Deep Listening

The journey to deep listening is a voyage from our outer to inner aural worlds. The more we can sensitise ourselves to our innermost experiences of perceiving sound the more powerful and all-encompassing our total aural awareness becomes.

In this website, the listening journey started with sounds coming from the “outside” world. In this section of the site it continues to encompass sounds created within the body (breathing, heartbeat etc.) moves to subtle sounds created in the hearing apparatus itself (difference tones) on to sounds created in the musical imagination (creating and “performing” music in the imagination) and ends with subtlest sounds we can perceive.

1) Body Sounds

Here is an exercise inspired by composer Baird Hersey’s wonderful book The Practice of Nada Yoga

Take your time with this exercise: most of your life you will have been filtering these sounds out!

  • Place your thumbs in your ears and your fingers over your eyes
  • You will hear a deep rumble, the sound of your blood circulating in your thumbs – a fascinating sound to explore. Does it have rhythm? Does it have pitch?
  • Superimposed on this rumble will be the sound of your breathing, explore this sound for at least 10 deep breaths. Are there layers of sound in your breathing?
  • Sense your heartbeat –
  • Return to the deep rumble – are there any other higher pitched sounds present?

2) Bridging External and Internal Sounds

Stage 1

Play a note on the piano. Hold the key down and listen intently as the sound diminuendos and finally dies away completely. Now imagine this diminuendo in reverse as an inexorable, powerful crescendo. Play the note again when this imaginary crescendo has reached its peak

Stage 2

Select a different note on the piano keyboard. Without playing it, imagine it emerging gradually from nothing. When your imaginary crescendo has peaked play the note, listening intently to see if your imaginary sound matches the played sound exactly in both pitch and timbre

Stage 3

Repeat stages 1 and 2 with pairs of notes, moving on gradually to triads and more complex chords

3) Difference Tones – the Sound of your ears

The ability to consciously hear difference tones makes it considerably easier to play in tune, both on one’s own and within an ensemble. It is a vital part of the journey to deep listening.

Shows two double stops (two notes played simultaneously). On the violin or viola this example is most easily played by the first finger on the D string and the G in the first double stop played with the open G string and the A in the second played with  the open A strings.

For these double stops to sound in tune, the first finger has to be noticeably sharper for a pure 4th with the A string and correspondingly flatter (by 4 vibrations per second) for a pure 6th with the G string

This is because each pair of notes is interpreted by the ear as belonging to a different harmonic series. The major 6th (G and E in these examples) is interpreted by the ear as the 3rd and 5th overtones respectively of the harmonic series of C.

The perfect 4th (E to A) is interpreted by the ear as part of a harmonic series of A:

This happens because of the phenomena of the difference tone, illustrated here with diamond shaped notes:

The difference tone is perceived in the first double stop because the brain experiences the difference between the number of vibrations of the first finger E (vibrating at 320 Hz) and the open G (vibrating at 192 Hz) this is 320 Hz-192 Hz = 128 Hz. A pitch of 128 Hz emerges seemingly from nowhere.

This is audible as a note (known as the difference, combination or “Tartini” tone after the great violinist Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) is said to have discovered them.

Tartini published his discoveries in a treatise “Trattato di musica secondo la vera scienza dell’armonia'” (Padua, 1754).

Returning to the example in figure 4, in listening to the second double stop, (the perfect 4th), the ear wants to hear the E and A in their most natural relationship. This is as the 3rd and 4th overtones of a fundamental A. Nature creates this low A out of the perfect 4th (432 Hz -324 Hz =108 Hz) and the resulting “Tartini tone” is also clearly audible.

Recent research has demonstrated that the “Tartini tone” is created in the inner ear of the listener, as a result of overlapping wave forms of the higher pitches funneled through from the outer ear.

4) Bridging External and Internal Sounds

Stage 1

Play a note on the piano. Hold the key down and listen intently as the sound diminuendos and finally dies away completely. Now imagine this diminuendo in reverse as an inexorable, powerful crescendo. Play the note again when this imaginary crescendo has reached its peak

Stage 2

Select a different note on the piano keyboard. Without playing it, imagine it emerging gradually from nothing. When your imaginary crescendo has peaked play the note, listening intently to see if your imaginary sound matches the played sound exactly in both pitch and timbre

Stage 3

Repeat stages 1 and 2 with pairs of notes, moving on gradually to triads and more complex chords.

Internal Sounds

Here is John Cage recounting his experience in an anechoic chamber:

Listening to these internal sounds has been part of Indian spirituality for thousands of years. This process is summarised In the 15th Century Sanskrit text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Swami Svatmarama. Here is a selection of verses describing the process:

  • Close both ears and listen to the sound until the mind becomes steady
  • Practicing this sound meditation diminishes exterior sounds
  • Loud sounds are initially heard. Subtler ones are heard as the practice grows.
  • After hearing the loud sounds, fix the mind on the subtlest of subtle sounds.
  • Keep the mind steady on the nada, even when it moves from the gross to the subtle or the subtle to the gross
  • Whatever sound the mind is drawn to, settle on it, adhere to it and become absorbed in it
  • One who desires true union of yoga should leave all thinking behind and concentrate with single-pointed attention on the nada
  • The mind re-dissolves into the Inner Sacred Sound and the Internal Divine Light and they are again recognised as one
  • Reabsorption goes beyond sound. Without sound there is no space, only the Ultimate Reality.
  • The sound of nada is formlessness in which all else dissolves, Reality.

Guided Nada Yoga Meditation

Return to the Body Sounds exercise above, but use foam earplugs rather than your thumbs to block the ears. (After some practice you will be able to dispense with earplugs).

Listen for any internal sounds. (If you suffer from tinnitus you will only be too aware of internal sounds, but by consciously observing them, rather than fighting to filter them out, people have found their tinnitus improves).

Try to locate the subtlest internal sound you can hear – listen to it intently:

  • Is it rhythmic or constant?
  • Is the pitch steady? – can you name it?
  • Are there harmonics in the sound? If so, what is the highest harmonic you can hear?
  • Where is the sound located – in the left ear, right ear, towards the front or back of your skull?
  • What other sounds are present? Focus on each one individually as if you are trying to construct a 3D map of your brain using echolocation
  • Imagine your skull is a concert hall, and you are witnessing a performance of these sounds within the space
  • Now focus on the perception process – where in the space is the “you” that experiences these sounds? Perhaps between the ears? Or between the eyes?
  • Use observation of the internal sounds to pinpoint the locus of perception
  • Experience the profound silence at this point.