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Monday
Feb152010

Quiet Listening

I have been experimenting with a new kind of listening over the last year.

For reasons partially, but not completely, clear to me I am finding that my ear has developed a kind of threshold. This threshold is not just volume oriented, it is also information oriented. Once I cross this threshold my ears shut down -- both internally and externally. Meaning that not only does my inner ear shut down and I cannot bear to listen anymore, but my physical ears don't want any more sound either. They kind of stuff themselves up.

This threshold seemed to get crossed with volume over a period of time. Even with the simplest music, the louder the volume the shorter the time span I can take. This seems to range from several hours to 15 minutes in one sitting, I am guessing.

But the threshold also gets crossed with density of musical information. Meaning the density and intensity of musical/sonic information can push me over this threshold even if the volume level and the duration threshold are long from being crossed.

This has been quite challenging for me with the current CD I am working on - the Normalizer project with Marco Minnemann's drumming (release date May 18, 2010.) The musical density can be enormous. Just the drums, alone, can be quite a dense listening experience. At the end of the day, I have found ways to strip out the textures and musical ideas so that the ears have space to breath, but the process of getting there has been one of enduring tons and tons of density.

The way I have generally been working on this project -- after extended pondering of each section -- is to start throwing ideas on to the drum tracks. It often takes three to five "throws" to find something that sticks. But even once I have found something that sticks, it doesn't mean I have landed on success. I have to find another idea to counter to the first one. I really need three elements/statements that can interact before I really know how a section is going to flow: the drumming, the main idea and a counter idea.

This process of throwing stuff on, finding a partner for each idea, weeding through each one and it's combinations, can be extremely fatiguing to my ears. Just juggling all the sounds and possibilities has crossed my 'ear threshold' so many times - not to mention mixing each section -- that I have had to come up with a new kind of listening strategy.

And here it is:

Turn down the volume

It's pretty simple and obvious, but somehow quiet radical. Especially when I turn down the volume, a lot. And I mean A LOT. Turn it way, way, way down, so the music is extremely quiet. Percolating just above the ambience of the room.

In my studio, this is pretty quiet. And a challenge to rise to. When I first started playing around with this Quiet Listening, I had to fight the constant urge to turn it up. Even though it isn't really necessary. Sure, if you are in full on engineer mode, then you need to hear everything clearly and sharply and this means giving some power to the sound. But if you are composing/producing and developing ideas, there is no reason, whatsoever, that you can't get a clear sense with the volume extremely low. In fact you may get a clearer impression, as the music has to speak from it's own authority, not from the power of it's sound.

This Quiet Listening has had a fairly strong impact on my workflow. Not only can I work longer, I feel like I can work more thoroughly and I have a clearer sense of what is the focus in the music.

And interestingly enough, I have begun trying it with general listening and the experience is quite something. Usually you turn up the volume to meet your ears - and this is one kind of listening experience. But what happens when you listen quietly? You turn up the ears to meet the music. It's a very, very different experience to be sending the ears out to the music rather than the other way round. It IS challenging and places a demand on the listening. But, and here is the interesting part, this demand doesn't fatigue my ears. It doesn't push my threshold, where I would have thought it might.

There is some kind of 'secret something' in all of this, that I am sure will emerge with further application.

I look forward to hearing about everyone else's experience with listening in these different ways.

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Reader Comments (23)

First off, It immediately reminded me of how Eno, (by a subtle, yet powerful sonic fluke), first? heard music in a quiet way...

He was laid up in bed with an illness, and couldn't get up, so asked a friend to turn down the stereo as this visiting friend departed. Well, it was turned down so low, it produced a completely different, and altered 'ambient mix' of the piece that was playing on the stereo. This was a huge ear-opening to him. It may have been the genesis of his early ambient recordings. A creative impetus, if you will. But I'm sure you know that story....

