The Art of Listening

Before cities forced larger groups of people into bustling metropolises, most people lived within communities that were made up of close-knit groups. Humans thrive on social connection that is not always provided in large cities, which raises the question: In groups of strangers, how do people connect with each other given the desire for company? Also, how will these people cope with the large amounts of time that they do spend by themselves? Writers such as Walter Benjamin claim that one way humans cope with anonymity is through observation: “He develops reactions that are in keeping with the tempo of a big city. He catches things in flight; this enables him to dream that he is like an artist” (72). Observations like this enable the city-dweller to be curious about the world and see urban space in a new light. This observational artist has been called a flaneur, a term popularized by Benjamin’s scholarship on 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire. In an essay called “Living with Music,” Ralph Ellison describes himself as observant of those who live close to him, but rather than seeing his subjects, he mostly hears them through the walls of his apartment building. However, the mere fact that listening can help one process the world around them proves that the flaneur also exists through the ability to hear the urban landscape. Many may view the presence of sound in urban areas as a mere disturbance, but Ellison and Benjamin show that hearing these sounds can strengthen one’s sense of place and community.

At the beginning of Ellison’s account, he analyzes the effects of sound on a landscape by dividing his perception of sound into two different categories: “In those days it was either live with music or die with noise” (3). Before contemplating how Ellison deals with sounds in his daily life, it is important to be aware of the distinction he makes between the two different types of sound: noise and music. It can be said that one who hears sound as noise begins to lose their sanity with its abrasive texture, but music communicates the atmosphere of the surrounding area to the listener in a pleasing way. This capacity to appreciate the ambient can be applied to Benjamin’s description of the urban flaneur in his essay “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire.” Even though his description focuses more on sight than on sound, Benjamin remarks on how the flaneur’s attention to surroundings yields discovery: “No matter what traces the Flaneur may follow, every one of them will lead to a crime” (72). Benjamin describes the flaneur as a detective in disguise, using the analogy to highlight the imagination of the flaneur. Like the flaneur who uses his or her eyes, the listener is able to discover a fascinating quality in what is heard. Ellison is like the urban flaneur because he learns about his surroundings through his senses. Rather than seeing what his neighbors are doing, he takes in the atmosphere of his neighbors’ spaces by listening to their actions through the walls. Benjamin’s contention that modernity makes people in cities uncomfortable looking at each other mirrors the way that Ellison reacts to noise in his story. Essentially, the flaneur takes the undesirable sights and sounds and interprets them in a way that is fascinating and intriguing. In this way, hearing orients one in space and time the same way that sight does, and this makes listening a useful skill for people living in bustling cities.

Although Ellison starts by mentioning the sounds of loud neighbors that drive him mad as he wishes for peace and quiet, he begins to hear the sounds around him in a different way once he starts making his own sounds in the apartment. He hears the sounds as a representation of his neighbor’s lives rather than miscellaneous noises: “Since I seemed doomed to live within a shrieking chaos I might as well contribute my share; perhaps if I fought noise with noise I’d attain some small peace . . . When [my neighbor]  finished [singing] I realized that with such music in my own apartment, the chaotic sounds from without and above had sunk, if not into silence, then well below the level where they mattered” (10). This moment in the story illustrates Ellison’s change from an anxious man trying to survive in close proximity to others into the urban Flaneur who is curious about those around him. From this point on, the distinction between noise and music is clearer and appears to be more of a subjective idea than before. He has the choice to either hear music in the activity of his fellow city-dwellers or to be disturbed by the noises that break the silence. Ultimately, this subjective curiosity is one of the qualities that makes apartment living either stressful or exciting, which further exposes the power of sound for people who live in multi-unit housing.

When considering sounds in apartment buildings, it is also useful to know about both what constitutes a space and how space has changed due to urban growth. This is a topic that geographer Yi-Fu Tuan explores in his book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. According to Tuan, the spaces with which humans identify stimulate their senses. He writes, “Architectural space reveals and instructs . . . In the Middle Ages, a great cathedral instructs on several levels. There is a direct appeal to the senses, to feeling and the subconscious mind” (114). One can assume that the echoes of the walls of the cathedral and other acoustics had an effect on the people who used the space. Though the design of a space changes the way people experience it, the architectural decisions largely govern the way that lights appear on the walls and sounds instruct listeners. In the context of the cathedral, one can imagine that the sound of one’s voice would echo, creating an interesting texture and one that would affect the listener differently than the small, abrupt sound that would be produced in a more constricted space. Likewise, the layout of apartment buildings, with its many contiguous personal spaces, allows people to hear their neighbors. If this is taken into account, the sounds that are heard in a place define our perceptions of it just as much as the appearance of the space itself.

