How to Listen When Playing in the Sonic Sandbox

The facilitators from Music for People talk about finding your One sound. It is a sound that you can make, usually with your voice, that you can put your whole self into. You commit to it fully. There is no holding back for fear of how others will judge you. Because this sound is, essentially, you, you have no fear and can make this sound with all you’ve got.

There’s a lot of work involved in becoming yourself, and it isn’t all work that you can do alone. Some people may be able to fight their way to make themselves heard, but people like me can only do that if they feel like others want to hear what we have to express. So many people I have met are like this. We love music and making music, but we are held back by all the judgments we have heard in the past and that we imagine we will hear in the future if we do not censor ourselves.

In the Sonic Sandbox, we learn to listen differently. We learn to listen for the character of sound, not for the imagined correctness of it. Our axiom is that all sounds are beautiful. It is our job, as listeners, to find that beauty.

In listening this way, we have to try to turn against the tidal wave of the history of human musical traditions that says that the way our culture makes music is the only correct and beautiful way to make music. We have to come to believe that there is no objective way to judge music; that it is all part of an arbitrary artifact of culture, and that, therefore, it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, we can find anything we want to be beautiful.

In the Sonic Sandbox, we can play anything, and it can be beautiful. However, what makes it beautiful is the way we listen and what we do with what we hear. We are not throwing out a whole history of notions about harmony and melody and rhythm. Instead, we are saying that any sound can be beautiful, and what makes it beautiful is if other people hear it, and if other people support that sound.

So one exercise we do is to take a deep breath together, and then we each come in with our own sound on its own pitch with its own qualities all at the same time. We do not change the sound as a result of what anyone else is doing — at least, not at first. Instead, we listen to what is happening, and we remain suspended in this sound for as long as we can hold the notes, just listening for what is beautiful.

We may do this once or twice or three or more times. Eventually, however, we allow ourselves to start changing what we are doing in response to that which we are really listening to. We seek out the beauty in the sound and then we can change in order to reinforce that sound, or to play with it, or to play off it. In this way, we move into sounds that most people would find more recognizable as music.

Allowing people to suspend judgment about sound creates a space safe enough for people to begin to find the beauty and then to reinforce it and turn it into music.