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Rethinking listening in the age of noise and distraction

Posted by Megan Matthews on 20 Jun 2019

Kent Macpherson on Whakaari capturing the sound of the earth breathing Photo by Paul Nelson
Amidst the epoch of constant technological advances and societal movement, it’s almost unimaginable to just stop, to be still. While this out-of-touch state has many flocking towards various mindfulness movements, there is a less mainstream practice that involves the conscious use of human hearing to connect us back to a sense of belonging - active listening. Image: Paul Nelson
Amidst the epoch of constant technological advances and societal movement, it’s almost unimaginable to just stop, to be still.  To find that quiet place within yourself, the foundation of those very senses that we humans share – feel, touch, see, hear, smell. 

We live in the age of distraction.  Society’s gradual plateau into the buzz of the day to day, and capitalism’s constant grab for our attention has nearly consumed us.  It is a far cry from our ‘natural’ human state, to the extent that what once came instinctively to us, is now part of a hidden world that we rarely tap into. 

While this out-of-touch state has many flocking towards various mindfulness movements, there is a less mainstream practice that involves the conscious use of human hearing to connect us back to a sense of belonging - active listening.

Kent Macpherson – a soundscape ecologist, researcher, phonographer, sonic artist and ‘active listener’, is based at the School of Media Arts, Wintec. Macpherson’s main domain of research is in field recordings through which the concept of listening to a ‘hidden world’ becomes a reality for him. From a highway bridge to a forest clearing, each place has its own unique sound. Hydrophones, geophones and contact microphones pick up what the human ear cannot, revealing a whole invisible world in our midst. 

Macpherson describes active listening as “...focusing on sounds …not being influenced by any cultural influence or ideologies associated with that sound, just listening to the sound or sounds because of the sonic qualities of them. It’s about opening up the filters to allow conscious, concrete listening.”

In recent years, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared noise pollution as second only to air pollution. “It’s worse than water pollution, it’s a big deal,” says Macpherson. 

“It’s well known that birds can’t and won’t compete with those sound levels, so they will stop singing, and when they stop singing they stop mating, and so they become extinct.” 

The WHO are even looking into how noise pollution is affecting humans and our evolution. Once upon a time, humans resided in much quieter, almost noiseless environments compared to today, evolving to deal with our increasingly louder civilisations. 

For us humans, it has come to the point where we often don’t realise how much man-made noise we unconsciously filter out in our day to day lives. 

“Beeping, you know? 1000 hz sign waves, in our house...the microwave, the drier, the washing machine. Even our coffee machine beeps when the water is too low. There’s all these 1000 hz sign waves, it really pierces into the subconscious.” 

Compared to other countries, it is a lot easier to find areas with no noise pollution in New Zealand due to the lower population. But that doesn’t make natural sonic areas any less rare. Macpherson recalls travelling down to the Kaimanawa to try and find the source of the Waikato river and despite being miles away from anywhere, “there’s just constant human noise – tractors, chainsaws, aeroplanes, helicopters.” 

Active listeners want to get beyond that background hum of noise, often using nonstandard microphones such as hydrophones, geophones, and contact microphones to amplify what they are listening to, to access the ‘hidden’ sonic world.  Once recorded, it allows listeners to hear different qualities, even after hearing it many times. Macpherson mentioned that he learned on his trip to Scotland last year that Jez Riley French, a fellow recorder, will never do a recording less than 60 minutes because “you can’t understand the qualities of a space in any less time than that.”

However many, such as Macpherson, will take the method beyond the practice and employ it in day to day life. Macpherson enjoys active listening as part of his work, and it has been a point of interest in these last few years, playing an important part in Macpherson’s philosophy of allowing absolute faithfulness to space and time in his work. 

What Macpherson describes as “the ultimate act of active listening” is the mindful practice of “soundwalks” - a peaceful gathering of listeners who come together to participate in active listening. Conducted by a guide or phone app, listeners are led to different ‘sound-marks’. 

There is no verbal communication, no silly banter, just walking and listening – providing a peaceful ambience.

Macpherson recounts to me one of his soundwalk experiences in Scotland last year, in which 30 people gathered for midnight rambles within a Scottish glen. According to their guides Chris Watson and Jez Riley French, they were in the quietest place in the UK. 

“No-one would say a thing. People just didn’t, they just listened.” 

As a relative ‘newbie’ with three years of engagement in soundwalks, Macpherson himself has not led any in a professional sense, though he will often take his students to different sound-marks for their own practice.  And they don’t have to be in nature, sound-marks can be found in the city.

“Sometimes if you stand between large buildings you can get a phasing effect in sound because of the proximity of the shapes and standing waves bouncing off buildings and that kind of thing.”

“It’s hard to pin down from other artists and practitioners what soundwalks actually are.  You kind of make them up for yourself with a few basic rules or guidelines to base it on. Overall, it’s about restraint, it’s a real discipline.”   

Beyond sound walks, active listening is a daily practice for many, from the urban buzz of our manmade environments to the whispering hum of wind through a vine. One such as Macpherson will even ‘actively listen’ to music, a normal day beginning with the smooth honey of Sade’s Your Love is King and followed by the screech of a Norwegian black metal band.    

