subtle listening – how artists can develop new perceptual circuits

Cross of Sensations

“Creating new circuits in art means creating them in the brain.” – Gilles Deleuze

As a child, I noticed that certain sounds would have a strange effect on me. A sound, as well as the acoustical properties of a particular location, created mental images that transported me to an imaginal world. These images weren’t shapes or textures— although that occurred later on—but images of a location, like a scene from a cinematic dream sequence.

For example, the distant reverberations of a propeller plane evoked the image of an expansive marble quarry framed by wild jungle vegetation; another sound evoked the interior of a candy shop viewed through purple cellophane. These strange visions lacked any correlation to the sound I heard. It’s difficult to explain, but I intuitively knew that these images represented the essence or the soul of a sound, as if the sound had an atmospheric or psychic flavor.
Although confused by these experiences as a child, I’ve since recognized these visions as a type of synesthesia, in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another. As an adult, I’ve learned to control and develop my synesthesia using various forms of meditation and exercises. It has become an important tool in my work as a sound artist.

Learning to Meditate

I started meditating in 1975 while attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I spotted a flier at a health food store for a class at a meditation center and, being interested in Eastern spiritual philosophies, I decided to check it out. After a brief introduction to the basics of meditation, the teacher showed me how to sit, how to focus on my breath, and some techniques to deal with distracting thoughts. Like many first timers, I struggled with the usual problems, such as sitting on a cushion for long periods of time and quieting the internal chatter, but after a month or so of practice, I found myself able to meditate.

I continued to meditate at the center, where I learned other techniques I incorporated into my practice. I read books on meditation and discovered there were as many ways to meditate as there are people who meditate. Being the inventive type, I experimented with creating my own meditations, many of which involved hearing, or more importantly, the act of listening.

Listening Meditation

My listening meditations, which today form the basis of my Subtle Listening workshop, developed quite by accident. After many hours of practicing guitar (my instrument in music school) I would often take a break in the evening and walk over to the Christian Science Center where I would meditate near the expansive man-made pool in the plaza. The surface of the water and the concrete walls of the buildings played tricks with the sounds of the city. As I meditated, these echoic, reverberant sounds would form shapes and textures in my mind’s eye.

Intrigued by this phenomenon, I sought out ways to enhance this awareness through meditation. After months of trying different techniques I noticed that my hearing became sharper. My heightened awareness picked up on sounds I would have previously tuned out, and I heard them in greater detail. It was as if my hearing went from black and white to Technicolor as a result of my listening meditations.

Like the Buddha Sitting Under a Tree

“Music is the silence between the notes.” – Claude Debussy

While home from music school one Thanksgiving a friend asked if I would drive him to an appointment. After dropping them off, I found myself with nothing to do for an hour so I took advantage of the beautiful, crisp autumn day and sat under a tree in a nearby park. Savoring the colors and sounds of autumn, I closed my eyes, focused on my breathing, and began to meditate.

After a short while, a flock of noisy birds, preparing to migrate, started flying back and forth between the treetops. Resisting the urge to shift my attention to them I heeded my meditation teacher’s advice: “acknowledge the distractions, don’t focus on them.”

In this state of meditative non-attention, the sound of the birds took on a distinct shape in my mind’s eye. The sound became an undulating, spiky, amoebic shape, traveling back and forth in arcs and loops. At some point the flock split into two amoebic shapes, each with its own speed and trajectory. But something strange happened while I was in this state; I was no longer aware of each flock separately, but became aware of the space between them.

In other words, I was not focusing directly on the birds, but sensing the negative space or where the birds were not. It was as if I had switched into an altered and slightly mystical reality, one that enabled me to hear where a sound was not occurring—much like a sculptor’s negative space or a sonic black hole. I came to understand later that sensing absence can be just as important as sensing presence—because it is often in the empty spaces where art occurs.

Reaching Dark Stations

Over the years I’ve been fortunate to earn a living in both the music and audio industries while pursuing my work as a composer. From synthesizer programming and film sound editing to running a record label, I’ve always managed to make a living with my ears.

I was privileged to get a job as an assistant music editor on a couple of David Lynch films: Twin Peaks and Wild At Heart. Time allowing, I would run up to the mix theater to watch Mr. Lynch, working with a sound designer, transmute ordinary sounds into intricate dark sonic tapestries.