And B:

I deal with the same sort of 'overload' syndrome, volume-wise. And if there's too much information (density); i.e. instrumentation, certain tones (mainly HIGH cymbals/horns/etc...) the worse it feels to my mind, and psyche.
The simplier, (and clearer) the music is, the easier it is to aurally digest.

It's as though my whole system gets overwhelmed,and thus starts to shut-down, and makes my ears desire pure silence.


I know the crux of what you are describing is quite on a completely different level, but in some ways, very similar. So thanks; I'll try your new way of listening!!


Excellent blog, by the way. Thanks for sharing.

Ross Smith
Nashville, TN.

February 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRoss Smith

Have you noticed any periodic changes in where this threshold is at any given time? Seasonal or perhaps lunar would be the obvious, at least for me. What I find is that I go through periods of being drawn to large quantities of extremely dense music, be it orchestral or hard core stuff, if they are different. After awhile of that I seem to wear of it and lapse into fairly long periods of only being able to listen to solo work, and sometimes a step further to only acoustic instruments. Sometimes these periods are a few weeks, sometimes months. There is a lot of corporate noise in this particular life, so I haven't really managed to analyze it much, and perhaps that is a lot of the answer.

I certainly think you have something in this Quiet Listening. Through occupational hazard I find myself playing during times when people are sleeping nearby. I found an extremely low powered amp and added a power soak to allow for some really low volume playing, and it has really opened some doors to a much larger range of dynamics, probably density as well. I have on occasion fallen into the too extreme dynamic swing of a certain Estonian composer.

Lastly, it's refreshing to see talk of active listening. We often get on down the road of gear and performances, &c., but I have often wondered about gathering to experience the thing that started it all in the first place; listening. A couple of attempts to organize a listening group has fallen to conflicting schedules and incongruous relationships, but perhaps there are other options to be explored.

February 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Fecklesson

Yes, I know that Eno recording. I think it is called Discreet Music . I still have it on vinyl!!

I hadn't thought about the cycles of my ear-ly thresholds. You want to be taking some serious notes to pull off any objective accounting.

I have also thought about reviving the "listening party." Just listening to music. It was how it all began for me -- sitting around with music lovers listening to records. Not doing anything else - just listening.

It reminds me of club I went to in Japan about 12 years ago. It was a jazz listening club. They had this telephone book size catalog of recordings that you would flip through and request song titles from. A "dj" would go to the "wall", pull out a record and play that one track on the turntable. Then he would put it away and pull out the next record. It was very clear that talking was inappropriate. We were there to listen.

Great comments.

cheers,

TG

February 15, 2010 | Registered CommenterTrey Gunn

Radically changing how you listen (turning the volume down, in your example) to reveal more: I've used a very similar approach over the years: I change where and how I listen and what type of system I listen through.

I've found that different sound systems can cause different parts of music in a recording to emerge, sometimes in startling ways. It seems particularly noticeable when the system used is somehow acoustically flawed or compromised. The most obvious example would be a car stereo, one of the most compromised listening spaces one will ever find: a decidedly lousy acoustic environment, reflections, unwanted resonances, imperfect speaker placement, weird phase cancellations, etc. In such an environment, I've been amazed time and again by sounds that emerge anew from recordings I've heard dozens or even hundreds of times.

I have taken to wearing earplugs when driving long distances to protect my hearing. Vehicle noise is a real stressor and damages your hearing over the long run, and I've become very protective as the years go on. The weird part? The same phenomenon I described above: finding things in a recording played on the stereo that I'd never heard before! There have been a few times when I could actually hear the music better with the earplugs... more focused, more defined, lyrics easier to discern, although obviously somewhat flat and muffled (you can't have it all).

I've also been deep into 78 rpm records the last few years, many of which have the frequency range of a telephone. What amazes me about them is that many sound damn good in most any context. The sound comes through well on just about any system (although if the speakers are total crap, nothing will help that... can't make a silk purse out a sow's ear).

