Ubiquitous Audio-tastic Material: Learning How to Listen

Ever since I listened to this piece of audio, I’ve been a more informed inhabitant of the modern world. That’s because listening to this piece taught me how to listen to the wide array of sounds that are bombarding me from every direction, all the time.

In “Hearing,”(act II in This American Life’s episode on Mapping) Jack Hitt does something very simple, very well: he gives me the tools to more fully experience something that I was already experiencing, even though I wasn’t yet aware of it.

The piece is about a writer, Toby Lester, who learns how to notice sounds around him. In the piece, Hitt and Lester peruse the inhabited world for the types of sounds that we tend to ignore: air conditioner, refrigerator compressor, microwave beep; and when they find these sounds, they figure out the exact note (on the musical scale) of each sound. They then make chords out of those notes, and describe (using splendidly antiquated vocabulary) the effect that those chords can have on our emotional state.

One great thing about this story is that it’s inherently aural. Hitt and his companion are studying sound, therefore the thing that they study will translate very well via headphones, computer speakers, car stereos, or whatever the listener might be using, to access the thing that Hitt is communicating. I’ve written about this “audio-tastic” quality in another piece.

What’s particularly profound about this piece, though, is that he’s doing more than giving us a sonically rich story, and more than making the sounds the subject of the piece. He is taking us along on a well-informed experiment with the sounds that surround most of us—sounds from things that are in the space you’re inhabiting, right now. By doing this, Hitt moves away from the trappings of a standard analytical argument and pushes us into the realm of experiential learning. As listeners, we know what he is saying is true, because we can identify it within our immediate environment.

Hitt highlights this experience by employing a not-often used trick: radio silence. During an astounding six-second pause, he gives you time to identify the sounds being created by the mechanical things within your hearing distance. It’s as if Hitt is sitting right next to you, listening while you direct your attention toward each little harddrive fan as it clicks on or off, and comparing its frequency to the frequency of the engine of the plane that’s flying overhead, or the train that’s passing through town.

We’re living in a world of sound, and it becomes quite obvious as soon as you start to listen.

Hitt takes his argument to the next level when he addresses the moods that these chords evoke. We’re not usually conscious of these buzzes, whirrs and hums, but the combination of these sounds has a profound effect on how we feel.

It might seem ridiculous when you read it in text (i.e., right now), and this is why you need to hear it for yourself. With the experiential insight that this story brings to bear, you will hear the pitches and chords of the humming, buzzing, droning electronics that surround you, and become better attuned to the feelings that they evoke… it’s funny, but the descriptions really resonate: the sounds make you feel the way that Hitt says they make you feel.

When you listen to this piece (and, by association, to the sounds that occur all around you), it makes sense that we are, as Lester claims, products of our modern aural environment.

Hearing ”, by Jack Hitt
Act II in This American Life’s Mapping episode, originally aired in 1998
12 minutes
Originally suggested by Jonah Willihnganz