The Journal of Sonic Studies

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol06/nr01/a05

Hearing Toward Listening Toward Hearing

Sonic events come to consciousness under various modes of presentation. As subjective processes, they are related to individual moods—attention, distraction, passivity, anxiety, exhilaration, etc. These can be integrated into the sonic approach by establishing subtle variations in how we hear what a character hears. How is this particular sound coming to have a relationship with the being of the character in this moment? In considering the how of sound, we must think about the distinction between hearing and listening. Roland Barthes, in the first sentence of his essay “Listening,” makes the claim that "Hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act" (Barthes 1985). Hearing is passive; it is an unconscious openness to the sonorous surroundings in which one finds oneself. In this mode, the soundscape of the world is uneventful and unworthy of noticing. Listening is what happens when one actively penetrates the membrane of the uneventful. In listening, I take notice toward something whose identity I may or may not know. And I notice it based on a particular state of mind in the world of experience. Regardless of whether the physical source of the sound is known or unknown, my consciousness is intended toward (or directed toward) some particular sonic event in an effort meant to reveal its meaning. As Jean-Luc Nancy says: “[T]o listen is to be straining toward a possible meaning…” (Nancy 2007: 6). Nancy is pointing to the phenomenological here. Listening is based not on reason (necessarily) nor simply on sensation (empiricism); it is an activity, a directing toward what is revealed in an effort to uncover its (often multifarious) meaning.

The taxonomy of audible perception tends to stop there, in the distinction between hearing and listening. But there is still another mode of audible perception to consider which is also called “hearing.” We can think of this as a second-level hearing. This can be illustrated with the following statement: “Yes you are listening to me, but are you really hearing what I am saying?” This level of hearing goes beyond listening toward understanding. It has some relation to what phenomenologists call the eidetic intention, or a mode of perception that goes beyond the empirical and into the imaginative (Sokolowski 1999). In this upper echelon of hearing we become creative subjects; we produce meaning and can abstract certain ideas from what we choose to listen to.

What happens with the treatment of sound in this manner, in a design sense, is that we present an auditory event as something either reflecting the objective world of rational continuity, or more toward a subjective manner of unfolding, one which calls for more active listening and perhaps even second-level hearing of sound as a phenomenological event. These are not hard distinctions, but indeed can be far more interesting when presented as a relationship that changes over time. Films that have done this well in a plot-specific sense are The Conversation (the changed meaning of a tape recording) and The Orphanage (two different disclosures of a particular sonic plot event).[4] Animation, however, has not taken advantage of this dynamic even though its form of pure invention makes it the ideal medium for such shifting states of subjective awareness and empathy.