Perhaps it’s in a single moment when each of us truly begins listening.


Setting Out (Looking at Listening)

Where do I see people listening?  What is it I should be looking for?

An ear propped somehow against the air? 

Is it anything as overt as a cupped hand placed beside the head? 

As the hair momentarily pulled back?

When do I see people listening?  And at what times of day should I be looking?

Of course, there is always hearing.

What does listening really look like?


Sound for a Literacy Practice

Sound is so much an expression of situation, a time and place, personality and environment.  Sound exists as information, it exists as music and noise, and it exists as an affirmation that there is life—when its vibrations move between us as shouts, cries, laughter or speech and fulfill a communication.

Listening, then, becomes a type of ‘reading’ as we learn to make meaning and take direction from those signals, notes and utterances passing into our ears.  Perhaps even when actually reading, we are engaged in a sort of listening:   Listening to those voices in the head reproducing the arrangements of letters and patterns of words that we internally ‘pronounce’.   

Demanding listening will only encourage a contempt for listening.  Noise does this.  So can a schoolteacher’s command or any voice demanding we ‘pay attention’.  Is demanding listening as unreasonable as demanding that a student who has not learned to read go ahead and read anyway?

So can listening be taught?  Or can a kind of listening, at least, be encouraged?  Stimulated?

Think about this idea of listening as a vital component of literacy, that is, as a skill that must be practiced in a variety of contexts as it is being learned.


Otic Diaries

One way to develop as a listener is to document the sounds one hears in certain places and in certain situations, at certain times.  Call this an ‘audio journal’ or maybe even better, an ‘otic diary’.  ‘Otic’ meaning, “of or having to do with the ear”; maybe just unusual enough a word to encourage innovation, some playfulness, and a different kind of self-awareness between  everyday life and the pages of a journal.  Such a diary might begin with the vocabulary one associates with sound and listening:

waterfall   thunderstorm  racket   hubbub   drum   hiss  roar                                                                                                                                                                

bang   beep  whisper  noisy   echo   trumpet   headphones  screaming  yelling  

peace and quiet   walkie-talkie  whack  thump  piano  stutter motorway  earache

euphony crescendo screech  cacophony   radio  rip  crumple  smash  burp  sough  tinkle

ppffffffft    aarrggh    huh    ssshhhh     mmmnn  

List the sounds you hear on your way to  school or work.

Find the sound of something you cannot see.  What do you imagine it is?

Describe it with words, a diagram, or a picture.

How could you use letters of the alphabet  to spell the sound of the wind?

What is the first sound you hear when you wake up?

“From my bed this morning I heard a great boom resonating in the lightwell.  It startled me—even the window pane made a flexing sound--yet I realized how it could likely be  some banal noise, such as a backfiring taxi, merely dramatized by the acoustics of the  building. “ 


Drawing Sound

Here are some excerpts from the painter Charles Burchfield's journals:

“The foggy light comes over the ding-donging house-tops of the dirty town—a carpenter’s hammer resounds,;  a rain-spout clatters, a train-bell clangs;--a soft sigh comes out of the south and there is a sticky dripping sound from the thawing earth—is it the frost escaping?”

“The absolute silence was impressive—it was like a vast tomb—even the calls of the chickadees &kinglets, of the falling of the snow from dead oak-leaves only emphasized the silence.”

“Here in the church the sounds from the outdoors that leaked in only made the morning more vivid thru the way it “stung” my imagination—one window to the north was half open, thru which I could see (and hear) the wind-“shattered” mass of maple leaves…”

“Walking under the leaves I felt as if the color made sound.”

 And here is a detail from one of his paintings:


Blind Drawing

Find a place along the path to sit down.  Close your eyes (use a blindfold even) and draw as you listen.  Try this in a car, a bus, a train…on a park bench….in your lap.

Find somewhere in the room where you can be comfortable and I will play you some sounds.   Make sure you are more than an arm’s length from each other so that you have your own space.  While you are listening, I may come around and make some small noises beside your ears.  After a while you can draw or write about what you imagine you are hearing…

Can you hear a difference between the sound a pencil makes on a piece of paper and the sound a wet paintbrush makes?

How many different sounds can you make with your piece of paper?

(Try tearing, cutting, crumpling, rustling, flapping, balling up and tossing.  Roll it into a cone and make an announcement through one end.   Whistle along its edge and then drag it along a surface in the room.)

I  heard a rainbow singing

 What made you hear a rainbow?

Something was  making the sound of crackling light.”

