Yes, but how do you LISTEN?


One of the benefits of our tight-knit recording community is the availability of dialogue and exchange on the subject and techniques of recording. What do you use and how you use it? What tips have you got? Any questions?  There is certainly no shortage of websites dedicated to the subject and forums to air our views in- the first being Twitter of course! Recording chat is plentiful among us recordists. But what about the other end of the recording process- the listening?

During my trip to the west of Ireland I spent a blissful amount of time sitting by the ocean, doing just that. What made it special was, of course, the unique location and its spectacular scenery, but there was something else as well, something different.

Then I got it- I was being totally relaxed and physically comfortable in that listening space. I noticed how my shoulders were down, my eyes were closed, I wasn’t- in other words- sitting all crunched up and tensed at a computer.

It struck me just how often I listening to work in an uncomfortable position. This is for practical reasons of course- the computer is where most of the sounds I am interested in or need to work on come through, and sitting up at a desk is a computer’s natural environment. Closed headphones help, but your body is far from in its ideal state to be receiving something fragile and intricate such as soundscapes.

In between bouts of email checking or while filling in an application form, this speed-listening at our desks is a reflection on the overwhelming amount of online information we sort through on a daily basis, sprinkled with a little FOMO: I’ll have a quick listen to this, then move on to the next one.

Is this the listening status quo we must accept? As a lot of work goes into recording and editing, shouldn’t the same amount of effort go into listening?

Personally I balance out online speed-listening with two locations other than my laptop: one is the kitchen. I find that doing something with my hands frees the mind to just take in content, that depending on the subject can be entertaining and often educational.

Another is lying in bed with my headphones- this is for creative soundscapes of a longer length that I might be particularly looking forward to. I usually have one or two of those a week, and I really make a point of listening as intently as I can, both for content and technique.

I am genuinely curious to hear how you listen: by this I mean conscious listening, not radio-in-the- background. The ‘practical’ listening of days when stuff just needs to get done, yet something intriguing has just popped up in your Soundcloud feed…

We may not always have an Atlantic ocean at hand, but being conscious of making some dedicated listening time (and space) can only benefit our enjoyment of what we listen to.

20 thoughts on “Yes, but how do you LISTEN?

  1. I tend to critically listen later at night usually leaning back in my studio chair with my monitors turned loud enough to drown out the HVAC unit. I sit still with my eyes closed and really try to hone in on what I like and dislike a bout a piece of music.

    I have a friend who happens to be the second person ever to graduate the London School of Sound with a passing grade who sends me mixes he’s working on. I owe him my full attention. He usually gets the full headphone treatment. The things he does in his mixes are so subtlety beautiful you’d miss it even in the best of environments.

    That being said, I enjoy the headphones the best. It allows me to hear all the glorious things I miss with just a set of monitors. I have all my music ripped to 320k mp3 files [insert debate here] on my ipod and at work I use a 24bit soundcard as a headphone amplifier.

    I rarely get enough still moments to devote the kind of time to just listening quietly with a set of headphones. But when I do, that’s when music sounds the best.

    • Thanks for commenting Mike. Interesting that you also make the conscious decision of dedicating more / better listening time to a particular person’s work. This is emerging in quite a few replies I got, it’s probably as good a way as any to sort through the huge amount of sonic info we get on a daily basis! Totally with you re: headphones, although I’d take a break from the studio chair for total relaxation 🙂 Thanks again for dropping by!

  2. Most of the time I hear rather than listen, the latter being an attentive and effortful activity. I make that effort in the usual situations, like trying to understand what someone’s saying against a busy background and so on.

    I’m not a musician so often don’t listen to music analytically. I don’t know the technical names for most of the musical features I can hear and this must have an effect on my listening, since once something has a name it can more easily be attended to selectively.

    I rarely monitor my field recordings while I make them. Sometimes it’s more fun simply to wait until you get home to discover what surprises (or disappointments) might be in the recorder’s memory. The first thing I do is open the sound files as spectrograms. I think this helps me grasp all the different sound features and their relationships to one another over time. Seeing and hearing the sounds simultaneously helps me get to know them better and faster.

    While out recording there can be a struggle to focus attention for long periods on the sounds of the outside world. Competition comes from my own internal monologue – tedious circular thought-patterns about how to pay the bills or finding my way around an unfamiliar district. I listen better once I know a place and no longer need to look at the map sheets I usually print out for a first visit.

