Tune In, Turn On

Can a profoundly deaf musician teach us to listen better? Katherine Ellison talks to percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who wants us to wake up to the soundscape that is always around us.

Photograph by Jaak Nilson/Spaces Images/Corbis

When Evelyn Glennie plays the snare drum, her lithe body sways like an antenna. Her intense concentration is striking even in the ultra-focused world of solo musicians.

But one thing you should know about this Grammy-winning percussionist: she is profoundly deaf.

That doesn’t mean she can’t hear at all. She can. But she does it differently than you and I do, and her intense focus helps her make sense of the sounds she experiences.

Learning about the way Glennie hears can help any of us become better listeners. While garden-variety courses in listening generally focus on hearing what other people are saying, Glennie asks us to go deeper and broader—to explore how we hear and what we hear. She encourages us to make life more splendid by tuning in to soundscapes we’ve become accustomed to tuning out.

Glennie began to lose her hearing at the age of 8, and was wearing a hearing aid at 12. Soon she discovered that by taking the gadget off, she would hear less but feel more. Ever since, she has practiced the art of “touching sound” with her whole body, a discipline she says has enriched her world.

“My mission is to teach the world to listen,” Glennie says.

That raises the inevitable question, though: Don’t most of us already know how?

Evelyn Glennie performs at Dada Fest, Liverpool
Evelyn Glennie performs at Dada Fest, Liverpool

There’s listening—most of us do that without even thinking—but then there’s “active listening,” according to the auditory neuroscientist Seth Horowitz, author of The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind. He explains the latter as “throwing extra brainpower at sound.” We do this with attention circuits from another part of the brain that translate background noise into consciously integrated information.

That’s how attention makes the difference between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening.

In Glennie’s case, she expands that skill like few of us do, describing her performance style as “opening up my body as a resonating chamber.”

She often plays barefoot, to better feel the stage floor vibrate. Tilting back her head, she lets the sound hit her sensitive neck. As a young girl, she learned to appreciate the mechanics of sound by pressing her palms against the wall of the room where her music teacher was playing timpani. She says she feels the lowest sounds in her legs and feet and the highest ones on her face, neck, and chest. “You can almost reach out to that sound and feel it,” she explains. “Sometimes it almost hits your face.”

Glennie asks us to explore how and how much we hear, encouraging us to make life more splendid by tuning in to what we’ve become accustomed to tuning out.

Glennie was born and raised in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and speaks with a faint brogue. In recent years, she has become an international star, famed as one of the first people in musical history to successfully pursue a full-time career as a solo percussionist. Her celebrity has grown from a 2003 TED talk she gave in Monterey, California, to her 2007 receipt of the title Dame Commander of the British Empire to her live performance at the opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London.

Glennie’s fame helps her evangelize for quality listening. In the stirring 2005 documentary Touch the Sound, the camera follows her as she plays the drums in a huge empty factory and later in New York’s Grand Central Station, where she attracts a spellbound crowd. As the movie shows street scenes, seemingly through Glennie’s eyes, it conveys a kind of wonder at the sounds of cars honking in traffic jams, a pigeon flapping its wings, and the crowds of people walking along with earphones on, removed from the auditory magic all around them.

“I see a world where we’re drowning in sound,” Glennie says. “Even toys are now electronically enhanced, so that they squeak and squawk and beep. There are many layers, and this sound-drenched world is wearing on our patience. To find a place where there is little sound is quite rare. That’s pretty worrying. It’s almost as if there were food in front of you 24 hours a day, and you couldn’t escape it. How would that be? How would you react?”

Seth Horowitz, whose research in comparative and human hearing, balance, and sleep has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and NASA, points out that throughout the day and, to some extent, the night, sound provides us with a steady barrage of information we normally filter out of our consciousness. Too often we only notice it when it signals imminent danger. He views sound as much more than a means of interacting with others. Hearing is our “alarm system”—roughly 10 times faster than visual recognition and the only sense still active when we’re asleep.

Horowitz points out that sound affects us even when we’re not consciously aware of it. Sound “gets under our conscious radar system” via the most primitive parts of our brain, which is why it’s so good at triggering our emotions. In Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, the renowned neuroscientist Oliver Sacks describes how the brain reacts when we listen to music, stimulating memories and evoking emotions with an immediacy beyond any other sense except smell.

