Solving global challenges. Listening and the importance of learning music and languages.

we hear through our ears but listen through our hearts

By Grant Hall.  Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

There are a handful of things that I’m unusually obsessed with. One is sound. I’ve always loved sound, and when I was young I loved it so much that I wanted to work with it and so became a musician. I’d sooner be blind than deaf. Most musicians are obsessed with sound, and just as artists or photographers tend to be visually aware people, musicians tend to be aurally aware in the same way. If you take a casual stroll with a visual artist, you might notice how they often point out things that you otherwise mightn’t see, like a minor architectural detail in a building perhaps, while similarly, musicians often notice sounds that others don’t, like a distant bird song or a subtle guitar part in the background of a song you’ve heard a thousand times.

Another thing that I’m obsessed with is conflict. I don’t personally like conflict and will often run a mile in the other direction to avoid it, and I suspect the dislike I feel for conflict is also the root of my interest in it. Few people enjoy conflict or seek it out, so why does so much conflict exist in the world? Despite my aversion to personal conflict, my interest in it has driven me to deliberately live in places that have been affected by it such as Northern Ireland, Vietnam and Quebec in Canada, where non-violent conflict and resentment still bubbles between the English speaking and the French speaking populations.

One thing that I learned from living in Northern Ireland and closely observing the peace building process there, was how the stop-start process often came to a standstill at the very moment either side stopped listening to the other. There was often a marker that would indicate that this was about to occur, which was the point when someone would say “but you did this to us”, whereby the blame game would reignite and render the art of listening a near impossibility. Living now in Vietnam, I’ve read a great deal about the war which largely escalated due to the American Government’s incapacity to listen to or understand Vietnamese concerns. The last time I lived in Australia I worked for the Australian Government helping Indigenous arts and cultural organisations and I was frequently told by Indigenous people “you never listen to us!”. The tin ears that the Australian Government lend to the nation’s Indigenous people are astonishing, and the subject of a soon to be published post. It’s been said that humanity’s incapacity to listen is a major reason why there is so much conflict in the world, and my experience leads me to agree with this.

This blog is called where words fail and I named it so because I am interested in how skilful use of non-verbal communications can help individuals, groups, businesses and governments to become better. One reason that words often fail, according to sound expert Julian Treasure in his superb TED Talk 5 ways to listen betteris because human beings are ‘not very good’ at listening and he cites research which reveals that whilst we spend sixty percent of our time listening, we only retain twenty-five percent of what we hear.

As to why we are such bad listeners, Stephen R Covey details his thoughts in his influential book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

We’re filled with our own rightness, our own autobiography. We want to be understood. Our conversations become collective monologues, and we never really understand what’s going on inside another human being.

On the same topic, leading Australian businessman Kim Williams says this, in his Rules of Engagement memoirs:

Nearly all of the time, most people today are not listening to what is being directed to them. The cacophony that regularly surrounds us makes people metaphorically switch off. They stop hearing. They don’t listen. People in the west and a huge part of the east have become poor listeners.

“There are a lot of reasons for this” says Treasure:

First of all, we invented ways of recording — first writing, then audio recording and now video recording as well. The premium on accurate and careful listening has simply disappeared. Secondly, the world is now so noisy, with this cacophony going on visually and auditorily, it’s just hard to listen; it’s tiring to listen.

It might be tiring to listen, but think back to those days before recordings were made. One is reminded of a young Johann Sebastian Bach walking four hundred kilometres to listen to his idol Dieterich Buxtehude play organ music. In those days, songs spread across continents because people had the ability to listen and then replicate music at a later time.

Treasure points out that much of the habitat in which we spend our daily lives is not designed in a way that encourages listening – which makes me think about all the stainless steel filled minimalist cafes where sounds are reflected from every flat surface so much that you can’t hear your friend’s voice from a meter a way. Many classrooms also have such a design, where the science of sound has not even been considered.

But does that matter? At cafes many people are only interested in talking about themselves anyway, and we aren’t taught to listen at school either, as Covey points out:

Consider this: You’ve spent years learning how to read and write, years learning how to speak. But what about listening? What training or education have you had that enables you to listen so that you really, deeply understand another human being from that individual’s own frame of reference? Comparatively few people have had any training in listening at all.

“This is a serious problem that we’re losing our listening”, says Treasure:

Because listening is our access to understanding. Conscious listening always creates understanding… a world where we don’t listen to each other at all is a very scary place indeed.

 As Williams points out:

Many things follow from close listening— tolerance, respect, patience, thinking, discipline, order and, when well managed, a better sense of perspective and insight.

 And Covey:

Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel.

Understanding ‘how they feel’ is the basis of good relationships, not just in personal relations such as within a marriage, but also in business and international relations. There’s a lot of truth in the lyrics of that famous old song Elvis used to sing called Walk a mile in my shoes:

If I could be you
If you could be me
For just one hour
If we could find a way
To get inside
Each other’s mind, 
If you could see you
Through my eyes
Instead of your ego
I believe you’d be
Surprised to see
That you’d been blind,

Walk a mile in my shoes
Walk a mile in my shoes
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

But how do we develop this “emphatic” listening that Covey speaks of, the “close” listening that Williams describes or Treasure’s “conscious” listening?

Treasure says there’s a “need to teach listening in our schools as a skill” and questions “why is it not taught?” before going on to say that:

If we can teach listening in our schools, we can take our listening off that slippery slope to that dangerous, scary world that I talked about and move it to a place where everybody is consciously listening all the time – or at least capable of doing it. Now I don’t know how to do that.

