Why Deep Listening will Improve your Sound Design

Have you ever had that feeling where, after repeating or re-reading a word a whole bunch, it loses all meaning?

Turns, out, that’s called “semantic saturation.” That’s when the neurons in charge of the pronunciation and meaning of a word get so overwhelmed that they refuse to function for a bit. It doesn’t happen all that often, but it’s a fun little thing to observe when it does.

Our brain does all sorts of things to filter out various stimuli from the world around us — all in an effort to prevent our neurons from getting overwhelmed. This filtering process happens quite a lot with our sense of hearing. Most of the time, we listen to the world around us very passively, not noticing anything in particular unless something happens to stick out, like when someone honks their horn.

But, by using our hearing consciously and listening deeply, we’ll be able to hear the world around us in a way that we can’t normally. This allows us to shut out plenty of distractions, prevent our brains from getting overwhelmed, and really perceive how we can create better, more detailed sound effects.

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Deep listening is the active, conscious listening to the world around us
While we’re awake and going about our day, we’re just listening passively most of the time. The sounds of cars going by, leaves rustling… these all go acknowledged on a very subconscious level. None of these sounds takes any conscious attention to process.

However, when we participate in deep listening, we actively tune all of our attention to what we’re hearing. What kind of car is going by? Is it an electric car? A sports car? A hybrid? How fast is it going? Is the radio on? How heavy is it? What does it sound like when it’s idling at a red light? What does it sound like when it shifts from first to second gear? Or maybe it has a continuously variable transmission?

As you can see, there is a limitless amount of detail in literally every sound around us. However, because we don’t consciously listen often enough, we tend to miss these details. When we miss these details in the real world, we can’t recreate them in our game projects.

While deep listening takes some focus
It has a key benefit for our sound design work. Firstly, it helps us discern the details in the auditory world around us. We’ve all tried making sound for a game or film project, and were unsatisfied when things just didn’t “sound right.” This is because we are missing the key details that every sound should have. Unfortunately, if we don’t listen deeply to the world around us, we won’t know exactly which details are missing, causing frustration as we try to improve our work.

How should we perform deep listening?
Deep listening is an awful lot like meditation. If you do meditate regularly, then this will come pretty easily to you. Whether you are in your home, or in a totally new environment, you want to do everything you can to become present with the sounds around you. You can pick a specific sound, such as an idling car, or listen to something broader, such as the ambience of a forest around you.

Your goal is to put as much attention as you can to the sound that you wish to zone in on. Try closing your eyes, slowing your breathing, and focusing as best you can on just one sound.

Note that you absolutely will get distracted and will have to gently guide your attention back to the sound that you wish to focus on. Do this, and you will notice the incredible nuance of every sound that you may have been missing up until this point.

You can do this anytime
Providing your attention won’t be heavily split up. For example, while I’m writing this article, I’m not able to deeply listen to the world around me. However, if I’m out for a walk, or doing a simple task like cleaning the kitchen, I can absolutely zone in on specific sounds around me and hear what makes them special.

You can listen in this way pretty much wherever you are
The only thing I would recommend is to not do this while your attention is needed elsewhere. If you’re talking to a friend, riding a bike, driving a car, or wrestling an alligator, it’s probably best not to split up your attention.

We definitely don’t need to do this 24/7
That’s like telling an athlete that they need to be running all day, every day. We need breaks from time to time. It’s a good idea to start listening this way during downtime in your day. Maybe you’re waiting for a bus, sitting in a coffee shop, or walking up the stairs to your apartment. Those are all great times to zone in for a bit. Even just a few seconds here and there will reveal a lot of wonderful audio nuances to you.

Listening to your neighborhood
If you’d like to get started on this quickly, then try just taking a 5-minute walk around your neighborhood while listening deeply. You can start broadly, like listening to the way the wind blows around you, or you can hone in one specific sound — such as that dog that never stops barking across the street. You will be shocked at how much your conscious mind has been missing.

So, what have we learned about deep listening?

  • Deep listening is the active, fully-conscious use of our hearing to help us discern the nuance of the world around us.

  • The more we do this, the better we get at creating our own sounds for our projects. Instead of missing key audio details, we’ll know exactly which audio elements each moment needs.

  • All we need to do is put all of our attention on what we’re hearing — whether it be a single sound, or listening to a broader environment. If we get distracted, just gently guide our attention back to the sound we’re listening to.

Our brain naturally wants to filter things out
Whether it be a word we hear over and over, or the sounds of the world around us, our brain naturally wants to filter out as many stimuli as possible to keep us from getting overwhelmed. That’s why it’s up to us to consciously zone in and listen deeply to the world around us.

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