10x—Hearing is 10 times faster than visual recognition and the only sense still active when we’re asleep.

Most of the time, Horowitz explains, our brains act like noise-suppressing headphones, and there’s a good reason: they’re blocking out an endless stream of potential distractions, most of which we need not heed. In contrast, complete listening requires much more energy and skill—but it’s a skill that can be trained.

“I want people to take off their headphones and pay attention to the sounds of their environment,” Horowitz says. “If you don’t, you get a Twitter version of the world around you.”

To that end, Glennie and Horowitz have now teamed up in an ambitious venture called The Just Listen Project, a kind of manifesto about how to make one’s way through a sound-saturated world. With producer Brad Lisle, they aim to produce a series of products, including a 3-D IMAX film combined with live-streaming audio from rain forests and other ecosystems around the world, linked to a new science curriculum for middle and high school students. The film is still in development, but they plan to release it to science museums in 2014.

A former high school teacher, Lisle hopes the project will help get kids excited about science and math, showing them how to explore the world with their ears. One aspect of the project, a collaboration with Purdue University, focuses on “soundscape ecology.” Lisle describes this as a new branch of science that goes beyond individual sounds and studies the symphonies that ecosystems produce, such as when frogs and crickets interact.

Attending to sounds in this new way, Lisle says, can involve kids more emotionally in the natural environment. In one part of the IMAX film, audiences listen to the noise of boats passing near a pod of whales off the tip of Cape Cod. In another, they can hear sounds subtly altered by a changing climate, as they attend to the noise emitted from a healthy coral reef off the coast of Fiji, followed by the near silence of a dying one.

Horowitz tells of his own, somewhat less dramatic listening experience during a recent snowstorm near his home in Rhode Island. “I was figuring out the outside temperature by how many ice chunks were hitting the roof of my car,” he says. He experienced a period of deafness as a child and attributes some of his fascination with hearing to his own experience of regaining it. He admits he can get lost in sound, like when he’s raptly listening to music, but often extracts useful information out of subtle sounds that others might ignore.

Horowitz has diligently trained his ears to be an extra-sensitive alarm system. While driving, he usually listens to the sounds his car is making instead of the radio. After owning a string of “at least partial clunkers,” he got into the habit of tuning in closely for sounds that something is wrong. Following the method that old-school mechanics used before the era of computer diagnostics, he hears problems developing long before the little lights go on that signal real expense. He also tunes in to the sound of the printer in his office, alert to a change in the pattern that warns of a future malfunction.

Glennie has worked to train her auditory skill in a different way, which she described in a 1993 essay. Sound, she noted, is simply vibrating air. The ear picks up the vibrations and converts them to electrical signals, which are then interpreted by the brain. But hearing isn’t the only sense that can perceive those vibrations. Touch can, too. “If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear the vibration or feel it?” she asks. “The answer is both. For some reason we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration. In reality they are the same thing.”

50K – All 50,000 vertebrate animals can hear, but not all, such as cave fish, can see.

The theory is controversial—most audiologists, as Horowitz confirms, would say people hear with their ears, not their feet or necks. Yet he says that so strict a view ignores the fact that you can hear quite well by passing vibration through your skull, which in turn stimulates the inner ear’s hair cells. (That’s the basis of one type of hearing aid.) There’s also a great deal of evidence pointing to the brain’s “plastic” adaptation, where one sense is lost and another compensates. Blind people, for instance, often learn to map their environment with sound. As Horowitz explains, “They are building a 3-D world without their eyes. But it’s still spatial and what sighted people would think of as ‘seeing,’ if there were a way to map the blind person’s internal map onto their own.”

To be sure, whether you end up “hearing” with your ears or your feet, the difference remains on the margins of what Glennie, Horowitz, and Lisle intend when they urge the rest of us to “just listen.” What they’re really talking about is a deliberate, aware way of going about life that they fear is becoming more rare.

Frank Diaz, a researcher at the University of Oregon, has studied how meditation can improve our ability to appreciate music. As he described in the January issue of the journal Psychology of Music, he tested two groups of students who listened to a 10-minute excerpt from the opera La Bohème. The group that engaged in a brief mindfulness exercise beforehand found that it enhanced their experience.

illustration of forest with text overtop
Illustration by Mariko Jesse/Photograph by iStockPhoto.com/AdreaRoad

“If you’re a symphony player, you’ve probably played Beethoven’s Ninth 10,000 times. Your response is so habituated that you don’t get any pleasure out of it anymore,” Diaz told the website PsychCentral. In contrast, he said, meditation seems to renew our enjoyment.