“I stand at a chink in the wall, a fist-sized hole where a clod of moldy brick has crumbled and left a hollow.  Just inside, bits of cloudy water hang and hold.  When I turn my ear to the opening, there is nothing.  This space is like a vacuum and quickly I pull my ear away from the unnerving void and restore sense to the left side of my head!  Earlier,  a low-pitched creaking sound from behind a wall had drawn me to a similar chink, dank with loose bits and knots of vacant webs.   Through this ‘window’ I could just make out a bright spot of grass and the edge of something swinging to and fro across the opening on the other side.  So it is that I walk along the canal,  looking and listening in such places.”


“Why is it that  I want so badly for this sight to sing?  Has someone ever articulated this compulsion to draw sound out of some silent something?  Is this that ear inside the mind—the thing that is ‘psychotic’?  It doesn’t worry me though.  When I am drawing a voice from a cloud or a chink in a wall…it is not a voice that talks to me uncontrollably, in a fever.  It’s just that there is a sound I’d like to hear but can’t.  Perhaps this explains the beginning of my obsessions?”


Corporeal Listening

What parts of your body belong, at times, to your ear?

The eyelids?  Fingers? Solar Plexus? Mouth?  Hair?

From listening, we move off in different directions.  Like one who was so interested in what he was reading that he put the book down, ‘looked up’, and walked away, perhaps even left the house.  Listening can be like this.  A listener may be led to walking, drawing, writing, singing, or maybe sleeping.

How can you change the sound of the wind by moving your body?

In what ways can you change the shape of your ear to change the shape of what you are hearing?  Try speaking while  pulling the flesh of your ear forward.

(My grandfather, who worked in radio, taught me this as a way for hearing my own  voice more truly as it would sound ‘on air’.  The cavities of my chest and head resonate my voice and make it sound deeper to me than it is to my listeners.  By pulling the ears forward some of these lower ‘corporeal’ frequencies are removed from my hearing.)

Put your ear to the wind and listen for direction.  What happens as you turn your head?

How do you shape your hands to shelter your ears from the wind.  Where can you go to find shelter from the blustering noise?  

“In the narrow corridor between the busy streets someone has stopped to have a phone conversation.  Their voice is amplified by the paving stones and high walls of the buildings on either side.  Just past this person the corridor makes a 120 degree turn.   Mostly all of the doors and gates at the backs of shops are at least partially open--fans, refrigerators,  generators, ducts, pipes…pulses from concealed tasks and objects,  murmurs from storage rooms.  Further on,  a group of well-dressed men and women seem to make important plans.  There is not much room to pass.  When I merge into a busy street again it is like a switch has been thrown.   These sudden changes in the volume of the environment punctuate my day.  I quickly find the staircase down.  Already, at the first landing, my sternum rumbles. “

Susceptible to sound at its fundamental level of vibration, the body, at times,  becomes ‘otic’.  

(I am reminded again of something my grandfather once described to me.  As a photo-journalist, he had attended a symphony concert  in the company  of Helen Keller.  Sitting behind her, my grandfather noticed how her hands moved throughout the entire concert, keeping perfect time with the music on the armrests of her chair.)

Listening in Places

Try knowing a place by finding out about its sounds.


Corridors, canals, lihhtwells, stairways, conduits.

Betweenities--neither here nor there, yet there is something so distinct that happens in such ‘places’.  A multiplicity of presences, though often out of sight, collect and overlap,  making a strange mix for a listener.

“On the right hand side, a railing supported by hollow metal bars about four inches apart runs continuously along the corridor but for a few feet where there is a break to allow a turn into a gate.  Activated by a ring on the finger of my casually dangling hand, these makeshift ‘pipes’ chime out a bright stuttering vowel which fades down the corridor at my back.  The voices of two or three children from behind a hedge stop for a moment and the foliage rustles.  Moving a bit faster to avoid being seen, my hand still playfully drags its ring.

Funny how everything can be heard yet so little seen of all that is going on in the places adjacent to this public corridor.   Slowing down or stopping, I  become an eavesdropper and a 'suspect', as there can really be no other business here but to quickly proceed through, from one street to another.  But now that I have stopped I'll at least finish with my description:   On my right, a brick wall overhung by a hedge on its far side, and on my left, a high chain link fence plugged here and there with plastic bags, leaves  and drink cans.   I hear a diluted noise of children and pitched clanging and imagine that these sounds  originate from beyond the low wall  and trees I can see across the empty playing field. Is there some sort of ‘hanging glockenspiel’ in a playground over there?   A woman in a trench coat hurries around a corner and catches me off guard.  I wonder how she perceives me standing here off to the side, listening?  Or am I invisible,  like silence?  Is the listener a conspicuous personality in places like these?  Am I really not as passive as I had thought?  I must hurry along through to the street now. “

Sound may catalyze the imagination.  Of course this happens unconsciously all the time but when it is ‘listened’ for--that is, with intent--creativity takes a different path…

Make a decision based on a sound you hear.

