Awakening the senses: the wild world of sound

sound

When it comes to creativity, it’s important to have a constant stream of inspiration to draw from. If we choose to pay attention to them, our senses can offer bucket loads of material as we move through each day hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching. Paying attention to our senses helps us live in the moment, excites our curiosity, and can make us more in tune with our natural impulses. However, so many of us—myself included—go through our days without really feeling much of anything. To deepen my own awareness, I wrote a post on each of our senses, explaining some ways that we can focus more intently on that sense and wake ourselves up to the variety of experiences around us. This is the last one. Hopefully, they’ll help you too. I’ve also written about taste, sight, and smell, and touch.

Hearing

What do you think of when you think of your sense of hearing? Music? Birds chirping? Hearing loss? Next to sight, our sense of hearing is probably the one we use the most in an average day. It lets us communicate with our co-workers and loved ones, helps alert us when a car is approaching a crosswalk, and allows us to wake up on time when our alarm goes off. It also adds an incredible amount of texture and depth to our daily lives since we can pick up on so many different sounds at once: "Our hearing system does not blend the frequencies of different sounds, as the visual system does when different wavelengths of light are mixed to produce color. Instead, it separates complex sounds into their component tones or frequencies so that we can follow different voices or instruments as we listen to conversations or to music." (Source)  Also, hearing is unlike some of our other senses in that the process that brings sounds from our ear to our brain is completely mechanical, as opposed to chemical (like taste, sight, and smell). Our eardrum vibrates when sounds pass through the air around us, and the vibration is passed through a series of complex mechanisms before being turned into electrical signals to our brain.

Distractions and Mindfulness

If you find yourself easily distracted by the sounds around you, it might mean that you're highly creative, according to one study. Personally, I can't work in coffee shops or other noisy environments because I can't tune out the sounds of conversations around me. I also can't read while listening to music with lyrics, or if there's a television playing in the background.

On the other hand, paying attention to the sounds of your environment can help ground you in mindfulness and calm down your nervous system. When you're feeling anxious or agitated, try sitting quietly and focusing on all the sounds you can hear - the near ones and the far ones. Giving your sense of hearing your entire focus allows your brain to slow down. See this article for a more in depth practice.

Synesthesia

Synesthesia is a super interesting condition where wires get crossed in the brain and people's senses get mixed up. The most common kind is when you associate colours with numbers and letters, but there are dozens of ways that it manifests—I have a version called time-space synesthesia, where I see time as a loop wrapping around me.

The artist in this video sees music in her mind, expressed as swirls of colour, and she paints these extraordinary pieces based on what she sees. Of course, you don't need to have synesthesia to interpret music. Try gathering some drawing or painting supplies and putting on your favourite song. What colours does it make you think of? What shapes do the different sounds and instruments take on? It might be a bigger leap for those of us who don't have the connections happening automatically, but it can still be a lot of fun, and a great creative challenge.

Dancing is a much more conventional way of interpreting sounds. Just like I believe that anyone can draw with enough practice, I think anyone can dance (or at least embrace movement) once they start paying attention to how different sounds feel in their body. Lock the door, put on some music—it doesn't have to be "dance" music, it can be anything you like—close your eyes and see if you can feel the music moving through you. Does the music go up or down? Does it go from side to side? Does it make quick sharp movements or slow gentle ones? What part of your body do you feel it in? See if you can let the music flow out of your body in the way that feels most natural. It doesn't have to look like a music video, this is a completely private, personal expression. Just see what happens.

Words

It's interesting to notice how many words are used to describe sounds. We all learn about onomatopoeias in school, but have you ever noticed how common they are in everyday speech? The other day I caught myself thinking about the difference between a clang and a clank. Or a crash or a bang. Our language can be so evocative of the world around us. The next time you're paying attention to the sounds around you, think about what words might be used to describe them. Is your laptop buzzing, hissing, or purring? Is the wind rustling, swishing or sighing? What are your favourite sound words? I think mine would have to be susurrus: "a rustling or whispering sound." For an extra challenge, write a poem about what you're hearing (I'm pretty sure we did this in school at some point). Here's a poem that I wrote when I was quite young, about the sound of silence (though I think it's actually about the sound of my electronics buzzing away):

Silence can be heard a staticky sound thick in the room. Like dust covering every surface, swallowing and choking. Growing louder and louder like a tumor in the ear takin over completely. And you wish to hear clean sounds, music, noise to wash away the dust. To cut through and clear away the choking sound of silence.

Just for fun

Try this game to test how accurate your hearing is. You'll need stereo headphones to play.

What are your favourite ways to connect with your sense of hearing? What are some of your favourite sounds (or sound words)? Leave a comment below.