Listen to Silence

Street noise, train noise, airplane noise, noise at the railway station, noise in the office, lawnmowers, steam vents, a slamming door in the staircase, the beep of a smartphone.

What does silence sound like? Finding an answer is difficult. For some, it is quiet when the noises around them are reduced to sounds that are not caused by humans. Some need silence to live; others are afraid of it.

“Silence is something you assume you’ll always find when you need it,” says Gordon Hempton in an interview with Newsweek. He has been searching for quiet places for thirty years and records them with a recording device.

Today, the search for silence can be compared to the search for a needle in a haystack. There are fewer than a dozen quiet places in the U.S. and none left in Europe, Hempton says. For him, a place is silent when there are no sounds made by humans for fifteen minutes.

The virtual reality film Sanctuaries of Silence by Adam Loften and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee follows Hempton and his microphone to various places. The film addresses the question of what the world loses when silence is gone. At the end of the film, Loften and Vaughan-Lee invite us to experience a place through its sounds with the following exercise:

Find a quiet spot, take a few deep breaths and enjoy the peace and quiet that silence begins to offer. Notice how both physical and psychological changes begin to happen almost immediately.

Where is the place you spend the most time indoors? Go to this place. It could be a room in your home or your office. Sit or lay down in a comfortable position. Spend 10 minutes with your eyes closed, listening to all of the sounds around you, nearby and far away. What do you hear?

Seek out a public or urban environment – a local coffee shop, a busy street corner, your rooftop. Again, for 10 minutes, listen to the sounds around you. Try to take it all in, with equal value, without judgment. What do you notice?

Find a natural/green space within your town or city – a public park or garden or a tree in your yard. Close your eyes and listen for 15 minutes this time. How is the quality of sound different in this location compared to the location in exercise #2?

Seek out a natural space, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. This space could be a wooded trail or a meadow with a stream. Sit or lay down with your eyes closed. For 30 minutes, listen to the sounds around you. What do you hear in this place?

Return to the place indoors from exercise #1. Repeat the first exercise. Has your experience of listening changed? If so, how?

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