A Pedagogy of Listening

Composing with/in Media Texts

Milena Droumeva & David Murphy

3. From Acoustic Ecology to Pedagogy of Listening

Start by listening to the sounds of your body while moving. They are closest to you and establish the first dialogue between you and the environment. If you can hear even the quietest of these sounds you are moving through an environment which is scaled on human proportions. In other words, with your voice or your footsteps for instance, you are "talking" to your environment which then in turn responds by giving your sounds a specific acoustic quality. (Westerkamp, 1974, n.p.)

The mandate of our courses is to introduce students to the practice of listening, to help them build a vocabulary about sound, and to attune their reflective thinking about subjective experience with sound in relation to wider cultural and sociopolitical structures. Students learn both theory and terminology related to acoustics, auditory perception, orality, communication, sound in the built environment, noise measurements, and urban soundscape design. Some notable methods developed by R. Murray Schafer (1977/1994) for "resetting" the ear involve removing and then adding a sensory modality back in order to generate contrast in everyday experience (e.g., using earplugs or a blindfold). In the same vein, a soundwalk provides contrast to habitual experience by inviting an active rather than passive attending to the soundscape whilst moving through typical and sometimes familiar surroundings. In pedagogies inspired by Eastern philosophy, this kind of practice would strive to cultivate a beginner's mind (Hua, 2012), a kind of wonder and curiosity about the familiar that can help de-normalize established conventions. This reflexivity and growing toolbox of sonic sensibilities is encouraged by weekly journaling.


One of the foundational practices in the tradition of acoustic ecology is the soundwalk. A soundwalk is an organized silent group walk with the purpose of paying specific attention to sonic experience while moving through space (Westerkamp, 1974). The soundwalk has a leader who creates (usually ahead of time) an itinerary and leads the group. No one is allowed to speak until the soundwalk is over. Sometimes, the leader stops in a particularly aurally rich location and lets the group absorb the soundscape and reflect on it. For those experiencing a soundwalk for the first time, this exercise quite often results in a kind of "opening" up to the sounded environment and a reflexivity of one's sonic positionality. While soundwalks can have many variations—for example, they may incorporate performance or interactivity, hidden music or spoken word—some trusty principles stand out as universally important:

  • silence. When you're speaking you're not listening, and it's very hard for someone who isn't very experienced with soundwalking to switch between modes of aural attention and other attention: Because we use sound (speech) to communicate and use our ears for other contextual and practical information, our brains literally process sonic information in two different areas of the auditory cortex, making it very difficult cognitively to switch back and forth
  • pacing. Movement is very much linked to sensory perception and processing of sensory info—that has been pointed out by many, and the thing that makes a difference in our experiences of soundwalking is slowing down from a purposeful fast walking pace (which puts our senses on a level of "functional" everyday routine) to a contemplative pace that makes our sensory system sort of restart, similar to the model of "deep listening" developed by Pauline Oliveros (2005).
  • resetting. In general our perceptual apparatus is predicated on detecting differences against a constant, which, in the case of sound, allows us the evolutionary possibility to become habituated to all sorts of urban noise. In soundwalks one approach that helps with resetting our listening sensibilities is organizing a route around contrasting sonic spaces: areas of quiet followed by noisy street, outside/inside contrasts, monotone-type soundscapes vs. timbrally/spectrally rich soundscapes, and near/far sonic experiences, like leading a group close to a sound source and then away.
  • community. A soundwalk of one doesn't really work that well. There is a kind of magic that happens when a group of people move through space together: We stand out in a different way, but it also de-normalizes typical sociality because instead of discussing things as they happen, we must stay present and reflect privately, together. For a soundwalk to have its proper impact, however, a group discussion after the experience is important as it allows folks to share and compare impressions and work out loud the experience of being a listener in this novel way.
a line of people walking onto a stone path through a grassy park, a totem pole can be seen in the distance
2014 Kitsilano soundwalk led by Tyler Kinnear (part of Vancouver New Music series)
three members of the Vancouver soundwalking collective standing by a large piece of public art outdoor, listening
2014 Queen Elizabeth Park soundwalk, led by Hildegard Westerkamp
several soundwalking participants walking through SFU's convocation mall, an open space with a grid roof, part of the university campus
2016 Simon Fraser University soundwalk, led by Brady Marks and Alex Muir (SFU Galleries series)
a line of people walking along a gravel path besides the industrial harbour of vancouver, surrounded by bushes and trees
2015 New Brighton soundwalk, led by Helena Krobath (part of Vancouver New Music series)

All photos by Milena Droumeva.

Below is a 2011 Vancouver New Music series soundwalk generated via the app RJDJ, which creates live filtering and mixing of acoustic sound:

RJDJ Soundwalk
Milena Droumeva & David Murphy

[heavily processed ambience, echoes of interactions with the environment, especially striking different objects; fog horn in the distance]

(Thumbnail Source: Photo by Milena Droumeva)

Soundscape Monitoring

There are a multitude of ways to go about engaging with sound in "real" or non-real time that lend themselves to different forms of sensory attention in the moment. One method that was developed as part of the World Soundscape Project is the use of a "sonic graph," which entails logging sonic events, textures, and ambiences through an often ad-hoc notation system similar to graphic musical notation.

A line chart of the relative decibel levels of several animal species over the course of a year
Mission, British Columbia, annual sound graph (ca. 1977; World Soundscape Project archival image, used with permission)
An overview map of Skruv with circles representing the acoustic profiles of each town industry
Skruv, Sweden, village soundmap (ca. 1978; World Soundscape Project archival image, used with permission)

Four student projects from the Sonic Studio archives

A close-up photo of a physical soundmap model, featuring several rocks and a dump truck with the note that reads, dumptrucks dumping
Physical sound map (used with permission)
a hand-drawn birds-eye view soundmap of someone's listening experience featuring drawn objects and words describing various sounds heard
A hand-drawn map (used with permission)
a color drawn map of a city intersection where sounds are represented with onomatopoeia words in different shapes and colors
Color sound–text map (used with permission)
 a digital photo of a busy city intersection and a lineup of cars with overlayed soundwaves propagating from traffic noise
Digital noise map (used with permission)

Sonic graphs are created from a stationary position either at intervals of time or for a particular duration, such as the one from the Vancouver Soundscape Project (Davis, 1975) that represents the rhythms of non-human life in a local natural habitat. A sound map, on the other hand, is a spatial "bird's-eye view" of a given area with the intention of capturing something more general about the soundscape, including the prominence of different sounds and where they originate in the soundscape (acoustic profiles); the timbral and textural qualities of different sound sources (often represented through evocative customized graphic notation); the ratio of different categories of sounds (using a "soundcount" sheet); and the relationships of different sounds relative to the listening subject. Soundscape monitoring projects can be themed—for example, around issues of noise pollution, a specific urban neighborhood, or a unique community event.

Time and time again, students gain a realization through the soundscape monitoring exercise that environments are a lot busier than we realize and the relationships between the amplitude (loudness), timbral qualities (spectrum), and the spatial position of sounds are more complex than we assume. Quite simply, students discover a lot more sounds than they expected and their perception works in stages—it takes time for their ears to fully grasp a soundscape, as well as to develop a toolbox for representing sonic events, acoustic profiles, and discrete sonic properties. Time spent listening intently produces not only reflections but also an emerging relationship to the soundscape—a kind of aural literacy of the sounded environment.