Thankfully, Williams has a suggestion:

One of the supremely practical benefits from learning music is that it makes you listen! Truly listen. Sit up and listen. Even indulge in listening.

Music does more to activate the brain than anything else and that, I think, needs to be one of the primary defences for music education in the modern world.

One of the most popular posts here at is How music education builds economic growth in South Australia, in which I detail many of the less appreciated benefits that can be gained from music education. The post includes a substantial but by no means exhaustive list of these benefits and I enjoyed subsequent online interactions with people who outlined how they’ve personally and often professionally benefited from the study of music. Interestingly, neither myself nor anyone else in the conversation had even considered the listening aspect.

In recent years there has been a great deal of scientific investigation into how involvement in arts activities builds an individual’s empathy, and the University of Cambridge reports:

A year-long study on childrens’ music-making indicates that playing music in groups on a regular basis greatly improves a child’s ability to empathise with others.

The point about music is that it can make you feel as though you are sharing the same experience, when you don’t need to be doing the same thing or feeling the same way… There is a strong sense in communal music that you simply do feel you are experiencing the same thing as everyone else.

I understand this from many of my own musical experiences. In 2008 I organised an open rehearsal of the Australian Youth Orchestra with the American conductor John Nelson at the Elder Hall in Adelaide. The orchestra members had come together from all across Australia and other parts of the world to spend a week or more rehearsing before performing a series of concerts at the Adelaide Festival Centre where I worked. Because this rehearsal period was ‘residential’, that is, the orchestra basically lived together, the young members were having the time of their lives. In this rehearsal, John was kind enough to wear a lapel microphone so that the audience, which was mostly high school music students, could hear and learn from his instructions. They were rehearsing the Second Movement, a funeral march, from Beethoven’s Third Symphony, a movement so emotive that it has been used to mourn the deaths of Presidents Kennedy and Roosevelt, the musicians Toscanini and Mendelssohn and those killed by terrorists at the 1972 Olympics. John had rehearsed a particular phrase a few times, but it wasn’t being played the way he desired. I vividly recall him pausing thoughtfully and solemnly before addressing the orchestra, “before we play this phrase again, I want you to think of someone dear to you who has passed away”, and after another small pause he smilingly continued, “but I don’t want you to think about them with sadness, but rather with the joy you felt by having known them”. The orchestra responded, and when they played the phrase again the difference was immense; they listened deeply to his instructions, internalised and synergised them, and nailed the phrase before moving on with the rehearsal. Despite the hi-jinx inherent in a youth orchestra’s residential rehearsal program, these young members could suspend their own realities for a time, put themselves into the shoes of a mourner, and empathise with someone whose mourning is tinged with joy.

This is a day to day experience of musicians the world over. I remember once I was having a terrible day and I was grumpy and as down as hell, but my band was playing “Walking on Sunshine”. In order to perform my role, I had to emphasise with the joy of the song. Similarly, if you are having a great day but your band is playing “Everybody Hurts” you need to put yourself within that vibe. Regardless of what you are playing, you need to put yourself into the timbre of the lyrics, melody, rhythm and the general feeling that the song is trying to convey. This is even more true for actors whose entire task is to ‘walk a mile’ in someone else’s shoes.

The Guardian reports on how reading also increases empathy:

A Cambridge University study by Maria Nikolajeva, professor of education, found that “reading fiction provides an excellent training for young people in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind, that is, understanding of how other people feel and think”.

Empathy is increasingly being recognised as a core life skill, and the bedrock for sound relationships and classroom climate. Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy, a Handbook for Revolution, says: “There has been an extraordinary shift … a concept that has been buried in psychology textbooks for nearly a century – empathy – is coming to be seen as one of the fundamental forces for tackling global challenges.”

To get out of the house a bit more I recently started teaching a few English classes to teenagers at the local British Council partner school. Last night, as happens in every lesson, I guided a class through a series of listening exercises. While this was happening I looked at the expressions on the students’ faces and realised that they were listening as searchingly as possible. Anyone who has studied a foreign language and had the opportunity to apply their new language skills will know how much learning a language broadens the mind. Benny Lewis argues something that most language learners already know in his excellent article Language Learners: 15 Useful Skills You Get from Speaking a Second Language:

By experiencing the challenges of being in a different environment surrounded by people you may not completely identify with, you learn to develop empathy for those who also experience those challenges.

Learning a language helps you step into the shoes of people different to yourself – and that gives you empathy.

By learning a new language, you discover how an entire population expresses themselves and their thoughts.

Lewis also introduces us to Tim Doner, a polyglot from New York, who “learned Hebrew and Arabic so that he could better identify with those on either side of the conflicts in the Middle East” and he quotes Doner as saying “Understanding a language is the first step in understanding a culture, which allows you to begin seeing people from other people’s points of view”; in other words, we hear through our ears but we listen through the heart.

At the end of his TED Talk, Treasure implores his audience to consider how to “get listening taught in schools, and transform the world in one generation to a conscious listening world – a world of connection, a world of understanding and a world of peace”, and I guess this post is my response to this challenge. If you want your kids to be able to listen closely, emphatically and consciously, make sure they learn an instrument, a second language and encourage their love of reading and the arts.

I reckon that would be a pretty good start.

To read more posts about music click here.

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