Glennie is not a meditator herself. “I’m not the sort of person who separates this out,” she says. “I don’t want to say to myself that I have to do five minutes of meditation or I’ll be in a worse state.” But she returns frequently to her belief that most people are becoming less conscious and purposeful in their lives—deficits she feels can be overcome with a thoughtful practice of listening.

She wants people to know that “we do have a choice. We always have a choice. Sound is always all around us, and it’s amazing how we control how much we eat, what we see, what we smell, but somehow when it comes to listening, we’re bombarded in such a way that it’s not the same as with the other senses.

“But we do have a choice. If you were to analyze your day, would you be saying to yourself that this or that sound is totally unnecessary? Was this or that sound like indulging in a piece of chocolate—was it a fast-food sound? Really, I’m just suggesting we can control what we listen to and how we listen.”

Brenda Gillian, Glennie’s longtime assistant, has seen this kind of focus in action. In December 2010, the two climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in a group that Gillian says included half a dozen disabled people, counting Glennie (who for her part adamantly does not consider herself disabled). The goal was to raise £10,000 (about US$15,400) for Able Child Africa, a Londonbased charity for disabled children.

During the six-day climb, Gillian recalls, the temperature dropped precipitously, from 95 degrees to 13 below. The hikers slept inside small, cramped nylon tents that often had layers of ice covering them.

Gillian already knew that Glennie was an unusually driven person but marveled at her determination—and concentration. As they hiked up the mountain, Glennie kept her eyes on the path, politely ignored chitchat, and saved her breath to get to the top. “She’s disciplined in a way I don’t see in normally hearing people,” Gillian says. “She’ll just focus and get the job done.”

“If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear the vibration or feel it?”

The Sounds of Silence

The most common instruction for mindfulness meditation is to pay attention to your breath. But the breath is not the only thing you can notice when you sit down to meditate. Whether you use a small gong or an app on your phone, ringing a bell is a good way to start and end a meditation session. The sound is not just a timer. It reminds us that mindfulness is about creating space for silence and for listening. By letting go of our usual distractions, we make room to appreciate the sounds around us.

Here are three types of sounds to appreciate as you sit in “silence.”

1. Background sounds

One of the first things you will notice once the sound of the opening bell fades away is background sounds: traffic noise, the whirring of a ceiling fan, murmuring voices in the hallway. As you notice each one, let go of the habit of naming and judging it and dive into the pure sensation of hearing. In this way, everything you hear is treated as equal—beyond being pleasant or unpleasant.

2. Melodic sounds

Sounds that form a melody tend to arouse emotions, which is what we love about music. When we sit quietly, we will inevitably notice melodic sounds. A chorus of birds greets the dawn. A siren wails in the distance. A pitter-patter of rain softly taps the windowpane. Listening to the rise and fall of these sounds can arouse feelings that don’t need to be named or clung to. Melodies can make us feel sadness, joy, or both. Try to find the dividing line between the sound and your emotional response. It’s challenging, but listen loosely. If something melodious moves you, stay with it and notice how it affects your body.

3. Abrupt sounds

Sudden, shocking sounds that interrupt us can also bring us back to awareness. Someone sneezes—achoo!—and we’re back to the now. The sudden arising of a sound can wake you up to the present moment when you’ve been lulled into habitual thought patterns. When sitting quietly, we’re not trying to fall into a trance. Relaxed awareness is the thing, like a deer on the alert for something new.

When the closing bell rings at the end of your session, let the sound relax you. Rest in it for a moment. As the reverberation fades away, let it help you transition into everyday activity. Every moment there are sounds inviting us to listen. Being open to them is just another way to appreciate the world around us and appreciate one another. All the conversations in our life begin here.

See a glimpse behind the scenes from the making of “Tune In, Turn On.”
This article also appeared in the August 2013 issue of Mindful magazine.

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About the author

Katherine Ellison

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and author of three books on ADHD, most recently including ADHD: What Everyone Needs to Know, written with Stephen Hinshaw, vice-chair for psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, and published in 2015 by Oxford University Press.