The Language of Listening

The Baker St Irregulars, were a rag-tag network of homeless people used by Sherlocks Holmes in the famous detective stories to “to go everywhere, see everything and overhear everyone”. His street network, with their all-seeing eyes and keen ears would help Holmes solve mysteries by passing on valuable information. The Baker St Irregulars was also the name given to a group of Special Operations Executives used by Winston Churchill to listen to the sounds of the war as it played out over the air waves and “set Europe ablaze” from their HQ at 64 Baker St, London. Charged with the task of finding codes, information and meaning in various ways, part of their job was to interpret audio transmissions. The Irregulars discovered that information, including sound, is better understood and more easily interpreted in larger quantities and disambiguated parcels of information can lead to misinterpretation.

I learned about the Baker St Irregulars at Joe Banks’ Rorschach Audio Art and Illusion for Sound, talk at the British Library last month. Banks talked about the WWII Irregulars and other audio-related concepts and misconceptions, including the BBC Monitoring Service and EH Gombrich’s ideas about the psychology of hearing that he covers in his book Rorschach Audio Art & Illusion for Sound. Banks started his research in 1999 which began as a critique of Electronic Voice Phenomena. Over the years though, his scope has expanded to include a much broader range of phenomena associated with ambiguities of hearing and of perception.  To give you another example of the power of sound and the ambiguity caused by displacement, listen to Diana Deutsch’s Phantom Words.

Banks’ talk got me thinking about the unspoken rules of listening, the methods we use to hear and the way our understanding can be helped or hurt under certain aural conditions. I used these ideas to explore my own fascination with the language of listening. I always seek to understand how I listen to music and how and why I enjoy certain songs and parts of songs. I’ve tried in the past, to capture that perfect moment in a song by just listening to one part of a song or movement from a larger piece that I love the most, or even just listening to that one song over and over again.  But once I started removing the song from it’s original context – or displacing it just like those sounds in the videos above – it began to lose it’s lustre and that powerful moment I enjoyed so much was diminished.  I discovered I couldn’t simply bypass what came before and what came after that moment of bliss. There’s no shortcut to satisfaction when it comes to enjoying music; it’s supposed to be part of another larger experience. Sure you can break it down, remove the boring bits and hit repeat but it’s not the same.

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The way humans interpret information more accurately and effectively in larger chunks isn’t just exclusive to science and facts. The idea can also be applied to sensorial satisfaction like listening to music.  Just like Churchill’s Irregulars, I was trying to listen to something out of context and still make sense of it. There are theories that what humans enjoy about music, on a neurological level, is the setting up of expectations only to have them broken. To break it down even further, you can’t enjoy a chord alone in the middle of silence, you have to hear it in a progression. Its place in that line of chords gives it meaning and context. That grouping and order of chords is what makes it sad or triumphant, scary or inspiring. Likewise you can’t really hear a song with silence to the left and to the right and expect it to have the same impact as within the context of an album where its meaning is created. Listening to songs in a variety of contexts affects the way that song sounds and is perceived by the listener. I recently interviewed Alan Bangs, a radio DJ from Cologne who’s been at the decks for over 30 years. He talked about the way a Randy Newman ballad would sound completely different if it was played after a punk song or after another similar ballad. He related this notion of context back to John Berger’s seminal book Ways of Seeing. In the same way that art can be appreciated more deeply under certain circumstances, music can also be appreciated and enjoyed more by listening to it under certain conditions, adhering to certain rules and using certain methods.

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