Each sound effect or sonic texture needed in a scene was verbally conjured by Mr. Lynch before working with any sounds from the Lucas sound library. Many sound designers work in a “top down” approach, starting from a vague idea of a sound needed in a scene, then manipulating and mixing many different sounds until something works. However, Mr. Lynch worked “bottom up,” meaning his unconscious already knew the sound needed for a scene as well as the recipe needed to create it.

David Lynch conjured sound from a deep place, one I intuitively recognized as an imaginal realm accessible through years of exploring his unconscious. So it was no surprise to discover that David Lynch was also a meditator.

Ear Training for Media Students

While fighting a bout of influenza on tour I had a feverish epiphany as I rushed for a connecting flight: there was no ear training for people working with sound as an art form. In ten years of teaching and lecturing in dozens of universities and media centers across Europe, I had not encountered a single “ear training” class or formalized introduction to listening of any sort for digital media students.

Of course, music students learn solfège (singing the sol-fa syllables to a scale or melody) and melodic dictation in ear training classes, and engineers are taught to listen for technical anomalies. But most students learning about sound for digital media have no formal instruction in how to listen. Students typically learn how to work with the latest software applications as well as the technical aspects of creating content; however they are often lost when it comes to using their “inner ears.”

And this often showed in their work, which displayed competent technical craft, but suffered from a lack of internal exploration. Seeing this lack I felt I needed to help correct this by sharing what I had learned during 30 years as an artist working with sound.

On my connecting flight I busily jotted down as many of my listening meditations, exercises, and past experiences as I could think of. I then turned these fever-fueled notes into a framework for the Subtle Listening workshop and emailed them to a friend who teaches digital media. He responded saying that this was exactly the sort of thing his students needed. He saw that his students were all too ready to start their work in software rather than spend time reading, writing, and exploring their psyches. He felt the workshop might help his students develop their sensory intuition, shifting their workflow from the physical plane to the mental plane.

What is Subtle Listening?

Let me first explain what Subtle Listening is not. Subtle Listening is not the ability to hear subtle nuances in a piece of classical music, nor is it a master class for nature recordists or a new type of music therapy. Subtle listening is about developing an intuitive awareness, a heightened sensitivity to the world around you.

The word “subtle” is borrowed from various esoteric philosophies that describe a concept called the “subtle realm.” There are many different names used for this imaginal place. For example, the Islamic scholar, and expert on Sufism, Henry Corbin coined the term “mundus imaginalis” to explain the Sufi concept of the “subtle realm” to Westerners. Jungian psychologists use the term “active imagination” to describe a similar idea.

Whatever term is used to describe it, the subtle realm is an imaginal, numinous domain said to exist between nature’s outer appearance and its inner essence or soul. The subtle realm is an interworld viewed by the soul of a person while in an altered or mystical state of consciousness.

Poets, mystics, and artists, by nature, are familiar with this realm, and it is precisely this unique way of experiencing the world—with their souls—that enable them to communicate their vision through their work. To offer a somewhat less mystical explanation, one can think of the subtle realm as the unconscious associations within a person’s psyche that form an intuitive perception of the physical world.

Hence, the techniques used in the Subtle Listening workshop are culled from sources such as Jungian psychology, Hermetic philosophy, Rhythmanalysis, synesthesia, paradox mediation, and brainwave entrainment. I have handpicked techniques from each of these areas I think people will find useful in developing the intuitive flow between the outer world and their unconscious—where the subtle realm is perceived. Or to put it a different way, using meditation as a method to develop an extrasensory awareness of the world.

In addition to the standard forms of meditation, I have created special sound files to be listened to during meditation. These special sound files are designed to induce “audio brainwave entrainment.” Often called binaural beats, these sounds synchronize the frequency of the listeners’ brainwaves to the frequency contained in the sound file, thereby affecting a change in consciousness. These files can help those who have difficulty meditating by slowing down their brainwaves, thereby affecting a more relaxed state.

Additionally, all workshop participants take part in a project where they create a short sound work based on a soundscape “heard” during a guided meditation. This not only teaches them to plumb the depths of their unconscious, but also fosters a more holistic sensory connection to the world by having them focus on listening in an imaginal, interior space.

