Introduction to a Curriculum
for Listening Arts

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.

A listening arts curriculum will encourage in students of all ages a capacity for listening that is creative, patient, and discerning. Listening, as a fundamental communication skill, is often only developed secondarily as a means to some other goal. Typically, teachers (as well as parents and other authority figures) demand of students that they "listen!", and so listening takes on negative connotations, becomes oppressive and encourages resistance. Is demanding listening as unreasonable as demanding that a student who has not learned to read go ahead and read anyway? Listening arts aspires more to encourage willful, thoughtful and imaginative listening--that is, a literacy of the ear--than it does to make artists.

Listening might be considered 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 our heads reproducing the arrangements of letters and patterns of words that we internally ‘pronounce’. 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. The following describes some areas in which active listening might be approached pedagogically with students in different settings.

Audio Journals

Even the most restless ‘listener’ will grant unusual attention to the sound of his/her own voice. The audio journal is a way students may document their relationship to (and so become more conscious of) sound in their daily lives. Audio journaling may take place in a notebook or a book of blank paper...
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 cackle crescendo screech blam
radio rip crumple smash burp sough tinkle
ppffffffft aarrggh huh ssshhhh mmmnn

Play students recordings of such phenomena as thunderstorms, penguins, rainforests or jet engines and ask them to describe in words (spoken or written) and/or pictures what it is they imagine they are hearing. Vary this by playing students strange music and encourage them to draw more abstractedly to represent the music. Have them describe how the sounds make them feel. Vary this when away from the classroom by asking students to close their eyes and listen to the sounds of a specific location . Or make sounds next to their ears using small objects concealed in the hand (stones, coins, paper, leaves).

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…

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--a motivation for listening 'attentively'. Cassettes and recorders (or digital memo recorders) might be used much like books of blank pages. Clearly demonstrate how to operate the recording device including any pitch changing functions it might have (anything to encourage playfulness). Color code the buttons if necessary. Then students may record...

thoughts, feelings or observations
a conversation or discussion (such as an interview)
a reading from one’s own writing
a reading from a book (of stories or poems)
a song
environmental sounds from the classroom and/or school
sounds from home
the sounds heard in certain places and in certain situations, at certain times

Speaking into the microphone may lead to literacy. Students may monitor their fluency when listening back to their voices reading. 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?

A teacher may want to slowly introduce sound recording by being the classroom ‘recordist’ for the beginning stages of a program, regularly playing back recordings made of the students so that they may get used to hearing themselves. Understandably, there is an amount of playfulness to be expected and while this might need to be ‘tamed’ it must be welcomed to some extent as it establishes a level of comfort, enjoyment and creativity within the medium. Additionally, students might be allowed to ‘sign out’ recorders from the classroom to take home. This is important as it allows students to document other ‘sonic’ environments and to have some of the privacy necessary for meaningful and inspired journal-keeping.

Students may share their recordings with the class and listen to them as part of a ‘listening center’ activity. They may transcribe their recordings into writing journals and/or respond to them in painting, drawing, movement, or sculpture.

Lastly, these cassettes become invaluable souvenirs for students to take along with them into life, documenting ‘the way our voices once sounded’.


download and assemble
your own audio journal