“Listening to a recording made along the trail from earlier in the day, I feel my presence blurred.  I am a long way from the cliff trail now,  prone and relaxed beside a window.  Foul weather sputters in the street and a hybrid apparition of wind and traffic and rain murmurs at the windowsill.   The recording refers me back to a particular place and its lighting, its smells, my actions and the environment there;  and a time.  The room has such conditions of its own that influence me.  It is much like I am in two places at once; not quite a simultaneity, but a feeling that time overlaps in me.  I have a fuzzy understanding of what it means to make oneself a field.”


A Path Through a Field

All the spaces between destinations, everything along the way that lures us into detouring, changing course or stopping altogether, while considering the freedom of our movements, may be thought of as a kind of field.   It is not so simple to say that a particular edge or boundary is what determines a field’s beginning or end.   There are fields which are patches of land covered in grasses and flowers where we go to lie down for a bit to think or rest.  And there are those fields which are observed and studied for the sake of what’s in them;  actual places of research regarded, idealistically, as ‘separate’ from the observer.  Then there is a field which may be considered the sum of pathways--the twists and turns we have made along a route.  Sometimes I have moved from water to sand to grass to pavement and never left a single field.  I know that this has much to do with a continuity  I’ve created through my observations,  my thinking, my sensitivity and my imagination,  as well as my movements—that fuses seemingly disparate locations into an individualized field, belonging to me alone.  This field ends as soon as I lift my attention and discontinue the conscious relationship I have been having with it.  Now I am just walking through a place, driven solely by an urge to get myself on to other things.

Technologies for Listening


Even the most restless and impatient of listeners will grant unusual attention to the sound of his or her own voice.  Perhaps this is a fundamental stage of the ego as it distinguishes itself from the others.  With a portable recording device, a  listener may record his or her thoughts, feelings or observations with immediacy and even, indulge impulses privately.    Somehow, the device with its buttons and switches,  its shape and the feel of it in the hand, along with its portability,  make it a desirable object-companion.  It is worth considering how such technologies inspire innovations in fundamental practices such as reading, writing and speaking.  Maybe the recording device is just the thing to encourage something to happen for the first time?

Locate a sound in the distanceAs you walk towards this sound, record a description of  this sound and of your path in all its details.  Get as close as you can to your target sound and then record it. 

Try varying the distance of the microphone from the sound you are recording.

Try placing the microphone inside a carboard tube, a trashcan, a handbag. 

Lay it in your lap.

Recording adds a level of thoughtfulness or intent to what a person says.  Such self-consciousness may be constructive.  Playback and listening may lead to speaking again, with refinement, or it may lead to writing.   Maybe even walking and heightened listening?

For the future:

Listen to a recording of your voice from a long time ago.

Scavenging for Sounds


Find a ringing sound or find a way to make one.

"Where is that particular sound when I need or want it? Now i must go looking for it. Turning over the leaves of the neighborhood,
waiting out the right time of day ... the right season. When are the conditions just right?"

Put your ear to a surface and listen. 

Listening Hikes

We come to understand so much about our environment through the sounds it makes.   Much of the cognitive map we make of our surroundings comes from what we hear of it. 

If we complement this instinctual action with one that is willful and determined we may discover other layers of sound that teach us things about where we are.  The ‘listening hike’ could take place on a playground and it could take place in a city neighborhood or park.  The ‘hike’ could lead into a wilderness of sorts so that the act of listening might relax and surrender to wider spaces.  All kinds of environments, natural/unnatural, interior/exterior, public/private could be explored.  The act of listening itself, in these different locations, might be compared, perhaps with an emphasis on the different ways in which we make use of sound.

Predict the sorts of sounds you might hear in a place before you get there.

A hike that is designed for listening might encourage someone to go on and begin listening intently to the world; to acknowledge the possibilities for a place being a composition of sounds as much as it is of fauna and flora, sediments, structures, smells, human activity, histories and times of day; and to engage with a place, naturally, as a sound-making being, realizing the potential of an area and its objects for becoming instruments in imaginative and otic hands.

Finding Instruments  

Explore the idea of an instrument from scratch.

How can you make sounds with leaves?  With two small round stones?

Imagine a noise of rocks that is not mighty.

Small round stones, found by the water or along the edges of gardens, make innumerable sounds when rubbed together.  Placed beside the ear, these stones, with the immediacy of their purring, sound like insects or fountains.

How many sounds can you make with your feet on different kinds of ‘ground’?

Containers filled with small stones, sand, seeds, shells may become rhythmic shakers in the right hands.  Drink bottles become wind instruments while walking or sitting.  Slats of wood or metal, rubber bands, string or wire mounted across an open container resonate when struck and may even be tuned.  