Indeed, in our high-fidelity world (and especially in a studio setting with powerful high-buck monitors), it's easy to forget that sometimes less is more.

I think turning down the volume is another way to approach this same phenomenon, and it's an excellent idea to throw into one's bag of listening skills.

A great post, Trey... it's a treat to read your thoughts once again! Thanks!

February 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVictor

Great post. I listen at two levels when I'm mastering - full level, and with a 12dB pad. I'm not sure that's quite as quiet as you're suggesting, but it's pretty low - and, it's essential to what I do. Things need to sound right at both levels, and each volume level lets me hear different things about the music.

More generally, there are two things that could be happening to your ears - temporary threshold shift, where your ears react to a generally loud ambience and physically adjust, reducing their sensitivity to avoid damage (the opposite also happens) and simple listening fatigue. There is research that rather than being relaxing, constant white noise is stressful - this is certainly my experience trying to work in an office with many noisy computer CPUs ! The more "dense" the music gets, the closer it approaches white noise (also, the more dynamically compressed and limited, or distorted) so it makes sense to me this kind of music would be uncomfortable, over a long period of time.

Do either of these fit what you're describing ?

February 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterIan Shepherd

Trey,

This comes down to the differentiation of "sound" vs. "music". In my world music can potentially exist without sound. So I think you're totally right with your assessment. I wonder if the 'secret something' is obvious, too, though.

Best,
Markus

February 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarkus Reuter

An interesting perspective and clearly helpful to others ....
When in college, I used to listen to music in the dark late at night so that the other senses were not a distraction.
A low to modest volume volume worked well and qualities emerged in the music that were sometimes breathtaking - particularly on "familiar" pieces.
An analogy would be cleaning the windows of our home, so that light can pass freely and present a clearer image.
Steve

March 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Clarson

I have a similar experience with listening music especially at night. I found that when you turn the volume down you can hear all the details hidden somewhere within the whole sound texture you cannot hear during the day. The sound is more clear. That is probably the result of the lack of light, noise, etc.
I have found recently that too much information in music gives me uneasy feeling. It's like the more spacious music is more piece it gives to my mind and body. Yeah, I'm definitely an ambient freak.

pete

March 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

I meant more peace not "more piece" of course. Sorry.

March 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

[***NOTE from TG: This is funny! While making a legitimate point, it completely veers off topic and is antagonistic. I love it. At first I thought I might have to take it down, but now I think it is hilarious. Enjoy! ***]

I think another problem is the lack of subtlety, creativity, flexibility, fluidity, elasticity, and sometimes-less-is-more capability of practically all the 'progressive' drummers who are the called-upon 'name' musicians of today. The lack of understanding of how to use the hi-hat cymbal(s) for interesting accents, and an ability to play in odd-time meters in a grooving flowing, non-rigid 'nu metal' fashion seems to be an (almost) completely lost art. I've heard this drummer referred to here; and he lacks a sympathetic, natural and unique manner of drumming so often found in the 'anonymous' playing of the 'professional' drummers of today. Along with him you can add Danny Carey, Pat Mastellotto, Gavin Harrison, etc. etc. All these guys basically play and sound the same. They are interchangeable. They lack a unique sound and an understanding of the foundation other instruments besides the drum kit. Is this really the 'best' drumming has to offer these days. Heavy-handed players with no unique sound and conception of their own? Musicians who couldn't even play a measure or two in a credible jazz feel if called upon to do so? The art of subtle creative drumming is dead. The drummers I've mentioned have no natural syncopation or 'feel' when it comes to playing in odd-times. They pound out irregular rhythms in a heavy handed and non-nuanced manner--it must be because they listened to so much 'hard rock' and perhaps abrasive European RIO style improv music as formative musicians, as opposed to someone like Bill Bruford (who none of these drummers can sound like remotely even if they try to even though he is such a big influence upon them) who grew up listening to jazz, and more varied types of music. (Maybe it has something to do with the proliferation of click-tracks and interchangeable 'studio drummers'.) I'm sorry to lecture here, but as art and culture is slowly dying (or is already dead) in our society, so has the skillfulness of creative drumming also died, especially jazz drumming (emphasizing swinging accenting on the hi-hat) which is a completely lost art. The innovative drummers of the 1960s and 1970s have now been replaced by too-loud bashers who pound out the meter in a non-creative over-emphasized sledgehammer feel on the downbeat, even when playing in odd-time rhythms and/or when soloing.

