I’ve always gravitated towards some form of auditory purism, or the idea that there are unmistakable benefits to listening in a focused way while minimizing or removing other sensory input. Listening to music in the dark is a good example. The first time I attended an electroacoustic musical performance, the audience was surrounded by the 16 speakers required for multi-channel playback. When the musicians turned out the lights just before the performance began, I thought: “Ah... they get it!”.
As a result of this bias I’ve long been fascinated by a question Jason Camlot posed while working on his SpokenWeb poetry project: “What do we look at while we listen?”. It’s a question rich for varied interpretation, but I’ve typically understood it to mean “What should we look at while we listen?” and “How does what we look at while we listen affect the listening experience?”1. Camlot raised the question while the project team worked to design a web interface for the playback and critical analysis of poetry recordings. Although my knee-jerk response was “ideally, nothing - just listen”, I also realized this wouldn’t work nor would it be desirable in all contexts - certainly not for a web interface designed for recorded poetry readings. The web is first and foremost a visual medium. You can make some headway on the web without your speakers, but you always need your screen.
I also reminded myself that in the natural world, multimodal sensory experience is the norm: a forest-dwelling animal looks while it listens. Except, of course, when it can’t. At night, for instance, when light is low or non-existent, and sounds become sharper, brighter, and more important.
With this context in mind, I propose that audio interfaces (web-based or otherwise) should offer a “night listening” mode, which would be a minimal and basic interface that simply allows the user to initiate and stop playback, and not much more. UbuWeb Sound is a good example: no waveform, no spectrogram, no transcription, no user-generated content. Just: play, pause, and seek. With less to look at, the more the interface will help to promote immersed, focused listening and to facilitate emotional and aesthetic receptivity to aural content. In situations where a more intellectual or analytical approach may be necessary, the interface can be layered so that more complex features can be added, but these features or layers should also be removable.
Listening is a relational process; the listening experience arises from aural content refracting through the listener’s emotional, aesthetic, and intellectual lenses. The listening experience, then, depends as much on the listener’s state of mind and body as much as it does on the content, which is delivered through the interface. But the interface itself can and does influence a listener’s state and should therefore be designed purposefully. It shouldn’t be a distraction, and in most cases, minimal interfaces allow for the most vibrant relational listening experiences, bringing us as close as possible to direct contact with sound.
Part of the justification for this recommendation comes from my own listening experience. While listening to Spotify introspectively (in William James’ sense), I’ve noticed that strictly listening to a song versus listening and also reading or looking (using Spotify’s “Behind the Lyrics” service which superimposes lyrics and song facts over album art) are two different experiences. When strictly listening the song has more of an impact, and I feel more absorbed in the experience. Reading while listening made for shallower listening and tangential intellectualization, even when I was reading the lyrics in time with playback.
When designing audio interfaces, creating audio installations, hosting listening parties, or other audio-based experiences, I suggest offering a “night listening” mode which foregrounds listening, and which adds visual elements cautiously, and in a purposeful way.
1. Annie Murray and I explored this question in Looking at archival sound: enhancing the listening experience in a spoken word archive.