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A Community of Ears

Listening is a deeply personal experience. It is a matter of our brain translating soundwaves into an experience of sonic perception. Our mental bedrock of proclivities combines with our attentiveness to hone in on certain sonic stimulae and fade or altogether ignore other stimulae. These inclinations of attention can cause you and I to hear different things, even if we are in the same place at the same time. You might focus on a bird pecking at a seed nearby, while I might focus on the pounds of a hammer bouncing like a ping pong between two buildings.

A fascination with the sounds that grab our attention can drown out our awareness of other sounds. We start to develop an ear for particular kinds of sounds. Your interest in birds spurs a sonic focus on nearby clicks, flutters and chirps. My interest in reverberation spurs a sonic focus on more distant sounds moving through spaces, and an awakened aural attention when I am in or near a reverberant space.

Our ears become specialized, based on our interests, our environment, our language, and the necessities of life. This allows for efficient use of mental energy, but it also narrows and potentially dulls our experience of life.

When we actively listen together with others, new colors emerge and emanate within our previously monochromatic sonic landscape. Our ears and awareness open to new sounds through a community of ears. This can be as straight-forward as a friend sharing a type of music with you you've never heard before, or it can be a more subtle experience of listening to the same piece of music together, and then talking about what struck each of you.

I recently attended a chanty singing event at Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco. This is a monthly community event, in which attendees are encouraged to bring songs to share, and sing along with the songs others bring. It's not a performance. It's a (free!) communal listening and singing event. Some chanters used their phones to look up the lyrics to songs they didn't know, but I chose to engage my ears, which sometimes required singing gibberish syllables the first few times through the chorus until I could better make out the words. The ancient mental muscle of aural learning has grown flacid in modern culture due to the ready availability and efficiency of written words and notated scores. Using that aural input muscle feels like stretching a leg cramped from sitting too long in one position. Although my accuracy was compromised, my attention was focused and present.

Focus and presence - these are the qualities that listening stimulates in us. Reading sends us out of the space and time in which our body resides and shares with others, and into the infinite world of our own private mind. Ironically, I am pulling these words from the vast reaches of my own infinite world, albeit in the hopes that they land in some hearts somewhere in the vast reaches of the internet, and take root as illuninating experiences of attentive and shared listening in the here and now of the finite world.

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