But when you actually pay attention to something you’re listening to, whether it is your favorite song or the cat meowing at dinnertime, a separate “top-down” pathway comes into play. Here, the signals are conveyed through a dorsal pathway in your cortex, part of the brain that does more computation, which lets you actively focus on what you’re hearing and tune out sights and sounds that aren’t as immediately important.
In this case, your brain works like a set of noise-suppressing headphones, with the bottom-up pathways acting as a switch to interrupt if something more urgent — say, an airplane engine dropping through your bathroom ceiling — grabs your attention.
Hearing, in short, is easy. You and every other vertebrate that hasn’t suffered some genetic, developmental or environmental accident have been doing it for hundreds of millions of years. It’s your life line, your alarm system, your way to escape danger and pass on your genes. But listening, really listening, is hard when potential distractions are leaping into your ears every fifty-thousandth of a second — and pathways in your brain are just waiting to interrupt your focus to warn you of any potential dangers.
Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload.
A reddit user, deafstoryteller, writes:
I’ve never understood it.
My whole life I’ve seen hearing people make a fool of themselves singing their favorite song or gyrating on the dance floor. I’ve also seen hearing people moved to tears by a single song. That was the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around.
I was born profoundly deaf and all music sounded like trash through my hearing aids.
That is until a couple days ago when I put on a new pair of hearing aids for the first time in years.
The first thing I heard was my shoe scraping across the carpet; it startled me. I have never heard that before and out of ignorance, I assumed it was too quiet for anyone to hear.
I sat in the doctor’s office frozen as a cacophony of sounds attacked me. The whir of the computer, the hum of the AC, the clacking of the keyboard, and when my best friend walked in I couldn’t believe that he had a slight rasp to his voice. He joked that it was time to cut back on the cigarettes.
That night, a group of close friends jump-started my musical education by playing Mozart, Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Elvis, and several other popular legends of music.
Being able to hear the music for the first time ever was unreal.
I realized that my old hearing aids were giving me a distorted version of music. they were not capable of distributing higher frequencies with clarity, instead it was just garbled gibberish.
When Mozart’s Lacrimosa came on, I was blown away by the beauty of it. At one point of the song, it sounded like angels singing and I suddenly realized that this was the first time I was able to appreciate music. Tears rolled down my face and I tried to hide it. But when I looked over I saw that there wasn’t a dry eye in the car.
I finally understood the power of music…
And then he goes on a “binge of music”, with the following five favorites in his brief exposure:
- Mozart’s Lacrimsoa
- The soundtrack to Eleven Eleven… I can see how this comes off as narcissistic, it being my own film and all but it’s such a personal work that when I listened to it for the first time I broke down. I felt like I was truly seeing the film for the first time ever. I’m grateful that Cazz was able to capture the tone perfectly. We discussed the film and specific scenes with essay-sized reasoning/deliberations on what should be conveyed. The critical response to the film surprised me and I still didn’t quite get it until seeing the visual images coupled with the soundtrack.
- Sig Ros’s Staralfur
- IL Postino-Luis Bacalov
- Minnesota’s A Bad Place
The comments are excellent. I echo those that are saying to start a blog and document your music listening adventures!