. We learn to listen by becoming willing to fully hear without judgement.
To really listen, the mind must be quiet.