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Din and destruction

Memory is deeply affected by poor listening and this kind of noise. When we recollect happenings or try to construct a past incident, what we recall is one more step removed

T.M. Krishna Published 29.03.24, 05:38 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. Sourced by the Telegraph

Learning music requires the activation of two cognitive processes — listening and remembering. In this context, I would like to distinguish listening from hearing. Hearing is involuntary; the registering of a sound. There is no association, recognition and understanding born from the incident. I also propose that mere repetition or rote action, even if accurate, remains within the domain of hearing, when there is no mental application. Listening, on the other hand, is the completion of the entire process beginning from the arrival of the sound and ending with awareness and understanding. This is how, even in a crowded train, we are able to converse. The ambient sound is pushed to the background because we make the effort to concentrate on what an individual is saying. But listening is not stand-alone. It is influenced by visual cues and stimuli, tactility, and olfactory and gustatory changes.

Memory is an unusual creature. To begin with, its quality is influenced by whether the individual heard or listened. If he heard, then memory fails or results in incoherent recollections. When sound is internalised completely, memory is richer. But even this is suspect because the mind is never static and, hence, the social environment and life experiences of the listener add, delete, turn and twist that which has been listened to.


In a music class, I often encounter a situation where my student is unable to comprehend what I teach. I repeat the same line over and over again; yet the student repeats the same mistake. My student appears to be attentive and putting in the required effort. Yet, it does not happen. It is possible that the individual does not have the intellectual tools to understand the line of music. In which case, I need to go back to the drawing board and ensure that the needed inputs are first put in place. But I face the same problem even when the student is fully capable. In these cases, something else is happening. As I begin to sing, the student is unconsciously singing in his mind. He follows the tune a micro-second behind me, overlapping my voice with his own mental voice. In other words, his mind is mapping the musical flow and intonations based on all the knowledge his mind has already gathered. Much like how we tune out other sounds when we speak in a crowd, the individual here pushes my voice to the background and hears himself even though his voice is in the mind and not audible. When we sing in our mind, the song is listened to from within. If the impression of the inaudible music is strong enough, it can drown the auditory stimuli.

All that I have said about music and music learning is applicable to our everyday lives. In the public discourse, we encounter misunderstandings that do not make sense. We believe that what has been communicated is crystal clear and the nuances obvious. But the person listening interprets the narrative very differently. Other than those who are purposely perpetrating incorrect tales, the larger population is a victim of the situation.

When we are predisposed to dislike an idea or a way of thinking, anything that resembles it is received with a coloured lens. The simplest statements sound offensive. When our comfortable present is disturbed, the mind rushes in to reject or trivialise those thoughts. Much like the student who sings in his mind and shuts out the teacher, our conditioned mind-voice screams from within, overriding the speaker. The speaker’s words are retold in order to suit or justify our position. Not only are the words transformed but the mind also adds tonalities and different emphasis. All this happens even when we read. Every written word is aural. In fact, as I type this article, I am listening to the words in my mind. Therefore, these forced changes also jump mediums: from the visual to the sonic.

In our public discourse today, we are amidst a lot of chatter and noise. We are unable to sift out voices of sense, calmness and seriousness from within the cacophony. Unlike the situation where we are able to zero in on the voice we want to listen to, here we lose that discernment due to the emotional and mental instability that this noise creates. Noise is not just a physical phenomenon; it is psychological. When we are bombarded constantly by innumerable phrases and words from all directions that intentionally excite us and muffle our ability to listen, it is impossible to reflect. We become a part of the noise. In that state, much like our primordial physical survival instinct, our mind’s first objective is to find some semblance of security and safety. This is naturally found in our previously-held opinions, leading to the delegitimisation of anything that points to the contrary. Noise is the best mechanism to ensure that there is no serious conversation. The higher the decibel levels, the more difficult it is for us to engage in any meaningful conversation. Noise accentuates fear, anger, and even contrives and contorts things.

Memory is deeply affected by poor listening and this kind of noise. When we recollect happenings or try to construct a past incident, what we recall is one more step removed. To make things worse, there are gaps in the story which are formed because of our emotional state at the time of the event. Muddled by the panic and reactionary environment, we may not have even known what we were doing or saying.

Due to the incessant noise, we move between poor listening and just hearing. This, once again, is a self-preservation technique. These gaps are filled by newly-imagined information that only validates our position. Social media has further accentuated this human vulnerability. Because of its intrinsic structural capacity to draw people in by the thousands and reach out to as many, social media is a tumultuous place. Algorithms are designed in such a manner that we are drawn to pages and handles that aggravate us and push our minds further away from reason. Social media adds another dimension to the problem: the intoxication of instant gratification and collective bullying.

If we are not watchful, we will be constantly triggered. It is up to each one of us to step back, remain detached, observe and listen. This requires immense courage, poise and honesty. But unless we are willing to make that effort, we cannot grow as people and live together despite all our differences.

T.M. Krishna is a leading Indian musician and a prominent public intellectual

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