    The usual goal is a certain stillness of mind when recording the atmospheres of places. I’ve found this even more when going to Dartmoor or the Scottish Highlands. It takes me a day or two to stop feeling like an intruder and to adjust to the fact that you are often the main sound-source in the environment, at least when you’ve moving about.

    By the third day your senses are sharpened, you can listen better, you feel attuned to your surroundings – and, of course, you have to catch the train home the next day.


    • Ian, that was a fascinating read- and would make a great blog post in its own right! I’d love to read more about your relationship with the visuals of sound.
      I must say you’re a brave man for recording away without monitoring- I couldn’t stand the thought of wasting a half day’s work or more upon returning home! But I guess it’s great training, and you’d probably make very few mistakes now.
      I agree in terms of the inner monologue, and feeling conspicuous in a new environment. Although I also find being in a new space makes me alert to its sonic qualities- locations I know very well on the other hand tend to lose their appeal for me. It all starts to slip into a comforting beigeness I am too familiar with to notice anymore. That’s the challenge, I guess, to keep trying for interesting angles.

  3. For me, it’s not so much about where or how I listen but more to do with being in the right frame of mind to listen.

    I spend a lot of time recording urban soundscapes, often in an inner city environment where the captivating and most interesting sounds are often subsumed within a cloak of less attractive, more invasive sounds. Hunting out the wheat from the chaff can not only be challenging but often exhausting. And yet, although I may be weary after along day pounding the streets, I can still listen acutely and find it rewarding to do so providing my mind is attuned to the task in hand. On the other hand, if I find my mind wandering off piste, then the sounds stop speaking and the stories they have to tell are lost forever.

    Attentive listening is hard work, so choosing a comfortable, relaxing environment in which to listen obviously helps but, for me at least, the physical environment is secondary to being mentally prepared to listen. I guess it’s all in the mind!

  4. “if I find my mind wandering off piste, then the sounds stop speaking and the stories they have to tell are lost forever.” beautifully put Des. I think you’ve highlighted an important point- while I was mostly talking about the physical space and our comfort within it, this is certainly inseparable from our mental state. You can be in a comfortable listening position but not prepared to listen, but you can be prepared to listen even in an uncomfortable position. Let’s aim for both, ideally!

  5. I switch between different forms of listening, but my favourite listening is being totally relaxed and 100% attentive. It may be difficult to get to that point in a controlled way, i.e. consciously moving into that state-of-mind, but it can be done – with practice.
    Perhaps I can recommend the Acouscenc Listening Workshop?

  6. I find that I am constantly listening to the world around me for ideas. Ideas about rhythm, intensity, pitch etc. I even find myself closing my eyes and trying to focus on perspectives, trying to shut out things close to me and focus on those sounds outside of my area of vision. How thye change when I get closer or further away. Also i monitor my emotional response to sounds, what irritates me and what make me happy. Much research has been done on this topic in the music industry but not in the sound industry. Also, I recently started looking at the differences between hearing and listening. Evelyn Glennie is a big inspiration and listening with your whole body. Fantastic stuff

  7. Thanks for commenting Chris- I wasn’t familiar with Evelyn Glennie, I’ve looked her up and I will watch her TED talk now so thanks for that tip. I expect you know about Pauline Oliveros and Deep Listening, another wonderful artist devoting herself to the ’cause’. I believe that exercises such as the ones you are doing (I do these also with children in workshops, and they are surprisingly receptive) really help us enhance our experience of the world around us.

  8. What a wonderful post and what wonderful replies! The listening vs. hearing debate is one that interests me a lot. With regards to music, I often wonder if most people just use sound/music to block out their environment rather than actually listening to the music or just being in the moment.

    Do you think that closing your eyes is the first step to listening?

    • Thank you, Peter. Yours is a very good point actually- the use of music as cover up to block out unpleasant environments, perhaps even of a psychological nature.
      Personally I don’t consider closing our eyes a first step or indeed necessary at all for good listening, but it certainly helps to focus, and is something we all do quite unconsciously. I reckon that – like in all forms of meditation- listening should get to a point where you can do it just as well with the eyes open, feeling centered in the moment and unphased by the visuals around you. I can’t say I manage this without fail all of the time: it’s very much an ongoing, self-training process.

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