March 3, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdandor

I have a habit (which has fallen by the wayside a bit lately) of quietly listening to music in the dark before I go to bed. I have the same experience of my ears meeting the volume level. AT first it is "too quiet", but after a few minutes I can hear everything clearly with no fatigue. It's a great way to clear your mind and also take in some valuable musical information. A form of meditation, in a way.

Rick

March 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRick Landwehr

Now we are getting into listening vs hearing territory.

For me, to truly "listen" to something, I need to block out all other stimuli and listen at a low volume. So at night time, with no lights on, headphones clamped to head, at a low volume, used to be the ideal way to listen and absorb music.

The problem for me is separating out the background noise. If you live in a noisy environment - near traffic (as I do) or have children (as I do) the whole volume issue is just a hammer to beat yourself over the head with.

But the same principle can be lent to seeing. How many of us blunder through life without actually "seeing" where we are going, or noticing the things that are going on around us. Again, that's down to the various stimuli that are thrown at us. We have our internal dialogues to contend with, worries of the world and other distractions like iPhones or whatever, so our senses become blunted.

I know it is a cliche, but turn off one sense and another sense becomes more sensitive. So as well as quiet listening, close your eyes too...see how that works out for you.

March 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDarren

It is fascinating that several of you have listening practices like this. That is great. It makes me wish I had underwater headphones. Then at the end of the day I could get into my bathtub with a snorkle, turn off the lights and vibe out!

March 4, 2010 | Registered CommenterTrey Gunn

I often find turning down the volume forces one to cope with the 'minimal form' of a piece. Generally, the broadest strokes are more pronounced, and the little background stuff become flourishes around the music. Indeed, timbre, in a way, becomes part of this 'background stuff'...to some extent.

but to another extent its the reverse...it also could emphasize the importance of timbre in relation to a part (even harmonics within a sound would obviously make a part that is built around primarily those harmonics more pronounced at lower volumes.) I guess at low volumes both would happen, the parts in the front move more to the front and those in the back move further back.

I do find it interesting that, as a composer, one could only vaguely realize how his/her work would be listened to. Works that practically beg the listener to provide volume to hear the power of a performance could be relegated to background music in a guitar center. Adding a noise floor or a modified frequency curve to a low-volume listing experience is yet another way to hear a work (and the 'color' of the noise certainly can reveal/ obfuscate a form as well.)

I look at listening in a similar way to viewing a painting (on a limited level, there are quite a few similarities;) reduced volume is akin to increased distance, and background noise or audio fidelity is analogous to different qualities of light. (and the cleaning windows analogy would be more like removing that funky-eq curve many of us put on our stereos for low-volume listening to hype the his and lows...the eq being artificial light that we add when our windows are dusty.)

Ever swim in a pool with underwater speakers? thats a trip (not quite the "oh my, how will I walk with the carpet melting around my feet" experience, but fun nonetheless)

March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBilly Middlemiss

Actually, Stockhausen's Kontakte in a swimming pool would be something to try...it could possibly surpass the carpet melting criterion...

or sound like whales from another dimension. Either way, its on my list of things to experience.

