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Listen, just listen, to all the people all around you.

Edge Studio

Have you listened to your world lately? Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton has surveyed the North American aural environment and found that virtually everyplace has some noise pollution. According to him, in the entire United States there are only a dozen places where you can stand for 15 minutes during daylight hours and not hear a man-made sound.

But even in those few places, there are natural noises. Hempton studies those natural sounds. But let’s turn it around. What might happen if you were to study the unnatural sounds — specifically, the voices in various environments all around you?

Hempton’s thoughts were explored in a recently aired episode of the Peabody Award-winning public radio program and podcast, On Being, hosted by Krista Tippett. The hour, titled “Gordon Hempton — Silence and the Presence of Everything,” was recorded in 2012.

Hempton reported that the least amount of noise pollution is found among the world’s tallest trees, in the Hoh Rainforest at Olympic National Park. He calls it a cathedral. But while he calls it his “church,” it’s not where he first got this spirituality. That conversion, at age 27, occurred when he pulled off the road into a field to rest.

As he tells in the interview (emphasis ours), “While I lay there, and the thunder echoed through the valley, and I could hear the crickets, I just simply took it all in. And it’s then I realized that I had a whole wrong impression of what it meant to actually listen. I thought that listening meant focusing my attention on what was important even before I had heard it and screening out everything that was unimportant even before I had heard it.”

That’s when he started to turn his attention from people to nature.

All well and good, and thank goodness for his efforts and observations. But, unless you’re also a sound designer or audio engineer, it’s of limited professional aid to the voice actor. Or so it seems. (We’ll get to an important exception below.)

Which is why we suggest doing exactly the opposite, but using the same mental approach.

Try this exercise:

Truly listen to the people around you, without first deciding what to focus on. What can you hear? What might you learn?

Will this get exercise get you a job tomorrow? No. Is it essential to the pursuit of voice-over excellence? Yes and no. Is it interesting, and relevant to your overall capabilities as an actor and human being? Absolutely.

It’s understandable that we as individuals tend to focus first on what we see. The hundreds of millions of cells devoted to visual processing represent about 30% of the cortex, whereas hearing accounts for just 3%. Each optic nerve consists of a million fibers, while each auditory nerve has only 30,000.

But as Hempton points out, our ability to sense sounds is normally never turned off. We have eyelids, but no earlids. In humankind’s early existence, there was a critical reason for that – sounds are often a warning. We needed to hear the unseen lion approaching, or the waterfall ahead. These days, we’re lucky if he hear an onrushing bus.

So let’s get back to a wider awareness…

Start as you leave your house or apartment. Do you hear neighbors? Under what conditions? Can you tell by their tone of voice, etc., how they’re feeling today? As you pass people on the sidewalk or parking lot, absorb not what they say, but how they say it. How far away can you hear people – probably farther than you’d think. As you pass through a checkout line, check out the chatter around you.

Here’s an inspiration from Hempton’s experience:

“We can go back to the writing of John Muir, which he turned me on to the fact that the tone, the pitch, of the wind is a function of the length of the needle or the blade of grass. So the shorter the needle on the pine, the higher the pitch; the longer, the lower the pitch. There are all kinds of things like that.”

It’s not what will you learn, but what did you learn?

When you meet with friends for lunch or a drink, listen to the din around you. How do people speak in different ways, depending on the number of people before them, and the size (that is, the noisiness) of the crowd around them? What voices or words “pop out” and can you tell why? (For instance, an unusual pitch, or tonal quality, or volume, or accent, or a coincidental pause in the noise?) What emotions do you hear, and how do you know them? How do laughs differ?

But a reminder: In the examples above, it may seem we’re saying to start by focusing your attention. That’s exactly NOT what Hempton is talking about. This exercise isn’t about focusing your attention. It’s about first taking it al in, and finding out what you hear.

Our minds already have the ability to focus on a particular sound amid clamor. For example, at a cocktail party, if someone across the room says your name, suddenly you hear it, separate from the noise. What’s more, you may be able to tell, even follow, what that person says. But do that as a later step. To start, don’t listen for sounds, listen to them. Listen to them all, all at once.

As the overall audible environment enters your awareness, be aware of what it says to you.

As esoteric as that might seem, interpretation of the human environment is also a practical matter. Consider this exchange from the interview:

Ms. Tippett: … Research shows that in noisy areas people are less likely to help each other.

Mr. Hempton: The explanation really goes all the way to silence. When we can speak in silence, you can hear, not just my words, but you can hear my tone, what I mean even beyond the words. In fact, it’s really not the words that are important. It’s the tone. It’s the overall message, the context. When we’re in a noisy place in urban environments, we become isolated, and we exhibit antisocial behavior because we are cut off from a level of intimacy with each other and we’re less in touch. We’re busy not listening to this, not seeing that, not doing that. We aren’t opening up and being where we are.

Speaking amid noise can also have a simpler negative effect. A friend of ours mentioned that at a social-club meeting in the back room of a restaurant, someone at the other end of the table said, “Stop yelling at me. I’m just stating my opinion.” To which our friend replied, “I’m not yelling at you. It’s just that your end of the table is quiet, while I’m by this noisy doorway. Sorry.” And he toned himself down.

In practical terms, when you’re reading a script, it’s not just about who you are, but also where you are, and everything around you.

And let’s not forget where this started. Although we’ve tried to apply this principle of listening to the human experience, the fact remains that the human experience is enhanced by the natural one. Listening to natural sounds, too, the way Mr. Hempton does, is yet another exercise.

The issue comes back to hearing being a protective mechanism, as much as it is an apparatus for sensing opportunity. Hempton cites the example of a deer drinking from a rushing brook. She periodically retreats, so she can hear her surroundings. That led to this exchange in the interview:

Ms. Tippett: This is such an important point you make as a professional listener, and it’s something I know too, that real listening is about being vulnerable.

Mr. Hempton: Well, when you really listen, when you really keep your mind open and listening to another person — and by the way, I highly recommend that if a person wants to increase their ability to understand another person, that they start out listening to nature because you’re totally uninvested in the outcome of nature. You can just take it all in, all the expressions. And isn’t it wonderful that, when a bird sings, that we do hear it as music? The bird doesn’t sing for our benefit.

So there’s a lot of joy in that listening, and when we become better listeners to nature, we also become better listeners to each other, so that when another person is speaking with you, you don’t have to search for what you want them to say. You can dare to risk what they really are trying to say. And ask them too, “Is this really what you’re saying?” And feel your own emotional response as they talk about risky subjects like how it is being a parent in the world that it is today.

Who would have thought that listening to nature would lead to valuable lesson in acting?

So remember to do it. That might be the most valuable lesson in this. When friends of ours set out to practice it, they often forgot to do the exercise altogether. They were so caught up in the basketball game, arena surroundings and talking with friends, that they forgot. So concerned about the train being late, they forgot. So distracted by the menu, they forgot. It’s natural that we’re generally so caught up in our lives, that we forget just to listen.

In the interview, ecologist Hempton speaks to this point, with regard to hiking into the silent backcountry with another person:

“Often the hike in is a chattery experience coming from urban lives, etc., but the hike out is hardly talking at all. And if we talk, we always whisper. Quiet is quieting.”

And sometimes, “noise” should quiet you, too.



Someone has told us that the Boy Scouts of America have a drill or requirement or something that calls for the scout to sit silently in nature for 15 minutes, sans any electronic devices. (If you have further information on that, we’d be curious to know the details. Leave a comment.)

Do you have a comment or suggestion? Please send to [email protected].