Practice 07

Playful Listening

by David G. Haskell

For billions of years, our planet has been alive with sound. When we listen playfully, we can still encounter sonic vibrations older than terrestrial life, layered with the harmonies and cacophonies of the modern world. This practice by David Haskell invites you to immerse yourself in the web of connections created by sound. To hear what the ancient Earth might have sounded like, listen to David’s companion sonic journey “When the Earth Started to Sing.

Sound is ephemeral, gone as soon as it arrives. Sound is tiny, too. A typical sound wave makes air molecules vibrate by only about a micrometer, the size of the smallest smoke particle. Yet, despite its fugitive and insubstantial nature, sound is a great connector and revealer. Sound passes through obstacles. It links vibrating beings even in the dark or in dense foliage. Listening therefore opens us to what is hidden or unappreciated. Sound also carries within it the imprints of deep time. Listening roots us in the stories of the ancient Earth.

In the midst of landscapes that are shifting on often unimaginably large scales, what might it mean to witness the tiny and ephemeral? How might we cultivate our listening? The practices that follow are intended as invitations to play. Their aims are the cultivation of spontaneity, curiosity, and grateful appreciation.

Spontaneity: Openness to the sensory qualities of the moment.

Curiosity: Every sound has a story. Follow it.

Grateful appreciation: Accepting the wondrous and bittersweet bequest of sensory consciousness, in all its beauty and brokenness.


Illustrations by Daniel Liévano


Taking Inspiration from Daily Cycles of Religious Observance

Many religions prescribe prayer at regular times—Jewish tradition observes a daily cycle of tefillah, prayer, in the morning, afternoon, and evening; the Muslim prayer, salah, is fivefold; a “book of hours” divided the day for many Christians in the Middle Ages. In each tradition, worshippers pause and open to the divine. The living world, too, is arranged in patterns of sound and silence that change with the season or the presence of light.

Make time for listening

Try this experiment: At pre-selected intervals, stop for five minutes and pour your attention into your ears, sending your sensory awareness out into the world to see what stirs. Include the early and late hours along with some times when the sun is high. Dusk is one of my favorites, an especially rich time of sonic transition, as the wind stirs, human energies shift, insect choruses reorganize, and birds go to roost.

Roaming through sound

For each short experience of listening, send conscious awareness into your ears, then send your listening outward, enthusiastically foraging for sound. Let your hearing roam. When a sound arrives, don’t cling to it but instead notice its form, then listen beyond for the next sound or the sound that was so quiet that you could not at first hear it. Five minutes is a good stretch, enough to sink into the experience, but this is an arbitrary length of time. A single minute is often marvelous. A longer period can be a luxurious sound bath or, sometimes, a painful encounter with restlessness. Either way we learn about the intersection of the world and our senses.


As you listen, be with the sound without analyzing. Afterward, reflect on the shapes of sound and the questions or feelings that sound evoked. Did any sounds manifest as synesthesia (were they silvery, heavy, or citrusy)? Which ones might you seek out again?


Treasure Hunts for Sounds

In the first exercise, we listened as sounds came to us. Now, let’s seek some out. Here are some goals for playful sound searches:

Primal sounds

For billions of years, Earth’s voice was of wind, water, and stone. We can experience this ancient sound world today. Seek out places where the human hubbub is faint and the voices of other creatures are muted. The sounds of rain or wind gusts in vegetation are more ancient than any animal song. As water laps its shores, the sounds are older yet, predating all life.

Insect choruses

Insects were the land’s first singers. Opening our ears and imagination to insect voices reveals an astonishing range of rhythms, timbres, and pitches. Hear the house cricket’s tonal, slightly inflected chirp from behind the apartment fridge and whoosh we’re back in the Permian, more than 250 million years ago. Outside, in rich insect soundscapes, listen for polyrhythms and interlacing layers of pitches. Seek singers in places with sparser insect choruses, hidden under shrubs in parks or in wilder fringes of town.

The most beautiful mingling of human and nonhuman sound that you can find

Our culture often emphasizes duality. We cleave our listening into “human noise” and “natural sounds.” Listening to the intersections of sounds reminds us of unity.

Seek out the most beautiful convergence. Keep your ears open for it in the everyday and search your memory. Can you hear the babble of young human children entwined with birdsong in a schoolyard? Or perhaps a few notes of violin, the second song of a tree? Or the reverberation of human voices in tree leaves? Which convergences speak to you?

The most broken intersection of human and nonhuman sounds

Noise. Sensory erasure. Listening reveals injustice and fracture. The practice of floating for just a few minutes in the physicality of unwanted sounds can be helpful. We better understand how senses, anger, and sadness are wrapped into one another. We give ourselves an opportunity to play with that important moment between stimulus and response. Perhaps in this exploration we can find firmer inner ground for outward action.


Listening Beyond Your Ears

Sound is vibration. We “hear” with every part of our bodies. Some organs, like the cells in the inner ear, have been crafted by evolution to pick up subtle tremors in air. Others, especially deeply buried organs, pick up loud and low-pitched pulses. Our skin is especially good at feeling vibrations.


Many insects hear with their legs. Similarly, we can listen using our fingertips. About ten different touch sensors mesh through our finger pads. Insect leg-ears are more sensitive to sound than our fingers, but we can get an idea of what it’s like to hear this way by resting fingertips on thin, wind-tossed tree branches. Or try the wall of your house when the heating or cooling is running. When a heavy truck passes, feel how its energies flow into nearby trees. Gently hold your throat as you speak (aa, sk, p, zz), exploring the vibrational world of your own voice.

Feet in water

Bare feet in water reveal hidden motions, a taste of the sensory world of aquatic creatures. Walk slowly over sand or cobble and feel how the vibrations from your foot move into the substrate and then the water. Do you feel tiny currents or larger pressure surges?

Chest cavity

High sounds bounce off our skin, but some of the low tones flow inward. The chest, especially, is bulky and well supplied with deep-buried sensory nerves. Before amplified music, our ancestors would have experienced bass throb only when the big drums were brought out or when thunder came. Each of us, too, felt the bass as we developed in the womb. Listen with the core of your chest and explore where these sensations now emerge.


In addition to hearing sound through our eardrums, we also hear through our skull and jaw. This is how our vertebrate ancestors heard sound for 100 million years after coming to land. Plug your ears with your fingers, then speak. You’ll hear sound mostly conducted through bone. The same if you rest your head near a loudspeaker or a wave-pummeled shore. Try playing a musical instrument pressed close, then held away from your body. Can you hear the difference when we include flesh-bone connection in our hearing?

Imagination and sunshine

Follow the energy pathways of sound back to their sources. Bird song is powered by caterpillar flesh; caterpillars by trees, trees by sunlight. The same for human voices: bread to wheat to sun. Engines from gasoline, fossilized sunlight. Sounds, the beautiful and the broken alike, are refractions of light. The mingling of sounds is a reunion. Once in a while it is good to sunbathe and remember.



Any of the forms of play suggested here can be shared. Doing so enlarges the web of connections created by sound and therefore can open new possibilities. When it comes to musical performances or worship, we understand this well. Let’s include other sonic experiences in our listening gatherings. Which sounds do you most want to share? Whom will you invite?

When the Earth Started to Sing
Related Audio Story

When the Earth Started to Sing

by David G. Haskell Open story

This sonic journey written and narrated by David G. Haskell brings us to the beginning of sound and song on planet Earth.

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