Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #9: Close Listening

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Dear Readers:  Today’s Sound Off!//Comment Klatsch question comes to you from the editorial collective–inspired by a spirited Twitter conversation our Managing Editor Liana Silva began back in July about sound studies methodology.

— J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief

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How do you use the phrase “close listening”?

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12 responses to “Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #9: Close Listening”

  1. Aaron Trammell says :

    Are we getting too scientific in bringing a methodology to listening? Or, is that exactly the point?

    More than anything else, for me, this question draws a problematic line between the ways in which we listen, and the ways in which we configure and understand the world. To put it in another way: vision is regularly cloistered off as a dominant method of observation, and listening is regularly seen as embodied – secondary, or subordinate, method (see even the language here: observation, seen, see…). So, clearly science uses vision as a tool of knowledge then, right?

    But, if we re-ontologize our occular biases with sound as opposed to sight, what changes? Is there a new world of understanding ready to be known, or constructed at the foyer of our earlobes, or will science instead simply move to colonize a new zone of knowledge with the same problematic divisions?

    So, I guess my point here is that I wonder what techniques we are bringing in to a close listening, and what political leanings these techniques provide to it as a method? Neil and Justin, do you think that your approaches bring in the philosophical baggage of close reading, as Josh points out? Kariann, what about structural and focused listening?


    • kgoldschmitt says :

      Structural listening carries a lot of baggage, for sure. As Robin mentioned, it is very modernist. I try to encourage myself (and my students) to listen against the presumed hierarchies (narrative, melodic, discursive, technological) in a text or sonic environment to disrupt some of that baggage. Sometimes I focus on something muffled and distorted that might be at a lower register. Focused listening, for me, is about elevating aural experiences in an occular world. It’s still a new way of talking about it (for sure!)


    • nkhverma says :

      Yes, I think it does (bring in the baggage of close reading, that is), and it’s something I’m wrestling with. In pedagogy, the problem is much easier. What you do is set up two stages. In the first, encourage students to “do” close listening in ways that are clearly patterned after the instincts used in close reading. Then, in a second stage, turn that very practice into the problem, rather than the solution — what epistemological, political and aesthetic avenues open or close when we adopt this set of instincts and techniques? What to do with the modernist baggage? What does this “re-ordering of things” bring about in terms of problematic divisions? If the maneuver works, it can be a great teaching moment.

      But outside the classroom, many of the questions you raise are much harder to answer. I’m currently writing a paper for the ESSA conference on a related subject, how listening fits in to the debates over “distant reading” surrounding Franco Moretti’s work. Maybe I’ll have smarter thoughts about this once that’s done.


    • justindburton says :

      Neil’s two-stage process is generally my idea, as well. To recognize the baggage that comes from using similar terms and constantly ask myself (or help my students ask themselves) where that baggage presents itself and what we might alter about our processes in order to constantly evolve our listening practices.

      The question posed is about “close listening,” but it seems we’re all talking about activities (something like Kariann’s “elevating aural experiences”) that don’t fit neatly into any particular term or phrase. I’d like to think that what sound studies (and hopefully popular music studies and several other related disciplines) is really doing is configuring listening worlds that are not simply reactionary but working toward modes of listening that understand subjectivity and the body apart from (rather than in response to) Cartesian and Modern beliefs about the body. The trick is maintaining a constant awareness of this centuries-prevalent ideology (perhaps in borrowing and transforming terms/practices, perhaps in great phrases like “elevating aural experiences in an occular world) without allowing it constantly determine (or pre-echo) what we do.

      So the question of how we use close listening, I think, is, as Aaron suggests, really a much broader question about how close listening plugs into a broader matrix of activities related to sound that we engage in as sound-makers, sound-listeners, sound-engagers. To this end, I assume our listening practices are ever-shifting activities that experiment with modes of being (or, really, becoming) and knowing that are never really fixed.


  2. Robin James (@doctaj) says :

    I think Kariann’s point about the specificity of “structural listening” is really important–it’s perhaps a very modernist version of listening.

    In my own experience it seems like I use at least two modes of close listening: there’s the critical/analytical listening I use when I’m, well, analyzing sounds; there’s also the creative listening I use when I’m making art. Both of them are “close”–they’re paying attention to sonic details, putting them in relation to other sonic details–but I think it’s a different sort of attention. In both instances I’m listening to how sounds work, but when analyzing I’m trying to interpret the meaning or significance of the sounds, and when creating I’m still thinking at the level of functionality–if this sound does this, what happens if you do xyz to it? if you combine it or follow it with abc? I think they can definitely be used to augment one another…But at least in my case I feel like I’m using slightly different modes of attention to sound when I”m thinking like a theorist, OTOH, and when I’m thinking like an artist, OTO.