March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBilly Middlemiss

Great article - I can't tell you how many metal heads I know that couldn't appreciate quiet music even if it was turned up to 11! (Ha!) Seriously though, something I have noticed as of late is something Bill Bruford recently wrote in his autobiography, which is that music has become a commodity. With little portable libraries, music goes wherever you go - has it no sense of occasion? With downloads (illegal or not) it doesn't seem that the money is as important as the fact that people treat it like they're buying a happy-meal from McDonalds. If you walk into a room where people are watching a movie it's "Shhhhhh! Don't interrupt!", but very rarely do I see people just sitting and LISTENING to music as an activity unto itself. It seems as if many people have mistaken Eno's ambient background music for any kind of music - and it's because so much of it now-a-days is ignorable. This calls out to me for a massive push for music appreciation. Not instructions on how to listen, but information on WHY what we listen to is important, or artfully done at least. The fact I see that people are buying in to mass appeal music instead of listening critcally to more challenging stuff, lies a lot in the idea that they are spoon-fed radio hits. This may be changing with sattelite and internet channels, but people still tend to programmatically listen to stuff they grew up with and without a grounding in some kind of appreciation will find mediocre material "the best thing ever" and more interesting stuff "scary and weird". Or go to the opposite extreme and just use scary and weird for it's own sake as their touchstone for finding new stuff.
Certainly I am not prophecying the end of culture through the agency of non-appreciation, but there seems to be a lot of it about these days...

March 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKris Nelson

The Art of Listening

Sounds like a great piece of work. I wish I had the space to take it on. Perhaps I hear my old age calling??? That is something to look forward to, isn't it? Deep listening as a concluding practice of one's life. And you can do with friends, to boot!!!!

from Kris Nelson
>>>Not instructions on how to listen, but information on WHY what we listen to is important, or artfully done at least.>>>

Nicely put and quite a deep well, in itself, right there.

I know there have been some interesting, yet informal, researches taken on about how listening to music changes it. A whole 'nuther kettle o' kettle fishes.

Thanks to everyone for this enlivening discussion. Keep it ongoing. Maybe someone has come up with some experiments, or personal practices, they are working on that they would like to share????

cheers,

TG

PS. Oh yes, I just remembered something. Pauline Oliveros has put a good chunk of effort into discovering what she calls "deep listening." I met her years back and she presented several interesting listening, and listening/sound-making, exercises to a group. The effect was both fascinating and ear-opening.

March 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTrey Gunn

Hello Trey and others, firstly I wanted to thank you for reviving your online blog. I just wanted to share an experience that I had with Pauline Oliveros in Atlanta in 2003. As part of her deep listening series of concerts we presented a show in our backyard in Emory. My principle collaboration was that of the firekeeper. We set up a quad system, through this we mixed a kyma system (Steve Everett) and MAX MXP (Pauline), we set up 2 mics one at the river at the bottom of the garden and the other around the fire. I spent the day collecting different kinds of woods that I would burn throughout the night. All of this data was collected and we all interacted with one another. The sounds of fire and water mixed and processed was the canvas for Steve and Pauline to build upon. The audience of over 200 people were mesmerized as it demanded that the audience keep quiet and listen to every nuance of the performance.

When the performance ended we all hung onto the last note as it evaporated into the sound of the night.

A night to remember for all. Recently Pauline and I got into contact and discussed the night with very fond memories.

Thanks
PJ

March 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Jorgensen

Interesting discussion !

Right now, I'm experimenting thit kind of threshold: when I listen to music, I'll stay focused just on it. But I cannot do it for a long time. That's why I prefer "old style" short album (40 min. long)

Your "quite listening" is something I've experienced especially when mixing music.
I've discovered that:
a) ther's no reason to have a loud volume;
b) adopting a VERY quite volume allows you to take care of each sound/musical part;
c) if I can hear all sonic and musical details at the deisred level, pan popsition etc..., then the mix wil sound perfectly in every Cd player or PA system

Great blog.
Best,

Fabio

March 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFabio Anile

You crazy kids with your loud buugee wuugee!

March 12, 2010 | Unregistered Commentervictrolux

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