Introduction to a Curriculum
for Listening Arts

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 a student 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.

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.


Scavenging for Sounds

The following are some prompts that may be used to encourage imaginative and/or alternative listening practices. Sets of such prompts may be organized into a document to be completed on a sound scavenger hunt. Allow space for writing and for drawing.

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

List the sounds you hear on your way to school.

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?

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

What sounds can you make with your body?

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

Locate a sound in the distance. As 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 backpack.
Lay it in your lap.

Put your ear to a surface and listen.

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?

Where can you go to find a peaceful sound? Draw this place?

Where and when can noises make you sleepy?

Find a machine-like sound. What do you think this really is? Can you see it?
Do you like this sound? Why or why not?


Finding Instruments

Typically, music instruction begins formally as students are introduced to the 'right' and the 'wrong' way to play an instrument. At the same time, they are shown notes on a page and it is expected they will have the sort of intelligence necessary to grasp this. Try having students explore the idea of an instrument from scratch.

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. Containers filled with rice, sand, seeds, shells may become rhythmic shakers in the right hands. Bottles filled with various levels of water become wind instruments. Slats of wood or metal, rubber bands, string or wire mounted across an open container resonate when struck and may even be tuned.
Challenge students to play an old and out-of-tune zither with pencils or by dropping objects on its strings. Discuss what it means to be 'experimental'.

As the craft of many sound artists is to ‘discover’, ‘modify’, or ‘invent’ instruments, discuss and encourage this activity with students, illustrating through raw materials the fundamental principles behind musical instruments. Elements of acoustical science may also be engaged in lessons of this type. Several instruments by famous sound artists of the 20th century may be presented as examples to inspire wonder in the students. Examples of these might include the ‘glass harmonica’ invented by Benjamin Franklin, the ‘noise machines’ of Luigi Russolo, designed to mimic industrial noises in the early 1900s, the sonic sculptures of American composer Harry Partch and designer Harry Bertoia, and the evolving role of the ‘computer’ as an instrument of its own. Imaginably, some fantastical images and recordings of these examples will inspire wonder in students.

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


Challenge students to find sounds in common classroom objects such as in an activity called “The Sound of Paper”...

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 a 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.)