Awareness of Hearing: Sensing Sound and Silence

For this month's continuing education focus, Awareness of Hearing, we're excited to feature the following masterful voices from the worldwide Nia community. Here's what they have to say about developing body literacy and self-knowing, by exploring and using our sense of hearing in The Body's Way.

Debbie Rosas, Nia Co-Creator, says:

In the most traditional sense, hearing is the ability to perceive sound by detecting vibrations through the ear. In Nia, we practice not only listening with our ears but also with our whole body; every cell instinctively responds to vibration, giving us information about our surroundings.

Listening is a foundational skill upon which we build relationships—with our body, emotions, spirit, music and others. Every time you listen, remember that although the song or sound may appear to be the same – or you, your partner, or the circumstances may appear to be the same – everything is always changing. In Nia, moving to music is a way of dancing with sound and silence. We listen, dance and express ourselves by entering a relationship with the space we move in; we use our body to highlight what we hear and feel. In the space lives the music we dance to!

Martha Randall, Black Belt Certified Nia Trainer, says:

Our sense of hearing develops inutero as we listen to our mother’s heartbeat and voice resonating through her bones. And according to near-death accounts, our sense of hearing is the last sense to leave us. But how and why is this sense so important in Nia?

A favorite moment for me in the Nia White Belt Training is when I introduce my trainees to Nia’s music appreciation practice – Relaxed, Alert, Waiting (RAW) – during which point we wait to receive the uniqueness of each sound in the room. I watch many trainees have a profound realization, for the first time, that hearing and listening are two very different things.

They begin to do what Carlos AyaRosas always inspired me to do: to hear with the ears while also receiving the vibrations of sound with the whole body. Listening then becomes an action of the entire nervous system, the chakras and the heart – as well as the biomechanics of the ears.

I have a number of friends who are musicians, and I love hanging out with them, listening to life with them. Victor Wooten, a bass virtuoso and author of “The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music,” speaks about music already existing “out there.” He explains that he likes to go where it is and bring it into the world, rather than thinking he must, on his own, create it from somewhere inside. That speaks to the way many musicians listen with serene surrender and get out of the way in order to let music be revealed through them. Their ability to do this requires an open mind and heart.

The intimacy we practice in our relationship to music has an obvious and rewarding application for listening to people in our lives. Who hasn’t found a friend, therapist or perhaps even a stranger who had that mysterious ability to really hear you? The people in my life who do this are just like good musicians; they know how to create a still and silent container for the authenticity of the moment to come through loud and clear.

Mark Brady, author of “Right Listening,” refers to research that indicates how becoming a skilled listener increases your lifespan. He quotes Pastoral Counseling Professor David Ausperger as saying, “Being listened to is so close to being loved, that most people don’t know the difference.”

It’s possible to become a better listener by practicing mindfulness, yet for some people, the hearing mechanism gets shut down as a result of being exposed to painful sounds or other unwanted stimuli. The work of Alfred Tomatis, a French ear, nose and throat specialist, is the basis of much listening therapy in the world today. He recognized that stress was a major factor in people not being able to listen, even though they could hear well. He was convinced that listening difficulties, especially among children, led to speech and language impairment and various learning disabilities and body coordination issues. He devised a method to treat these types of problems by using a device, dubbed the Electronic Ear, that emits various sound frequencies, or ranges, to stimulate and train the ear to listen more effectively (

This confirms for me the merit in seeking out all kinds of auditory sounds for our Nia classes so that we give our bodies a workout while stimulating the muscles of the ear with a wide range of vibrations.The way we use our voices to make sound is also extremely important. Many years ago, when I was experiencing psychological distress, I remember intuitively lying down and wrapping my arms around my body and gently talking in nurturing ways to myself. The idea that I could be both the sounder and the listener was apparent as I felt my psyche relax and my equilibrium return.

Mantras and chants have been used for millennia for healing, brain activation and spiritual attunement. I appreciate the opportunity we have in our Nia practice to let the sounds of our voices be fully received back into the body. I am constantly investigating the way I listen to my mind’s chatter and aim to enjoy the beauty of the present moment as often as possible. This is where Nia’s listening practices are such a gift. As I listen for the silences internally and externally, I give myself and the world around me an invitation to rest, trust, relax and truly be here, now – available to the rich sound and pulse of life.