Although the workshop is designed with the goal of developing aural awareness, any type of artist can participate in and benefit from Subtle Listening. Whether you are a poet, writer, photographer, painter, filmmaker, dancer, musician, or sound designer, your artistry will benefit greatly from having a heightened awareness of the world around you.

Subtle Listening Exercises

Use these exercises to help facilitate a visual sense of sound while also exploring your unconscious.

  • Six Degrees of Similitude – This exercise requires two people. One person draws the shape and texture of their favorite sound on a piece of paper. The paper is then handed to the other person, who studies the drawing and tries to hear the sound the drawn shape represents. After they hear the sound they then draw the sound on the paper. This process is repeated until there are six soundshapes drawn on the page. Afterwards, discuss the drawings and the sounds each represent.
  • Water Talk – Find a sound file of a river, brook, or stream ( Load it onto an mp3 player and set the player to repeat mode. Listen to the sound file on headphones while in a meditative state. Set the sound level to be audible as background but no louder. Spend 30 minutes or so listening to this sound, but don’t directly focus on the sound; let the random sound of the water remain in the background as ambiance. Afterwards, write down any sounds or speech patterns you heard embedded in the sound of the water.
  • Auditory Field of a Painting – Select a favorite painting. It can be figurative or abstract—the important thing is that you resonate with it. Study it while in a meditative state. Let your gaze enter the painting and descend below its surface, as if you were inside the painting. Let the sounds in the painting come to you. After the session write down all the sounds you heard in the painting.
  • Sonic Replacement Therapy – Go to a sonically rich environment such as a park or a mall food court. Make two columns on a sheet of paper and write down each individual sound you hear in the first column. Later, look at the sounds in column one and write down corresponding sounds that are similar in quality but would only occur in a very different environment. For example: the chirp of birds could correlate to the chirping of a crossing signal for the blind at a busy intersection.
  • Shape of Words – Draw a simple shape of the following words as you or a partner read them aloud— over enunciation is helpful: slam, tan, golf, fuse, ship, slab, tone, fuzz and hum.


  • Brainwave Entrainment – An external periodic stimuli that causes a synchronization of brainwave frequencies. Usual forms of entrainment are in the form of soundfiles and/or electronic devices using headphones and LED goggles.
  • Binaural Beats – A perceptual artifact that occurs when two tones of different frequencies are presented separately via stereo headphones. For example, when 100 Hz is played in one ear while the other is played 101 Hz, a binaural beat of 1Hz is produced by the brain and perceived as audio.
  • Monaural Beats – Rather than presenting each ear with a different frequency, the beats are mixed electronically before being presented to the listener. They are mixed down to a monaural track and presented as a single channel of audio, not stereo.
  • Isochronic Beats – Rather than using different frequencies to create beats, isochronic beats electronically turn a sound on and off at an evenly spaced rate. People who don’t respond well to binaural or monaural beats tend to respond to this method of brainwave entrainment.
  • Subtle Realm – A realm that exists between the surface of nature and its soul or essence. This realm can be perceived with a developed extrasensory perception (also called active imagination or integral consciousness), which can be brought about through lucid dreaming, hypnosis, or meditation. It yields its secrets when entered with full consciousness.
  • Acoustics – An interdisciplinary science that deals with the study of mechanical waves in various media. In the context of this article, acoustics refers to the behavior of sound waves when encountering different surfaces and materials.
  • Rhythmanalysis – A method for analyzing the inherent, non-musical rhythms of an urban, or any, space and how those rhythms affect its inhabitants.

Suggested reading:

“Auditory Beats in the Brain” Gerald Oster, 1973
“The Subtle Realm: Corbin, Sufism and Swedenborg” – Robert Avens Swedenborg
“The Grain of the Auditory Field” – Kim Cascone
Piece on synesthesia and dance:
“The Door to the Imaginal Realm” – Mary Pat Mann
“Recovering a Visionary Geography: Henry Corbin and the Missing Ingredient in Our Culture of Images” – Ptolemy Tompkins %20Articles/article_tompkins_p_recoveringvisonary.htm

Poetics of Space – Gaston Bachelard
Silence – John Cage
Kybalion – The Definitive Edition – William Walker Atkinson Listening and Voice – Don Idhe
Rhythmanalysis – Henri LeFebvre
The Ever Present Origin – Jean Gebser
The Secret History of Consciousness – Gary Lachman
Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener – David Toop

Written in 2013.