Zen Ear, Beginner’s Ear [SOTG #2]

As a rule, I don’t do rules.

That’s one of the reasons I love sound design: no rules. Not for me, anyway. Except maybe “Don’t damage anyone’s ear drums.”

Other than that, it’s principles all the way down.

Principles are far more interesting than rules. While rules involve one-size-fits-all, almost mindless application, principles provide guidance and encourage flexibility.

On their face, rules seem simple, clear, and oh, so certain. What are rules, if not a list of dos and don’ts and when to do or don’t them. (Wait … eh, you know what I mean.) You merely need to remember the rules and apply them.

In reality, rules suck. They may promise certainty, but they rarely anticipate every scenario, and that’s where they crumble. Suddenly we make new rules or create exceptions. Or worse, we start justifying why we’re not following the rules. Now the rules aren’t so simple anymore. (Shout-out to “i before e except after c,” which has so many exceptions it’s actually just wrong.)

Principles ask us to trust our judgment in new situations. Designed to be flexible, they feel open and full of possibilities because they don’t tell us what to do. They guide our thinking and decision-making.

And most importantly for beginners, principles offer more learning opportunities.

Do you have any principles?

In the first issue of SOTG, I encouraged copying ideas from other people’s sound-design work (the ideas, not the work itself!). Today I’m suggesting a follow-up: distill some of the ideas you like (including your own) into a set of sound-design principles for your show. Then you can refer to them as you produce each episode.

Let’s take a look at the sound-design principles I developed for Mementos.

Each episode, a guest tells the story behind a cherished keepsake and how it became a container of meaning, memory, emotion, and human connection for them. As a result, from a sound-design perspective, it’s a quiet, reflective show.

I created the principles in the table below to align with the show’s overall tone. They may seem familiar because I based them on some of the things I listen for in other people’s work, which I described in the last issue.

PrincipleWhat it means for sound design
Know who your soloist isWho or what (speaker, music, sfx) should have the audience’s focus right now, like a soloist in a band? Does the sound design reflect that? It’s more than volume. For example, does the sound design interfere with the tone or quality of the voice or conflict with what’s being said in mood, beat, or fullness/sparseness?
Cadence matters Listen to the speaker’s voice — not just what they’re saying but also how they’re saying it. Most people have a natural cadence — a pace, plus highs and lows and points of emphasis — to the way they speak. How should the sound design work with the speaker’s cadence? Should it imitate it? Complement it? Be completely different?
BreatheIs there enough time for the listener to reflect on something important or thought-provoking the speaker said, before starting the next scene or continuing with the story?

While making an episode, I periodically review these principles to make sure the episode aligns with my overall intent for the show.

For a different type of show, I’d have different principles. For example, Have You Heard George’s Podcast? is “a fresh take on inner-city life through a mix of storytelling, music and fiction” by George the Poet. The show sounds nothing like mine (or anyone else’s), and therefore any underlying sound-design principles would differ from mine, too.

What is your show about, who is it for, and what do you want it to sound like? The answers to those questions will help shape your show’s sound-design principles.

Questions are better than answers

You may have noticed that I described my sound-design principles with questions instead of statements (aka, rules). The questions enable me to answer differently in different situations.

A rule about letting the piece breathe might assert something like, “Leave at least four seconds between something profound the guest says and the start of the next scene.”

A principle asks, “Did I leave enough time between the profound thing the guest said and the next scene?” I won’t know what “enough” is until I’m making that episode. It might be different each time, even within the same episode. Maybe it’s four seconds. Maybe it’s six. Or two.

You might be thinking this is just semantics. I get it. But for me, the difference between rules and principles, between answers and questions, is about learning to trust my ear.

I’ll give you an example. On social media, I’ve seen a few good-natured debates about whether it’s okay to fade music in or out, or whether, instead, music should always have a “hard” start and finish.

Some folks believe that music should never fade in or out. But as a newb, why would I adopt such a rule? It takes away half of my options and leaves me with no chance to learn what sounds good to me and what doesn’t.

Instead, I would ask, How should I start the music here, and why? Asking and answering a question ensures I listen closely and decide what sounds better in this case. Other times, I might apply the same principle and arrive at a different conclusion.

*An Instagram post of mine from 2017, well before I started podcasting. At least I’m consistent!

Trust your beginner’s ear

I don’t want to wander too deep into Zen philosophy, mostly because I’ll screw it up. But Shunryu Suzuki’s concept of the beginner’s mind works for sound design, with a twist.

Suzuki says, “The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities [emphasis mine].”

Beginners have fewer, if any, expectations and preconceptions. They’re unobstructed by past experiences (good or bad) and lessons learned. The secret to Zen practice, Suzuki says, is the beginner’s mindset. The aim is to clear your mind and think, experience, and be like a beginner.

Being a beginner usually feels like a disadvantage, like the time my game-loving 12-year-old utterly destroyed me, the newb, at Settlers of Catan. But in sound design, we can flip that dynamic upside down. Being a beginner can be an advantage.

Borrowing from Suzuki, I think of new audio makers as having a beginner’s ear. We listen differently and hear differently than experts. Our ear is untrained and unencumbered by past experiences. It doesn’t know the rules yet, so it hasn’t “ruled out” any possibilities.

So forget about rules and dos and don’ts and always-s and nevers. Consider instead a set of sound-design principles, aligned with your show, that encourage you to ask questions and answer them yourself.

Embrace your beginner’s ear. Listen for what sounds good to you, and choose that.



In the next issue of Sound Off the Ground: less philosophy and more resources!

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