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Ambient Listening

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This post has been written by Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustic Engineering at the University of Salford, who will be running an activity at the Sound and Music Late on Wednesday 15 March 2017. Follow him on Twitter @trevor_cox or @salfordacoustic

We have no ‘earlids’. There is no auditory equivalent of closing our eyes. Our hearing is constantly picking up sounds. Fingernails scraping down a blackboard or the climax to a Beethoven symphony, good sounds or bad – the ear sends the signals up the auditory nerve. The brain then has to work out which sounds are important and which ones can be safely ignored. The brain is very good at ignoring ambient noise, because it is more interested in picking up sounds that convey messages or that tell us about imminent threats.

We aren’t consciously aware of many of the sounds around us because the brain has a remarkable ability to filter out the uninteresting. But that does not mean ambient sounds should be overlooked. Musicians and artists have found musicality and beauty in found sounds. Arguably the most famous example of this is John Cage’s silent work 4’33”, which has every element of a musical performance except conventional music notes!

‘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’. – John Cage

At the Sound and Music Late we’ll bring a variety of strange looking devices that transform the ambient sound in the museum. Some are based on old military listening devices that amplify sound in the direction you’re looking, others switch your hearing over so that things from the left sound like they are coming from the right and vice versa.

Uniqlo Tate Late Event, Tate Modern

Uniqlo Tate Late Event, Tate Modern

Others will filter the sound changing the timbre of the hubbub. When we tried this event at Tate Modern, some of these devices made distant music audible that without the devices was masked by the sound of the crowd.

Uniqlo Tate Late Event, Tate Modern

Uniqlo Tate Late Event, Tate Modern

Alex De Little recorded some of the responses to the devices at Tate Modern.

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