The genesis of Tap Hear is rooted in a listening exercise I learned as an undergraduate studying music [redacted] years ago. At some point I was exposed to, or perhaps assigned, this task designed to open one’s ears to environmental sound.
Its effect on me was much more profound than I imagined it would be when I first sat down to try it. I found a nice place in the UC San Diego undergraduate library, got out my notebook and pencil, and prepared to sit and write down everything I heard for 15 minutes. I figured that would be plenty of time, but instead the experience was so unexpectedly interesting and enjoyable that I found myself wanting to continue after the time was up.
It’s hard to put myself in my state of mind from back then. I was young and just getting exposed to new worlds of interesting and unexpected music. It was music that sounded like nothing I had been exposed to growing up (this was long before the internet would provide easy access to the long tail of the music world and visits to Tower records could only take you so far…). Musician philosophers like Pauline Oliveros and John Cage were telling me to listen to the world around me, and after doing this exercise, I realized that that was a great idea!
For years I’ve looked back fondly on this formative experience, but I couldn’t remember exactly where it came from. Though I knew (or at least was pretty sure) it was from the writings of Pauline Oliveros, the exact source was lost to me until recently, when some helpful Facebook friends were able to quickly point me in the right direction. The instructions were simple:
Listen to the environment for 15 minutes or a longer but pre-determined time length.
Use a timer, clock or any adequate method to define this time length.
Describe in detail the sounds you hear (heard) and how you feel (felt) about them.
Include internal as well as external sounds.
You are part of the environment.
Explore the limits of audibility:
(highest, lowest, loudest, softest, most complex, nearest, most distant, longest, shortest sound)
That’s it. Just listen attentively in order to bring sounds that we generally ignore into focus. It turns out, when you give those sounds your attention, they become interesting.
There’s a good argument to be made that Tap Hear is technological overkill. All you really need is a pen and paper (or just your favorite notes app on your phone). Nevertheless, I’ve found it to be a useful tool that encourages me to spend some quiet time listening, and I hope that you will too. Either way, just find yourself a quiet space, and enjoy the music.
So find a spot, head over to Tap Hear, and listen!
 Pauline Oliveros, Software for People. Special thanks to Miguel Frasconi, Gascia Ouzounian, Ellen Weller, John O’Brien, Ellen Waterman, Jason Freeman and Daphna Naphtali for helping me ferret this out and suggesting additional resources. The Grand Prize goes to Gascia for being the first to suggest not only right book but the page number too. Honorable mention to John for being the first to suggest the book. Also thanks to all those in the undergraduate library at UCSD that afternoon sometime in the early [redacted]s for performing such a beautiful symphony.