His 11-year-old daughter has even imitated her father’s practice of active listening, Macpherson expressing that she has become very good at it. 

“She comes out with me a lot when I do recordings, she’s quite into it. She’ll be like ‘Dad! Stop Talking!’ and I go okay, and we stop for a while and listen together.”  

For Macpherson, active listening has been a continuous learning experience. The sheer enthusiasm behind his passion for sounds is, to say the least, inspiring. For every 100 sound recordings he has done, he says that there are perhaps 1 or 2 that are just “absolutely incredibly interesting and dynamic and beautiful in their own way.”

Active listeners start to see and hear the world in a new way.  They start to seek out a different sound quality in their day to day lives, perhaps by turning off the radio or retreating to a quiet area of the city just to listen.  And this listening leads to new discoveries. Macpherson’s time creating a sound map of the Waikato river took him to many places so isolated yet so potently unique. A river delta at the end of a long, quiet road, slightly touched by the distant sound of tractors and chainsaws. As Macpherson says, “these are places you would never go. There’s nobody there!”

All the while he describes his thinking “I’m listening to something that no one else has heard before, I’m listening for the first time to this, and this is wonderful! It’s beautiful and it’s a symphony of the universe, it’s just exciting.”  

Macpherson says that people in his line of work are often more susceptible to an increased awareness of their environment, which can be “a bit of a curse as well because you can’t shut it off, which could go either way depending on your personality.” Macpherson describes a conversation that he had with a Melbourne lecturer, Martin Koszolko, who told him that as he has aged, he has found noise evermore stressful and difficult to handle. Macpherson speculated that it may not be just his age, but the age of ever-increasing noise pollution that we live in. 

“Those of us that are more tuned into the qualities of the different sounds around us are much more tuned into that.” 

But beyond this, studies have shown that active listeners tend to have increased empathy and compassion levels, may even learn better and faster, and can listen for overall meaning rather than just ‘hearing’.

Studies have also concluded that natural sounds have a special effect on human mental conditions. We as humans have a deep connection with nature sounds through evolution.  Rain sounds have been shown to create an enhanced cerebral alertness, improving the pace and performance to subjects in solving difficult arithmetic calculations/boosted arithmetic ability. 

On top of this, many studies and articles back the importance of active listening. It has been said that humans need to stay in touch with their natural and urban environment, or at least retain conscious contact with it through active listening. 

For Macpherson, he has found that active listening enhances his ability as an artist. “It’s the truest, purest form of my practice.” 

While he believes it would be ‘sanctimonious’ of him to say that people should spend more time in nature, he thinks that people should not allow themselves to become too comfortable and accustomed to our urban, man-made environments as the noise level hasn’t proven to be good for our health.  And active listening in your environment is a way to break out of the norm.

“I made a recording yesterday in the morning of my backyard because there was this beautiful bird singing, and I think it was a starling, and what a beautiful song! I’ve probably heard it 1000 times, 1 million times, but I was really tuned into it, because I hadn’t really heard that song this year yet.” 
“I’m 51, and I’m discovering a whole new world, and that’s really exciting to me” 

If we trained our ear to pay more attention to the world around us, what would we hear? What would be revealed? What benefits could we reap? Perhaps we might attain access to an orchestra of hidden sounds? 

Rain hitting the sand from above, a gentle breeze blowing through a kiwifruit vine with the tiniest frequency of trees and branches, each sound and place with attributes so unique, one would never fathom that the sonic world could be so complex.   

Amidst the day of constant noise and distraction, perhaps this is a habit that can set us free.  

Paul Nelson


Susanne M. Jones, Graham D. Bodie, and Sam D. Hughes. (2016). The Impact of Mindfulness on Empathy, Active Listening, and Perceived Provisions of Emotional Support. 

Westerkamp, H. (1974) Soundwalking. originally published in Sound Heritage, Volume III Number 4, Victoria B.C., 1974. Revised 2001. Published in: Autumn Leaves, Sound and the Environment in Artistic Practice, Ed. Angus Carlyle, Double Entendre, Paris, 2007, p. 49. 

Dr. Henry Erhamwenmwonyi Asemota. (July 2015). NATURE, IMPORTANCE AND PRACTICE OF LISTENING SKILL. British Journal of Education Vol.3, No.7, pp.27-33. 

Kazumi Nishida and Mayumi Oyama-Higa. (2014). The Influence of Listening to Nature Sounds on Mental Health. Slownamusic Inc. 1001-1-c, Midoriku, Sagamihara, Kanagawa, Japan 2 Chaos Technology Research Lavolatory, 6-26-5 Seta, Otsu, Shiga, Japan 3 Kwansei Gakuin University 1-1-155 Uegahara, Nishinomiya, Hyogo, Japan 

Proverbio AM, De Benedetto F, Ferrari MV, Ferrarini G (2018) When listening to rain sounds boosts arithmetic ability. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0192296.

About the Author

Megan Matthews

Megan is a student at Wintec, studying communication. Megan is interested in important-issues storytelling and social media planning/campaigns within the creative realm. She’s just completed an internship with Wintec School of Media Arts storytelling and events team. Alongside student life, Megan is a busy mum and is on a mission to live a zero-waste lifestyle.

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