Martha’s tips on hearing:

  • Pay attention to the uniqueness of the sounds around you – the details of someone’s voice, the sound of your exhalation, the tap-tapping of your fingers on the keyboard.
  • Listen to a favorite piece of music and investigate the sounds that you haven’t really noticed before. What instruments are playing? How does the musician add to the aural texture of the song? Take your relationship with that song deeper.
  • Notice when a sound is annoying you at some level, and stay open to really hearing it. Consider it an aerobic workout for your middle ear muscles.
  • When speaking, receive the sound of your own voice. Listen to yourself like you hope others will listen to you.
  • Practice silence and stillness when listening to others. Take a moment to breathe and acknowledge what they have said before jumping in with your point of view.

Allison Wright, Black Belt Certified Next Generation Trainer (NGT), says:

When asked "What is art?" acclaimed abstract painter Ad Reinhardt is said to have replied, "Art is art, and everything else is everything else. Art needs no justification." I wager the same statement can be made about music.

Like art, music is highly subjective. Music to one person's ears is noise to another’s. In researching my own curiosity about how music is defined in scholastic terms, I located two definitions I find particularly intriguing.

According to Merriam-Webster, music is defined as, “The science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination, and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines music as, “The art of arranging sounds in time so as to produce a continuous, unified, and evocative composition, as through melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre.”

These definitions share many commonalities. And yet, as much truth as they contain, they both seem to fall a bit short. For if music is as subjective as art, does it need unity and continuity? Does it need to be ordered and evocative? And if so, who gets to decide whether or not it has these qualities? The answer, in my mind, lies always in the listener. Depending on the listener's preferences, her likes or dislikes, she may hear certain things as "music" and other things as “non-music.” Ultimately, it is the Nia practice of Music Appreciation that will help determine how healing a piece of "music" will be for an individual, and likewise whether or not that individual thinks of it as music at all.

As a listener, a Nia teacher and a musician, I receive the healing benefits of music by paying attention to music's primordial energies: silence and sound. (Primordial energies are two complimentary, essential elements, which together create a third element.) I sense music as a product of the alchemical relationship between silence and sound (silence + sound = music). I am sure someone can argue that silence and sound exist independently of each other, and therefore that "music" is possible with only one of these energies present. However, I maintain that neither is recognizable without the other. It's like the relationship between happiness and suffering: can you recognize one if you have no experience of the other? I believe not. But that's just my little philosophical rant…

So how do I receive the healing benefits not only of sound, but silence as well? I do this using the Nia practice we call RAW (Relaxed, Alert, and Waiting). RAW invites me to receive the healing benefits of music by helping me appreciate and notice that I'm enveloped in silence and sound constantly. As a 'yang' energy, sound gives me inspiration and excitation, and calls me to action. A 'yin' energy, silence invites me to sense the "non-sound' and to perceive that behind all mobility lies intrinsic stability.

I am blown away by the power of RAW. I'm humbled by the sheer magnitude of peacefulness, grounded-ness, and awareness it evokes in me. Standing underground in New York's bustling subway system, I hear the sounds of coins dropping, people shouting, turnstiles clicking, beatboxers rapping, bags zipping, rails screeching, and the landscape of silence behind it all. All of it is music to my ears, thanks to RAW.

RAW is the listening practice I can take with me anywhere. Being “relaxed” creates in my body a sense of calm that is both grounding and healing. Staying “alert” creates in my mind an expanded awareness or mindfulness similar to meditation. “Waiting” anchors me by giving my brain something to do, freeing up my spirit to be in a state of wonderment. What do I do when I don't know what to do? I remain relaxed, alert, and waiting. I place 100% of my attention on listening, to witness the ever-fluctuating relationship between silence and sound.

There is this beautiful book called, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, and every single line is written as if the author Jon McGregor lives in the Zone, accompanied by RAW all the time. He writes, “If you listen, you can hear it. The city, it sings. If you stand quietly, at the foot of a garden, in the middle of a street, on the roof of a house. It’s clearest at night, when the sound cuts more sharply across the surface of things, when the song reaches out to a place inside you.”

