The Nature of Listening….

Hearing apparently is the second human sense to develope after touch in the womb…It’s pretty important to us on a very fundamental level and most of us have been doing it for a long time!

It’s fundamental to how we experience life!

If you had to give up sight or sound, what would you choose?

 It’s interesting to think about how much of our behaviour is based upon what we hear.

A loud noise we are scared, a bus we get out of the way, angry words we react, music we dance and a heart beat we are soothed etc, etc….

Even words, good news we are happy or important urgent news can lead to all sorts of live or die decisions being made in an instant….

We are constantly listening for new information to help make appropriate decisions to ensure our survival…..

So we must be pretty good at listening and to easily extract all necessary information from what we hear effortlessly, right?

Well herein lies a big dilema for the audio engineers, musicians and audio buffs.

Seems that when hearing a bit of audio our ears are not very reliable.

For example the more we listen to something our ears get tired and we then we begin to hear things differently.

Most of us enjoy the dopamine rush when listening loud but we hear things differently than when something is quite

and what sounded awesome last night after a few beers or when it went to tape at 4am, can sound at best, really average the next day etc, etc….

but the kicker is how inaccurate our aural memories seem to be unless we have the ability to do a direct like for like listening test.

As audio engineers we rely on our special abilities to do our jobs but as humans these abilities are lacking….

Dilema- we need great abilities but we don’t have these abilities naturally to do our jobs, in fact these abilities go against our very instincts for survival….

Our ears shut down over time and at high S.P.L and fill up with earwax to avoid damage. But we must listen loud over long periods of time if we do live concerts…..

At low levels it’s difficult to hear bass and the effects it has on a room or speakers….

Making changes to compensate for fatigue gets our ears excited and they tend to like changes until we realise we’ve fried it!

Seems the longer we focus on a particular sound whilst doing something to it, the more radical we have to continue changing it to keep the ears and our brain excited, keeping the dopamine flowing… because the mix isn’t as exciting as 10 minutes before….It’s lost something so just turn it up a bit … ahh that’s better! Dopamine high!

And as sound peeps we really “should” be being busy fixing all sorts of things that only we can hear because that’s our job, our survival!

When our ears are rested we realise we’ve gone to far….

We’ve worked too hard without an ear break and the audience didn’t get a good experience because it was too loud, distorted or quiet and unintelligible.

Anyway what would musicians and the audience know? The gated vintage 1.23s  2nd ER excited, hipass filtered compressed 6:1 under snare reverb with the 3db 8.76k boost with the chest compressing 20hz sub kik , sounded awesome!

Well it’s amazing how good audiences are at recognising bad sound and feeling a little ripped off and unsatisfied with mediocre sound experiences.

Especially when they’ve been working all day putting their hands down the plumbing, gutting fish or scrapping people of the road, paying their hard earned money for a good night out only to end up not sharing the audio engineers dopamine high.

On the other hand alot of musicians are great at working with sound even though they don’t seem to know much technical jargon. 

And like audiences they tend to feel and get uncomfortable when things aren’t right.

Musicians will make many adjustments using their ears so that they get comfortable to be able to do their gig and create a musical experience for their audience.

It’s engineers job to present their work to the audience in the most appropriate manner.

Everyday in my sound career I use the musical skills I was taught in my musical training. I always learn something about sound from musicians.

So every day using learned sound abilities and creating musical experiences in concerts, recorded music, film , TV etc. I’m looking towards musicians and music to educate in the

The Nature of Listening

Some of the greatest exponents of musical listening ability where the classical composers as they had to write music in their heads and scribble it down using feathers and octopus ink! They didn’t have a spare orchestra lying around to try stuff out!

They knew what the notes from each instrument sounded like rythmically and melodically alone or combined in dissonance or harmony and understood what that did to the human hearing experience.

They also wrote for the specific effects of acoustics.

These guys and girls could listen with their minds…….they created in their imaginations such amazing sounds with meanings just like many of the greats of modern times….

How did human hearing evolve?

Not being an expert in this area but very experienced in observing the effects of sounds on humans I have come up with a few of my own conclusions….

Our brains attach meanings to certain sounds through experience to protect us and ensure our survival.

In the womb there are no loud sharp sounds only warm rythmic heart beats, all is good in the world but a different rushing heartbeats along with a few raging stress hormones running around whilst bumping up and down must mean move….dance!

Why get a fright for a loud sound, it’s just a sound right?

Well out of the womb mother smashes a dish shattering the peace and screams…..danger!!!

So it’s what the sound means to the human brain that makes us jump thus being scared. As we get used to loud sounds being repeated we no longer jump because the meaning for the brain of the loud sound is now in a context. The loud sounds are now in context along with the other loud sounds that come along in the beat so we dance….

We can’t help but move to a great beat just as we can’t help but jump for a surprising loud sound!

What does a soft gentle tone mean to the brain?

What does it mean when someone mumbles and you can’t hear them properly?

Or what message does a highly reverberant sound send to this switched on highly imaginative brain of ours?

How does what we do as sound engineers engage peoples’ imaginations and deliver information that causes instinctual or habitual survival based reactions to occur?

Sound people may like to think about this stuff whereas many musicians just feel it because they may have an edge through their experience dealing directly with audience reactions to what they do.

When it comes to the Nature of Listening….. a musician understands how to influence audiences and can communicate and extract survival based information from their audience with their performance.

Isn’t that why people listen to music, to be effected by it?

If a musician can’t listen or understand an audience, enough said really!

How is your work as a sound engineer effecting the musicians ability to effect their audience?

As sound people I challenge you to go out into unfamiliar territories and listen to sounds from an information perspective, what information does each sound pass onto you?

Experience these things rather that intellectualise them.

Go back to work and put yourselves in a musicians mindset rather than technical process and try to understand how you are effecting the audience with your work.



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