Awareness of Hearing: Sensing Silence and Sound

When asked “What is art?” acclaimed abstract painter Ad Reinhardt is said to have replied, “Art is art, and everything else is everything else. Art needs no justification.” I wager the same statement can be made about music.

Like art, music is highly subjective. Music to one person’s ears is noise to another’s. In researching my own curiosity about how music is defined in scholastic terms, I located two definitions I find particularly intriguing.

According to Merriam-Webster, music is defined as, “The science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines music as, “The art of arranging sounds in time so as to produce a continuous, unified, and evocative composition, as through melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre.”

These definitions share many commonalities. And yet, as much truth as they contain, they both seem to fall a bit short. For if music is as subjective as art, does it need unity and continuity? Does it need to be ordered and evocative? And if so, who gets to decide whether or not it has these qualities? The answer, in my mind, lies always in the listener. Depending on the listener’s preferences, her likes or dislikes, she may hear certain things as “music” and other things as “non-music.” Ultimately, it is the Nia practice of Music Appreciation that will help determine how healing a piece of “music” will be for an individual, and likewise whether or not that individual thinks of it as music at all.

As a listener, a Nia teacher and a musician, I receive the healing benefits of music by paying attention to music’s primordial energies: silence and sound. (Primordial energies are two complimentary, essential elements, which together create a third element.) I sense music as a product of the alchemical relationship between silence and sound (silence + sound = music). I am sure someone can argue that silence and sound exist independently of each other, and therefore that “music” is possible with only one of these energies present. However, I maintain that neither is recognizable without the other. It’s like the relationship between happiness and suffering: can you recognize one if you have no experience of the other? 

So how do I receive the healing benefits not only of sound, but silence as well? I do this using the Nia practice we call RAW (Relaxed, Alert, and Waiting). RAW invites me to receive the healing benefits of music by helping me appreciate and notice that I’m enveloped in silence and sound constantly. As a ‘yang’ energy, sound gives me inspiration and excitation, and calls me to action. A ‘yin’ energy, silence invites me to sense the “non-sound’ and to perceive that behind all mobility lies intrinsic stability.

I am blown away by the power of RAW. I’m humbled by the sheer magnitude of peacefulness, grounded-ness, and awareness it evokes in me. Standing underground in New York’s bustling subway system, I hear the sounds of coins dropping, people shouting, turnstiles clicking, beatboxers rapping, bags zipping, rails screeching, and the landscape of silence behind it all. All of it is music to my ears, thanks to RAW.

RAW is the listening practice I can take with me anywhere. Being “relaxed” creates in my body a sense of calm that is both grounding and healing. Staying “alert” creates in my mind an expanded awareness or mindfulness similar to meditation. “Waiting” anchors me by giving my brain something to do, freeing up my spirit to be in a state of wonderment. What do I do when I don’t know what to do? I remain relaxed, alert, and waiting. I place 100% of my attention on listening, to witness the ever-fluctuating relationship between silence and sound.

There is this beautiful book called, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, and every single line is written as if the author Jon McGregor lives in the Zone, accompanied by RAW all the time. He writes, “If you listen, you can hear it. The city, it sings. If you stand quietly, at the foot of a garden, in the middle of a street, on the roof of a house. It’s clearest at night, when the sound cuts more sharply across the surface of things, when the song reaches out to a place inside you.”

Music is the ocean in which I swim and the air that I breathe. Each interplay of silence and sound creates its own song, offering my body, mind, emotions, and spirit unique opportunities to self-heal with every listening.

Sounds emerge from silence and return to silence. Meanwhile, I keep listening….

Allison’s tips on hearing:

  • Listen to music and notice silence the way you would notice the landscape in the background of a painting.
  • Perceive the meditative quality in all sound, noticing how every sound helps to anchor you more fully in the present moment.
  • When someone is speaking to you, practice 100% receiving (total listening). Notice the effect this has on your body, mind, emotions and spirit. Notice the effect it has on your relationship with that person.
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