Music is the silence between the notes.
There are literally thousands and thousands of bits of information flying into our brain every second. From all the reflections of light and color entering our eyes, to the millions of nerve cells in our body sending information about temperature, texture, pressure, balance, and vibration, to the myriad smells that enter our nose with every breath to the panorama of audible sounds that surround us. We are inundated with stimuli. If we paid attention to it all, we would be overwhelmed, immobilized, and unable to function.
So, our brains have instantaneous and precise routines for prioritizing information as to what we should focus our attention on and what we should filter out and disregard.
Out of the corner of our eye, we see something slither through the grass near our foot. We hear a loud noise. We smell smoke or feel something crawling up our back under our shirt. Because survival is at the top of the list of unconscious priorities, our attention immediately shifts to whatever may be threatening us. At the same time we are filtering out all other input.
I lived in a city for ten years. After working intensely on an album project, recording, listening, and mixing every day for weeks, I took a vacation in the country. There was no television, radio, or anything on which to play recorded music. This was well before the day of cell phones and laptop computers. The quiet of the county overwhelmed me. I couldn’t sleep with all that quiet.
I was used to the daily bombardment of the sounds of the city--some of it purposeful and some made just by neglect. I was used to filtering it all out. I had learned to sublimate the sonic overload. Now that I wasn’t experiencing this stimulation, my brain didn’t know what to do.
In the rain forest when a predator is near all the birds and animals fall silent. Some primal part of my brain was responding. My survival mode was saying if there is no sound then something must be wrong. My filters, which allowed me to sleep in the city had nothing to filter out. They were waking me up because no noise signaled danger. After a week my filters had adjusted and I began to sleep more normally.
Since that time I have lived in the quiet of the country for 25 years. On a recent visit to the city I stayed in a room facing a busy street. At first, I was not able to sleep because of the noise on the street. Every time a truck rumbled by or a motorcycle engine revved as it raced up the street or a bus caused the building to shudder and rattle, I woke up. Again after a couple of days I began to acclimate. The filters began to come up and I didn’t wake up so much.
This first exercise is to wake up our external listening, to help us let go of some of our filters. This will help us to hear all the sounds of the world around us with more subtlety.
Ambient Sound Meditation
It may be helpful to close your eyes after you read each instruction. Take your time and really allow yourself to hear.
1. At first let your hearing focus on individual sounds in your environment.
2. Listen for the sound closest to you.
3. Listen for the sound most distant from you.
4. Listen to the loudest sound.
5. Listen to the quietest sound.
6. Listen to the lowest pitch sound.
7. Listen to the highest pitch sound.
8. Listen for continuous sounds.
9. Listen for cyclical, repeating sounds.
10. Listen for intermittent sounds.
11. Listen out of your right ear.
12. Listen out of your left ear.
13. Listen out of both ears.
14. Now, instead of hearing these sounds one at a time, hear all them all at once in a panorama. Listen as if you are broadening your focus from one point on a movie screen to the entire screen. Let go of all naming or identifying of individual sounds. Hear them combined as just one all-encompassing sound. Hold that focus as long as you can.
As you travel through your day, try to take notice of the sounds that you ordinarily filter out. Let yourself hear those sounds that surround you all the time that you don’t usually hear. Bring into your awareness the qualities of a sound that make it unique, the minute differences and similarities that give it a place in the panoramic auditory spectrum of all the sounds that surround you.