Stir puddles, rub stones, crunch leaves, drag branches, play with air…

Where along the path can you find a wire to pluck?

Where can you thump a hollow?

Implied Sound  (the sonorous image)


Think of a stone wall, a slab, something rooted, something firmly set with the appearance of heaviness,  or blank surfaces.  Here is an appearance of silence.  At least until one really starts looking and the stillness yields to the movement of ants along a crack or sunlight blinking in flecks of mica.  These motions are slight and quiet.

“I lay a piece of drawing paper on an overlap of concrete and brick along a ramp joining the concourse to a footbridge above.  With a few pieces of grass I find sprouting from a crack,  I rub away at the paper, transferring a few of the lines and producing a stain and some tears in the paper.  This ‘rubbing’ becomes a record of this contact.  Somehow, indirectly, it is like a sound.” 


“Along one of the more industrialized segments of the canal there is a modern footbridge; a  clear cylindrical enclosure.  One of the curved panes is shattered but intact, a cortex of branching fissures that overlays the sky and rooftops.   I imagine the day of some action against the glass.  I care nothing about the motive and method.  The sound it must have made is the most real thing.”


Features of the environment insulate the listener:  doors, walls and windows, of course, as well as hedges and overhangs, sunken walkways and enclosures.  Maybe even clouds?   Materials play a part too.  At a distance, a sound may be tamed, not by anything other than that distance which puts some time between the signal and the ear. 

“On the park path, at a remove of several blocks from the street I came in on, the traffic noise is softened.  Its attack is subdued and the details are swallowed somewhere in the expanse of air above the grass and swaying trees.  Without blare and screech, there is something like water in the distance.”

“I began a walk in the atrium of the museum, where the usual crowds were absent.  Perhaps because of the relative emptiness on this strange day I was able to discern more clearly the acoustical effect of this steady 'murmur'--a shadowy noise--hanging in the air just beside the large panels that comprise the geodesic dome.  Similar to the bunkers and the oil silo, the dome above this great marble room shapes the air so that sounds decay with a seemingly infinite 'half-life'.  A cloud of tones risen from the ends of words, from bodies in contact with surfaces and edges of the room, clatters from the cafe, bells, buzzes, alarms.....a sneaker sole squeaking across a marble step plunges its note deep into this ambient cumulus where it resonates long after the sneaker has left the room.  Or so it seems.  Imaginably, it does not take many 'voices' to produce this effect and so, on a quiet day, the shadow becomes more evident.  From the staircase I listen and notice how a coffee cup, a ringtone, a conversation, a zipper on a handbag, contribute their 'moments' to this evolving mass. 

Noises soften in such a cloud.”

Where do you go to listen to your thinking?

“The stone faces,  the vaults and curves, of the undercroft amplify and reflect the footsteps of people passing, the clearing of throats and scraps of conversation.   The wind blows through the leaves of the great trees in the adjacent courtyards and notes from the lunchtime concert above are a diluted music floating down, inseparable from the soughing of leaves and a custodian's sweeping on the steps up to the chapel.  The verses cut into a slab of the wall bleong to a song once dedicated to devoted listeners.  I am tempted to read them aloud so that I may hear my own voice resonating in this stone ‘trumpet’. 

Where can you go to find a peaceful sound?

Where and when can noises make you sleepy?

Find a machine-like sound.  What do you think this really is?  Can you see it?

“Elsewhere in the park,  a circular bench situates a listener beneath a small tree whose leaves rattle and purr  in the wind accompanying the first drops of the afternoon.   Everyone knows the sound of an umbrella under influence of the rain. 

Later, when the sun has returned following the ominous sky and rain, people have taken to walking in the streets, many beginning their journeys home on foot. Below the window the usual traffic noises are suspended and a strange parade of voices and footsteps floats up.”

Do you like this sound?  Why or why not?

A Duration of Silence  (Remembering Listening)

“With just minutes to go before noon, I found myself in a great heath of overgrown grasses, the city barely visible beyond the dusty treetops, below the line of the hill.  On such a hot day, the insects inside the grasses were chirping ecstatically with no breeze to upset them.  I wanted to sit down to listen but it felt somehow like ‘giving up’.  Would it be a disappointment at the end of the day?  So I sped up my pace, looking for someplace where people would be gathering.  By noon I was near a small bathing pond where a few people sat on a slope in the shade.  Just as I sat down, finally surrendering to the moment of this greatly anticipated ‘two-minute silence’,  a man walked up to me asking for a light.  Below me, a woman turned on her side and flipped through a book.  With this,  I accepted that other listeners’ descriptions of the  Observation--from the heart of things--would have to do once I got home at the end of the day.”

Where was the sound of something you couldn’t see.  What do you imagine it was?

Where were you looking when you were listening?

What sound did you hear that reminded you of music?

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