A Pedagogy of Listening

Composing with/in Media Texts

Milena Droumeva & David Murphy

2. Aural Literacy

Soundwalk in an Espresso Bar
Milena Droumeva & David Murphy

[binaural recording of cafe ambiance, mid-tempo music playing in the background, the sound of chairs being moved, hum of people talking, various coffee makers and other machines go on and off, sounds of clinking cups, distant hum of traffic, high pitched noise at some point]

(Thumbnail Source: Den late ku, 2011)

As a practice of both teaching and engaging with learning content, "tuning" necessarily references a kind of aural literacy: providing students with the training and sensibilities to decode soundscapes as systems of meaning and to expand ideas of what listening is, beyond musical and other forms of specialized listening. Here, we consider aural literacy as both a deliberate understanding of the environment that has to do with the audible and the skill and training of the ear that are required in order to gain that understanding. The central idea is one of listening as not only a perceptual but also a cultural competency. While hearing is our physical ability to perceive vibrations through the air and identify their frequency, envelope, spectrum, and directivity, listening is a cognitive, socially constructed, and habitually acquired process that allows us to discriminate, both consciously and unintentionally, what it is that we pay attention to. Each historical period, each ethnos, each culture and subculture, each domestic space, each individual, has their own vocabulary of listening styles relevant to particular contexts and situations. Consider for instance the phonograph-listening culture of the early 20th century (Gitelman, 2006; Sterne, 2003; Thompson, 2002), and then consider the listening culture of a home marked by the periodic bursts of a loud outdoor hot water tank, or the sleep schedule of the neighbor's toddler.

Anthropologist Steven Feld (1993, 1996), who conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Papa New Guinea using R. Murray Schafer's notions of acoustic ecology and the soundscape, was the first to refer to acoustic epistemology, or acoustemology. He was documenting several distinct soundmaking practices by the Kaluli and, during the course of his work there, realized that their connection to their local soundscape was not simply one of coexistence, but was rooted in deep understanding of its qualities and a deep appreciation and respect for the sounds of nature—especially bird song and water. Essentially, Feld noticed that the Kaluli worldview, their way of approaching soundmaking—both musical and aural—as well as their everyday life, was intertwined with their understanding and knowledge of the soundscape. Acoustemology, in Feld's words, is

an exploration of sonic sensibilities, specifically of ways in which sound is central to making sense, to knowing, to experiential truth. This seems particularly relevant to understanding the interplay of sound and felt balance in the sense and sensuality of emplacement, of making place. (1996, p. 97)

To bring back our starting metaphor, acoustemology is about attunement: Listening is not only just a process of using our ears but a metaphor for attending to our lifewords, for making sense of our environment, of each other, for learning and knowing. Trying to formulate a notion of acoustic epistemology means working around ideas of epistemology and ontology in general—what the nature of being and reality is, as well as what knowledge is and how we come to acquire it—from the standpoint of aural experience. Tracing some of the evolution of western educational theory (e.g., O'Loughlin, 2006) demonstrates that purely sensory forms of knowing, such as aural, tactile, or olfactory forms of engagement, have not been part of the educational discourse. Although we are greatly indebted to the educational phenomenologists (e.g., Friesen, Henriksson, & Saevi, 2012; van Manen, 2007) who have included sensory perception into our understanding of learning, we are interested in extending this idea to include the historical, social, and environmental dimensions of pedagogy.

Central to our conception of sensory perception in a historical, social, and environmental context is to understand experience as a social and subjective construct that can be cultivated but is not limited to activities in our classrooms. Contemporary works that address perceptual experience through an activity-based framework are typically associated with the progressive education movement in North America. The origins of this can be traced back to the pragmatism of John Dewey (1929/1958, 1938/1963) and includes the Montessori and Waldorf school models. The basis of our philosophy of experience is a framework that positions activity and production ("learning by doing") as primary in the imaginative act of creating meaning. Experience provides an immediate or primary quality that is felt or had, and its relationship to developing thought or knowledge is part of a broader philosophy of experience that requires reflection and the development of future experiential possibilities. Recognizing and discussing the role of the environment—both physical/material and social/cultural—brings to light notions of acoustic community, acoustic ecology, and thus acoustic epistemology as a way in which we come to know our surroundings. Dewey (1916/1922) wrote of the environment:

The words "environment," "medium" denote something more than surroundings which encompass the individual. They denote the specific continuity of the surroundings with his own active tendencies.… The things with which a man varies are his genuine environment.…

In brief, the environment consists of those conditions that promote or hinder, stimulate or inhibit, the characteristic activities of a living being. (p. 13)

The ideas of environmental education, learning by doing, play-based learning, and place-based education in a sense tacitly entail the concept of aural literacy. In the realm of music education, the progressive education movement has resulted in democratizing music knowledge and music practice as essential and beneficial to everyone's education—an idea very much present in Schafer's (1977/1994) soundscape music curriculum. In the same vein, aural literacy is just as much an educational priority as being able to read or write, as well as understand the effects of media and master the tools to create it. In the classroom, Schafer encouraged students to create music out of everyday objects or voice; within the paradigm of acoustic ecology, he urged people to listen to the soundscape as if it were music and to remember that they are always the composers of their own soundscape, as well as the listeners of it. Extending the paradigm of acoustic ecology to the concept of attunement, the curriculum we have worked to develop and present here revolves around three axes:

  1. training for listening sensibility (soundscape awareness);
  2. listening-as-inquiry; and
  3. audio production as composing with/in media texts.