Since sound acts as a defining feature of a place, the way it is interpreted by a listener changes the very way that a place is subjectively perceived by a listener. The character of a space is not limited to its objective architectural features, as the inhabitant’s imaginative interpretations also shape the way he or she experiences the space. The architecture of the apartment building in Ellison’s story does not change, but the building he lives in becomes a different place when he listens to his music and the sound around him in a different way: “Better still, [my neighbor] vocalized more softly, and I, in turn, used music less and less as a weapon and more for its magic with mood and memory” (13). For Ellison, music as opposed to noise was always a means of survival, but it is amazing how much the character of the music and the space changes as he begins to hear the music in a different way than before. A sound that was once perceived as a threat later enhanced his mood, despite the sound being near identical in both instances. One could make the argument that the change in character is due to the singer in the apartment building singing more softly, but that the jazz singer changed her style as Ellison adjusted his music shows a mutual relationship; that his music affected the way that the singer approached her own music in some way.  So it can still be said that sound affects the way a place is perceived because Ellison and the singer are both affected by each other’s sound. Sound and music both act as ways to communicate without directly speaking to another person, which greatly influence the place in which it occurs.

Due to what Karston Harries calls the “accident of location,” tenants in apartment buildings oftentimes become a part of a community because of proximity and the presence of sound. Harries states, “The way we experience the world is inseparably tied to the activities in which we are engaged . . . subject to a point of view which is ours because of the place in which we happen to be . . . thus subject to the accident of location” ( 162). Within his argument, Harries does not specifically talk about sound, but it can be inferred that sound is a part of the location in which one lives. For this reason, the tenants can merely tell others to be quiet, but are largely stuck within the larger culture of the building, which is defined in no small part by the ambient sounds present. In other words, people are stuck with the sounds of an area with almost no ability to change them, and these sounds amount to a culture in which inhabitants are immersed. With the prevalence of sound in the culture of apartment buildings, tenants are surrounded by the music and voices of those around them.

Like Benjamin, Harries talks about the way to repurpose an area using imagination: “But the perspective assigned to us by our location is not a prison. Not only can we move and thus gain different perspectives; in imagination I can put myself in other places even without moving” (Harries 162). Without directly referring to the urban faneur, Harries’ description is very similar to the methods that the flaneur is said to use. Rather than being intimidated by the anonymity of others, the the flaneur’s tendency to observe allows for a sense of freedom and mobility within the community. For example, in Ralph Ellison’s piece, he at first felt was trapped when he was surrounded by loud neighbors and could not concentrate on his work, but he ended up being grateful for the loud music in his building because of the way the intrusion allowed him to see the world; “forcing us to discover one of the most deeply satisfying aspects of our living” (Ellison 13). Little changed in Ellison’s community, but the noise that once infuriated him was re-imagined as an exciting part of his life.

Ralph Ellison’s story about his stay in an apartment building demonstrates to the reader that the ability to hear one’s neighbors is impossible to ignore when living in multi-unit housing. By succinctly showing two different opinions about his loud apartment building, it can be deduced that a lot more is communicated through the sounds of neighbors than was initially thought. In the process of telling the story, Ellison also communicates a message about living in close quarters with others: “Nevertheless, we learned some of it all, for in the United States when traditions are juxtaposed they tend, regardless of what we do to prevent it, irresistibly to merge” (14). This statement allows Ellison to make the case for the traditionally noisy apartment building as a place for exciting cultures to be mixed together. Due to the accident of location, an occupant must succumb to this mixing of culture, but Ellison eventually comes to see his circumstances as novel and interesting rather than distressing.

After reaching the end of “Living with Music,” it is understood that Ellison makes the distinction between noise and music is to express two ways of understanding sound in close proximity to others. In addition to culture and community, Ellison asserts that sound also helps people understand their own identity: “It gives significance to all those indefinable aspects of experience which nevertheless help to make us what we are” (14). If the tenants are willing to let sound become a part of their lives, it not only has the ability to orient them in the space they are in, but to help them discover who they are in relation to their specific environment. Despite the desire for quiet, a silent world would be a dull place because it would be very difficult to feel connected to a place without sound.


Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter, and Michael William, Jennings. The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006. Print.

Ellison, Ralph, and Robert G. O’Meally. Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.

Harries, Karsten. “Space, Place, and Ethos: Reflection on the Ethical Function of Architecture”. Artibus et Historiae 5.9 (1984): 159–165. Web. 01 Mar. 2015.

Tuan, Yi-fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1977. Print.