Music is the ocean in which I swim and the air that I breathe. Each interplay of silence and sound creates its own song, offering my body, mind, emotions, and spirit unique opportunities to self-heal with every listening.

Sounds emerge from silence and return to silence. Meanwhile, I keep listening....

Allison’s tips on hearing:

  • Listen to music and notice silence the way you would notice the landscape in the background of a painting. 
  • Perceive the meditative quality in all sound, noticing how every sound helps to anchor you more fully in the present moment.
  • When someone is speaking to you, practice 100% receiving (total listening). Notice the effect this has on your body, mind, emotions and spirit. Notice the effect it has on your relationship with that person.

Helen Terry, Black Belt Certified Nia Trainer and RanchONia Founder, says:

As a child I was a challenged learner – severely lacking in the ability to sit still, tormented by the impossibility of focus and easily distracted by the busyness of my creative mind. The exception was music. When I sat down to play the piano I discovered a place of focused stillness. As my fingers moved across the keys, I found a place where I could joyfully experience moments of clarity.

Today, teaching Nia brings me to the same place, enhanced. I experience my entire body systemically and expressively moving with vigor while my mind sustains laser sharp focus. There is, without question, a link between my body, my mind and the music.

As Don Campbell says in The Mozart Effect, “In an instant music can uplift our soul. It awakens within us the spirit of prayer, compassion, and love. It clears our minds and has been known to make us smarter. Music can dance and sing our blues away. It conjures up memories of lost lovers or deceased friends. It lets the child in us play, the monk in us pray, the cowgirl in us line dance, the hero in us surmount all obstacles. It helps the stroke patient find language and expression.”

I suggest there is a profound link between the substance of music (silence and sound) and how we hear it, and the substance of the human body (space and matter) and how we sense it. By following The Body’s Way and aligning organically with music, Nia taps into the magic of this link. This is what has held and sustained my attention with Nia since 1993.

As Don Campbell writes, “Music has a pulse, as does everything that lives. Pulsation means flow, the steady current of energy coursing through and around us. Our circulatory system is an intricate network of surge and release, activity and rest. Finding the pulse of music opens – or paces – the pulse of the listener.”

I’ve found my mind functions best when it predominantly rests in silence, with a “splash” of laser sharp focus. My favorite medium to find this place is with music, utilizing a practice learned through Nia called RAW. When I listen to music, practicing a state of RAW, I verify that which is wonderfully described by Benjamin Hoff in The Tao of Pooh:

“An empty sort of mind is valuable for finding pearls and tails and things because it can see what’s in front of it. An Overstuffed mind is unable to. While the Clear mind listens to a bird singing, the Stuffed-Full-of-Knowledge-and-Cleverness mind wonders what kind of bird is singing.”

Helen's tips on hearing:

  • Listen to a piece of music. Focus on one instrument and track its silence and sound. For extra fun (and particularly if doing this with a friend) lift your hand up as soon as you hear the sound and drop it down as soon as you hear the silence of the “instrument”. Kids LOVE this game – I am convinced it is one of the main activities that helped my daughter to develop the ability to sustain sharp attention from a young age.
  • Find a comfortable, safe area in your home and close your eyes for 30 minutes (this may be easier with a blindfold). With all visual stimuli removed, notice how many more vibrations and sounds you become aware of in your environment (like the hum of the refrigerator, the air conditioning, a bird outside, etc.)
  • In a quiet area (or even better, wearing noise-canceling head phones), imagine an instrument or sound playing. As you sustain your focus on this imaginary sound, notice the sensations received. If playing with a friend, have one person call out the sound then see if each of you can “sense” the sound. Share how the experience is for you. (Sound examples: opera singer, lawn mower, trumpet, drill, violin, dog barking, children giggling)
  • Explore playing different types of music as you work on your computer and notice how this affects your experience. Top recommendations: Mozart, Reiki Sounds and jazz.
  • Measure the relative sensitivity of your ears at different frequencies using this fun download.

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