I want you to close your eyes and just listen for one minute.” The ticking of a grandfather clock plays out from the speakers on the desk, then what sounds like someone eating noisily, almost too loudly for it to be just one person. Is it a recording of an old kitchen? Someone preparing food? “That’s interesting,” says Sound and Music’s Julia Baker once the track comes to an end. “Honestly, I don’t expect anyone to guess what that was, but it was a mass of popping rhubarb.”
This glimpse into the aural world of rhubarb production is just one of the dozens of recordings that Sound and Music, the national organisation for new music, has acquired for its Minute of Listening app, the aim of which is to provide primary schools with a minute-long piece of sound to listen to each day, prompting attentive ‘open’ listening and discussion about how we hear (and not just see) the world. “Sound is an amazing thing to explore – we’re all about being curious and giving sound the space it needs,” says Baker, the organisation’s digital, development and communications assistant. “Minute of Listening is about really appreciating sound rather than focusing on the visual.”
MoL’s wide ranging collection includes examples of traditional folk and classical music, but also field recordings and experimental compositions. Some clips have been specifically composed for the project, such as a ‘live coding’ piece by laptop improviser Shelly Knotts, while institutions including The British Library and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford have submitted recordings from their digitised sound archives. The latter’s ethnographic collection has provided the sound of an Igbo vocal group from Nigeria, recorded to wax cylinder in 1912, and a rain song performed by children in South Sudan.
Designed by NeonTribe, the MoL app is intended to work on a teacher’s smartboard (licenses are £40 for a term’s worth of tracks, or £60 for two terms). When loaded up, sound files are initially played without any visual prompts, enabling the teacher to put questions to their students about what they think they’ve just heard. Following a discussion, the origin of the sound is revealed and the children then have a chance to listen again, with further information on the source material and its wider context displayed on screen. An evaluation carried out on the pilot version of the MoL software, given out to over 80 schools in 2012, revealed that it was a great catalyst for creative thinking, Baker explains. “In order to analyse the sound you have to really think about it,” she says. “It stimulates the imagination rather than closing it down. It’s not about being right or wrong.” Feedback from schools suggests that while the app helps to increase listening skills it has also encouraged opinion forming and sharing, often giving quieter children the confidence to speak up in class.
While rooted in the kind of thinking extolled by composers like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer – that any sound can be interesting in and of itself – MoL also fits into the practical demands of the national curriculum. Judith Robinson is Sound and Music’s creative project leader (education): “As an app, it’s got to be easy and quick because music is competing with literacy and numeracy. There’s so much pressure to deliver those,” she says. “But by doing the MoL activities, you can start developing the ‘spoken language’ area of the English curriculum, for example. The app can also be used as a basis for creative writing, or you could go into the playground to do your own listening,” she adds. “It gives you enough that it can feed into other curriculum areas that teachers are asked to deliver, and yet it’s fun, exciting and easy to use.”
Key to MoL’s success are the partnerships that Sound and Music has been able to maintain thanks to its position within the world of contemporary composition. “We’ve got amazing connections to composers making some of the most cutting edge and unusual kinds of music,” says Robinson. “We’ve got a group of composers called the New Voices who have been through our programme and, from them, we’ve got nine or ten recordings by young British composers.” MoL also uses edits of tracks from a host of record labels, from Topic to Sony BMG, which are covered by PPL or PRS global licenses. There are also partnerships with educational software distributors, who can acquire licences for several schools at once, not to mention some growing international interest in the application. MoL’s relevance to the current vogue for ‘mindfulness’ has not gone unnoticed either. “We didn’t design it for this,” says Baker, “but it is a mindful activity. It’s about noticing.”
What Sound and Music hope to continue to do with MoL is present each sound in their collection as something worthy of listening to. “If it’s a field recording we hope children will appreciate the natural sounds around them in a more attentive way,” says Baker. From the recording of a rescue fox being released back into the wild, to the mechanical noise of London’s Tower Bridge being raised, noticing what makes up many of these unique sounds is essentially a celebration of the everyday, the things that happen when we aren’t really listening. Teaching the importance of listening is perhaps one of the most valuable lessons of all. “This is about actually using your ears – no other senses – and responding to that,” says Robinson. “Listening with ‘open’ ears without any preconceptions.”