    I’d be really interested to know if others experience is similar or different.


  3. Cecil Decker says :

    I try to use the “active listening” because it avoids some of the logocentric connotations that “close listening” has. In my experience, this phrasing gets students thinking the same way kgoldschmitt invokes “focused listening.”


  4. mr. oyola says :

    When I practice “close listening,” I pay attention to the relation of sounds to each other within a given set of sounds defined as X (a song, an event, a speech, a mechanical process, a conversation, etc. . ) and how they compliment, supplement, or at odds with each other – how they change in volume, pitch or rhythm in relation to each other, how they interact with silences or rests, social meaning associated with the various constitutive sounds, etc. . . Very often what we think of as “the sound of things” (let’s say a crowd at a fair) is made up of many sounds, and to me a close listening try to get at the shape of those sounds both individually and what they create a greater whole in their association.


  5. kgoldschmitt says :

    I think there is a difference between what we call “close listening” and “structural listening.” A close listening might pay attention to a variety of factors, and could extend to thick description, while structural listening might pay more attention to form, technique, voice and the like. I like asking my students to do “focused listening” assignments so that they don’t get the task confused with literature’s close reading.


  6. Josh Ottum says :

    I agree with Justin and nkhverma, the idea of a close listening brings with it a significant amount of baggage. I’m resistant to approach the idea of listening with the same set of assumptions and practices that come with a close reading. Two recent experiences helped me to complicate and rethink the idea by playing with perspective, thinking quite literally about my spatial relationship to a sound (or the idea of a sound).

    This past spring I did an historic soundscape reconstruction (via Emily Thompson). I chose to write about the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. I was quickly hit by the limitations of writing about such an event, I took stock of the tools in front of me. Font style and size was the first thing that came to mind. What does this font sound like? What does the size of it imply? How does the visual aspect affect the listening experience and the process of recounting it via text? After recalling a few key aspects of the disaster, the piece turned into a flow of questions: what would this sound like? and this? what about this? Each question becoming more specific, experimenting with shifting physical perspectives on sound. This posture of trying to hear an event that happened nearly 50 years ago crystallized in a moments literal close listening. What doe salty human tears sound like rolling down a cheek? What does a dying, oil-soaked dolphin on the beach sound like? Processes of transduction color the experience and in writing a reconstructed soundscape piece, they offer numerous deeper (closer) perspectives. What does the stethascope version sound like? What about a contact mic? How about a mic running through a guitar pedal?

    On the other hand, I’d argue that just as close of a listen can be achieved by moving far away from the subject at hand (a nice assignment could involve students doing a ‘far listening’). Anahid Kassabian’s work on ubiquitous sounds and distributed modes of attention/listening offers a fresh perspective on the very idea of a close listening. Waking up late on a Thursday morning, listening to a an mp3 by dawn of midi through laptop speakers while clicking away on laptop keys while your partner washes dishes divides the listener’s attention.

    Or not.

    These recent experiments of highlighting literal and figurative processes of transduction and perspective have opened my mind and ears to the possibilities of close listening.

    link to the historic soundscape reconstruction:

    Kassabian’s book:


  7. nkhverma says :

    Two thoughts on this. First, it took me ten years of doing close readings before I got any good at it, and I think that the same should be true of close listening — if it isn’t a constantly evolving practice, you’re doing it wrong. Second thought: I use the term to emphasize how nonverbal sound, amplitude and reverb have aesthetic and rhetorical force equal to or greater than that of signifying language or music, and students mostly get that, but here’s my worry — in using a term patterned after a very literary activity (one with such a fraught and contentious history), aren’t I tacitly admiting that listening is indeed reducible to language? There’s a curious tension in using it, is my point. Great topic for John Cage’s birthday, by the way.


    • justindburton says :

      This curious tension is always buzzing in my head when I’m thinking about this, too. I often feel there’s a bit too much residue of (phal)logocentric ideology left over, even in trying to resensitize the term. In the same way that close listening should be a constantly evolving practice, perhaps our terminology should be constantly evolving, too?


  8. justindburton says :

    Pretty intentionally. I like dropping “close listening” in places where “close reading” might otherwise go as an extension of a general effort to replace sight words (although certainly “reading” doesn’t have to entail sight!) with sound words, even where audiovisual media is at play. It becomes fairly interchangeable with “analysis” in my thought processes, and in courses that involve a good deal of critical work on my students’ parts, I tend to refer to what we do as close listenings or analyses roughly equally. The goal, of course, is to choose language carefully so that I (and my students, hopefully) learn to pay attention to what our ears (and the rest of our bodies’ processing of sound waves) witness as something distinct from what our eyes do, since the two sometimes produce different results.

    I typically think of close listenings as things that yield thick descriptions.


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