A Pedagogy of Listening

Composing with/in Media Texts

Milena Droumeva & David Murphy

1. The Making of Acoustic Communication

The cultural importance of media and interactive technologies brings with it a renewed interest in the perceptual, cognitive, and epistemological affordances of our different senses. The "dominance of the visual," historically understood to denote traditions of literacy as well as the epistemological legacy of analytical thinking, objectivism, and empiricism (McLuhan, 1964; Ong, 1982), has given way to the multiplicity of sensory experiences created by technological advances in digital media. Emergent pedagogies in virtually every sphere of the humanities and social sciences reflect this shift by way of constituting and expressing knowledge beyond literacy, language, and writing.

But this is hardly a novel idea—the early days of communication studies are heavily marked with auditory metaphors, from Marshall McLuhan describing media as "acoustic space" (McLuhan & Powers, 1989, p. 66) to Walter Ong's (1982) conception of electronic media as a "secondary orality" (p. 10), to R. Murray Schafer's 1977 academic bestseller The Tuning of the World (reprinted in 1994 as The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World), which explored the changing and increasingly technologized soundscape. Undeniably, technology, particularly digital media, have significantly changed and are continuing to change the nature and production of knowledge, as well as practices of education (Burn, 2009; Jenkins, 2006). Sonic dimensions of communication such as storytelling, participatory learning and communal knowledge creation—among others—are embedded in the social practices around many contemporary technologies, including the web, mobile and interactive computing (in the physical realm). In cultural studies, however, sound is often addressed in an entirely metaphorical way, with authors applying characteristics, or rather heuristics, of oral communication to the analysis of cultural practices around digital technologies (Innis, 1951; McLuhan, 1964; Ong, 1982). This metaphorical approach overlooks the importance and compounded long-term influence of actual soundscapes, listening practices, and characteristics of soundmaking to the epistemological framing of sociocultural relations. Anthropological research has consistently demonstrated strong relationships between the sound environments of particular societies, their prevalent musical forms, and the social organization as well as knowledge production and education practices that characterize them (Feld, 1993; Finnegan, 1988; Nuckolls, 2004; Classen, 1999). Aurality—an epistemological construct that invites the idea of a soundscape into communication—is part of a phenomenological system of perception involving both our senses and our bodies as loci for experience, and it constitutes different ways of knowing and models of learning than those offered by literate and visually based traditions.

Soundscape(s) Thoughts
Milena Droumeva & David Murphy

Participants: Milena Droumeva, David Murphy, Hildegard Westerkamp, Vincent Andrisani, and Jennifer Schine

David Murphy: … all these other sort of social, political, economic perspectives started coming up… and, the basic structure that we've kind of solidified, or agreed upon, is that there's going to be five different perspectives on the soundscape of Vancouver that move through the space, but then converge at a location…

[the sound of underground train moving]

… so this, I think, reflects the kind of philosophy that I think is important here, that the soundscapes here, that there's not a soundscape, that there is, all these soundscapes, that have different persectives, different ways of looking at it. And I think the structure allows us to try to represent that… [unintelligible sound of station announcement over the public address system] different ways of hearing Vancouver that sometimes come together and sometimes come apart. [sound of SkyTrain entering the station, passenger chatter, destination identification] It's this really important time right now to work through some of these ideas of inclusion, plurality, different ways of looking at it.… I think it just needs a refreshment at how we arrive at this point.

[SkyTrain sound arriving at station]

(Thumbail Source: Photo by Milena Droumeva)

Acoustic Ecology

In the context of Canadian scholarship, the idea of an interdependent relationship between sound, listener, and soundscape is most notably reflected in the acoustic communication model proposed by Barry Truax (2001), building on Schafer's (1977/1994) earlier articulations of acoustic ecology. The foundational idea here is that the communicational significance of any sound can only be judged within its complete context in the broadest environmental, historical, social, and cultural sense, with respect to a specific listener's perspective. In the midst of a new electrified age of media, at the height of industrial urban development, and contemporary to McLuhan's media theories, Schafer's work mobilized emergent notions of ecology towards understanding the sonic environment and advocated for a curriculum of listening and soundmaking.

Acoustic ecology was a conceptualization of the perceived and actual balance of sonic components and their relational significance within a given soundscape. In spirit, the World Soundscape Project, founded in 1973, entailed a recovering of a "humanistic" mode of engaged or active (rather than passive) listening and a conception of the soundscape as an ecology of sonic elements whose balance has been disturbed by an increasingly machine-and-technology driven urban North American way of life (Schafer, 1977/1994). Schafer's method for re-awakening to the aural world involves a re-training of the ear: a physical re-positioning of perceptual attention onto soundscapes that are habitually "tuned out." Unlike Ong and McLuhan, Schafer did not necessarily welcome the media age as a wave of secondary orality; instead he viewed it as a harbinger of a diminished, distracted, and media-conditioned listening. For him, the major shift was not so much one from literacy to orality, but from an avid and discerning listening to a dulled, alienated, and limited aural sensibility. Setting aside the clandestine normativity in this work—a legacy that has amassed reasonable critique—acoustic ecology brings to the fore the relationship between technology use and media culture on one hand, and the changing soundscape on the other, so that listening and soundmaking may be understood in relation to a wider phenomenal, technological, and social reality.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, Schafer focused on early childhood education and developed a creative pedagogy of music education, published in several short books—Rhinoceros in the Classroom; Ear Cleaning; and The Composer in the Classroom, among others (many of which are reprinted in Schafter's 1986 The Thinking Ear: Complete Writings on Music Education). He first put to practice these educational activities with classes of children; later, through the 1980s and 1990s, he offered them as workshops for adult teachers, composers, and artists around the world. Working from the perspective of a composer, Schafer proposed a radically different music pedagogy, not only by directing students' ears to the voices of everyday objects and the environment, but also by developing playful open-ended activities and sound games that fostered individual and group creativity and community-building. The spirit behind Schafer's educational philosophy is to engage and empower students with the agency to open their ears and listen beyond what is normally heard—a "tuning" of collective listening sensibilities.