What Is That I Hear?

A miniature schnauzer used to be part of our family. Sebastian had a high-pitched yip that was consistently irritating, and he would bark when anyone came near the house. One day, unbeknownst to me, our neighbor Marg was visiting my wife in the living room. As I came in the door, Sebastian did his usual yipping, so in response I imitated his bark back to him, simply to aggravate him more. Marg overheard my echoing the dog and exclaimed, "Is that another dog?"  And my wife had to admit that it was her husband. Identifying sounds can be a fascinating challenge.

          One day a few years ago I was fishing with my good friend, Dave. I was startled when I heard a slapping sound nearby. Dave also heard it and said, "Did you hear that beaver?"  He told me that it was the sound of the animal hitting his tail against the water. He then told me how the different animals and birds that live on or near the creek provide us with a calliope of sounds if we will just listen and learn to identify their unique sounds. John Burroughs, American essayist and naturalist, said, "I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order." After that conversation I became more aware of not just the beauty of the creek, but also the sounds of wildlife that inhabit the area.

          You see, sharpening our abilities to recognize sounds will also encourage us to listen to other stimuli around us. Learning to listen is not just a technique or a process, but also involves the art of distinguishing one sound from another. You may have thought that all crying babies sound alike. However, when you have a baby of your own you soon discover that your baby has a unique sound that you can identify from all the other babies. One reason is that you have practiced listening for its sound.

            Although we live in the city, our backyard is part of an easement that is basically a wooded area inhabited by a variety of wildlife. They include deer, squirrels, rabbits, foxes, and coyotes. What has been an education is to recognize the howling of the coyote in contrast to a barking dog. This was a new, eerie sound when we first heard it late one night. But we can now identify the howling easily. It was a matter of learning to distinguish among animal sounds.

          Make it a goal to learn to identify sounds; when you do, you are developing the same self-discipline to listen actively to people. Can you distinguish among the sounds of the siren of an ambulance, fire truck, and police car?  How about the sounds of different caliber guns?  Can you tell the difference in sounds from a shotgun, rifle, and pistol?  Then if you want to dance to Latin music, can you tell the difference in music for the cha-cha, the salsa, and the tango? 

          One way to begin is to listen to music from such sources as Moodstreams. You can find online articles about improving listening. Remember the point made by John Cage: "There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot." 

Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. He presents keynotes and seminars to corporations and associations whose people want to speak and listen effectively. See additional articles and resources at www.sboyd.com. To book Steve, call 800-727-6520 or email him through his website.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at steveboyd111@gmail.com.

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