An Interview with Sound Specialist Julian Treasure


“We are losing our listening – and listening is the doorway to understanding” – Julian Treasure

This month, we were fortunate enough to set up an interview with Julian Treasure, a world renowned sound specialist with over 10 years’ experience in the field of applied sound. Julian has an impressive five talks on the prestigious TED conference website and has made an impact on the lives of many, including businesses, institutions, schools, teachers and students.

In this blog, we will explore the key points from the interview with Julian: how sound affects us, why communication is changing, and what effect these changes have on productive environments such as schools.

We hope that you are inspired by the insight delivered from our meeting and that you will consider making a change in your own situation where necessary.

Elements of Communication

There are four communication channels: writing, reading, speaking and listening. We teach and test only the written skills in our schools, expecting children to pick up speaking and listening informally, as if these were simpler, more natural capabilities. But in fact speaking and listening are complex skills, and most people are not expert at either of them.

Julian’s simple model of communication involves a sender, a receiver and also a context, which for spoken communication in modern society all too often consists of noise and poor acoustics. In education, we focus almost entirely on sending – how good is the syllabus, and how effective the teachers – and ignore the receiving and the context. “I really believe we could transform our educational outcomes almost overnight if we focused some resources on the auditory environment in schools, and on teaching children how to listen,” says Julian.

Elements of communication

He states that every one of us has an individual listening, as unique as his or her fingerprints. That’s because we listen through a set of filters that develop as we grow and learn; these determine which sounds we choose to pay attention to.  The filters start with our culture and language, then come the values, beliefs and attitudes we accrete from parents, teachers, peers and role models; and finally in every situation there are our intentions and expectations. By shaping what we are conscious of, the filters actually determine our experience of reality. Julian describes each particular set of filters as a listening position. Much of his work is about helping people to listen consciously, becoming aware of their filters and their listening positions.

The Threats to Listening

Many facets of modern society threaten our ability to listen effectively. Our noisy, fast-edit, multi-input world makes us short in attention span, impatient with slow or subtle change and addicted to intensity. This makes it even more important that we create environments that support, rather than impede, spoken communication. Nowhere is this more important than in classrooms.

Child with headphones and Iphone

Noise and the Teaching Environment

Many of us forget what impact noise has on our lives. City dwellers may become used to suppressing the constant noise of traffic, becoming unaware of it, but it still affects their wellbeing, cognition and emotional state. The same occurs in many classrooms: poor acoustics amplify noise, which means that many pupils simply cannot hear the teacher, especially those at the back of the room. The result is disengagement, poor behavior and even more noise. In this context, teachers become stressed and have to shout in order to be heard, leading to adverse health effects that range from vocal nodes or even complete loss of voice, to increased risk of heart attack if the noise is long term and over 65 decibels – which sadly is all too common.

How to Practice Conscious Listening

Most schools simply aren’t teaching listening, or paying attention to the auditory environments they create for teaching. As a result, many pupils leave school having received only a small part of the education that was intended for them.

“Listening provides an efficient method of gaining information. Unless the words are remembered, processed and associated with what the individual already knows, the perception may be inaccurate, distorted, or totally without meaning. Therefore, there is a need for developing and improving listening skills.” – Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

Fortunately, we can improve our listening skills. We asked Julian if he had any listening exercises to recommend teachers practice with their students. Here are a few:

– Three minutes of silence is a wonderful daily exercise to reset the ears and to recalibrate so you can hear the quiet again.

– The mixer is an exercise in which participants are asked to identify different individual sound sources in a complex soundscape. This can be done in any environment and improves the quality of our listening.

– Savouring refers to listening for the hidden choir – the beauty locked away in even mundane sounds. Participants could record or note and discuss sounds they usually ignore but which on paying attention actually reveal interesting or attractive features.

– Listening positions. In this exercise you practice changing your listening position to what’s appropriate given what (and whom) you’re listening to. Examples of scales of listening positions include active to passive, reductive to expansive, critical to empathetic. These are explained in Julian’s TED talk on conscious listening.

Listening Positions Technology in the Classroom

When asked whether he believes the use of Soundfield technology or classroom FM systems in schools would likely benefit student performance, Julian said that he recommends optimising classrooms through a careful consideration of what is specifically needed in each, from improving acoustics and eliminating noise, to installing an appropriate sound system – and of course training teachers how to speak and pupils how to listen.

Key Changes to Implement in Older British Schools

We asked Julian what improvements older British schools should consider making in order to enhance the learning environment for their students. He felt that acoustics were often key in these older spaces, built many years ago and bereft of any soft, absorbent surfaces; simply installing bookshelves can make a major difference in such places. Studies have shown that if a room’s reverberation time is reduced through acoustic treatments, the difference in student behaviour and performance is startling. Although an acoustic treatment could make a significant improvement, one should also consider the child in the back of the classroom who may still be excluded from the lesson. In this case, a personal FM system may be necessary.

Acoustic Bulletin by Ecophon: Sound Comfort in Classrooms – Essex Study Experiences


Final Words

Julian provided the following final recommendations: “We need to think about communication in the round not just the sending element. If we pay attention to the context, making our teaching spaces fit for purpose, and if we teach students how to receive consciously, we will transform educational outcomes.”

We would like to thank Julian for taking the time to meet with us. It was a great pleasure to gain insight from one of the world’s top experts in sound. We hope you found this piece inspiring and we encourage you to share this article with your friends and colleagues.

Julian Treasure

Julian Treasure

Click here for more about Julian Treasure.

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