I Hear You

There is a vast difference between hearing and listening. Our conscious world bombards us with a plethora of sounds, from the faint rustling of leaves to the blaring of the horn from the car behind us. And although we hear everything, our vastly capable brain organizes and prioritizes these sounds so our auditory senses do not become overwhelmed. We selectively give importance to things like alarms, horns, sirens, and the like, as they are important indicators of necessity or danger. The fainter sounds, like rain on a window or the chirp of a cricket on the evening air, are often heard but quickly dismissed. There is always some background noise that we are processing out of our conscious thought. We can focus on what is being said to us in a crowded room full of conversations because we choose to turn off what it is we deem inconsequential.

And this myriad of noise is often a distraction to conscious thought. That is why we find it harder to concentrate in a noisy environment or turn the car radio down when we are looking for an address. By eliminating the need to process these random sounds, we are able to more acutely focus in the cognitive needs for higher brain functions. It is why we have headphones and ear buds. It allows us to fully focus in what we are hearing without the impedance of other sounds. And the reverse is also true. Often, when we are straining to listen to something, we close our eyes. We omit any visual stimulation to focus our attention to the auditory senses. I hear music throughout my day from various sources. The car radio when I am driving, the stereo on while I do the dishes, and the snippets from ringtones from the people around me, all send music into my ear canal. I hear it all, but I am not really listening.

Since I am distracted by the need to perform other more immediate functions and cognitive focus, like not crashing my car into something, I minimize what I am hearing. My attention is on making any number of correct perceptions, coordinated hand/eye movements, or simply not washing the same dish over and over. Only when I am lying down with my headphones on, eyes closed, and completely absorbed in what I am hearing am I truly listening to the music. And the nuances and subtleties are fully appreciated. Harmonic chord progressions, syncopation of the bass line, and purity of tone become a compelling part of each song. The emotions conveyed by lyrics and vocal styling become deeper and more meaningful. All because I am giving what I am hearing the predominant role in what I am doing at that moment. I am eliminating cognitive thought, visual processing, and muscle movement to focus on just what is being heard. And a greater beauty emerges.

But music does not hold the only audible beauty in our lives; we have just become accustom to ignore the beauty of other sounds, as we are constantly distracted by cognitive needs. I have become aware of this through my own personal mediation. While sitting comfortably, clearing my mind, and focusing on my breathing, I have rediscovered the beauty of the sounds around us. The rain on a window is fully heard. Its erratic timing and the ebb and flow of its volume bring a sense of nurturing and replenishment. The calming effect is noticeable. The faint chirp of the cricket outside my window echoes as the call to a mate. It reminds me of our need to be connected to others, and it carries a sadness not heard in passing. The crack of the bat from kids playing in the field beyond the yard is punctuated with laughter, and I reminisce to my own youthful days when I lived only in that moment of fun on a beautiful fall day. In the meditative moment of stillness and contemplation, I allow myself to “listen” to the other sounds that fill our lives. I find in them the same beauty we readily give to our music, so filled with tonal resonance and melodic form. By listening, instead of just hearing, it too is music to my ears.

© 2012  Commonsensibly Speaking ~ Brad Osborne

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