Breaking the Sound Barrier

Source: Wikipedia.org
Source: Wikipedia

Sound rather than sight is the great passageway to human experience. And the pictures are better.

In the hierarchy of sensory richness, contemporary communication analysis tends to give the top spot to the visual.  People who make it their business to explore how we interact describe our culture as increasingly “ocular-centric,” or image-driven. We now worry more about hours of “screen time” consumed per day than time spent in “idle” conversation.

It was surely a breakthrough when computer software adopted the screen icon that now allows the kind of “search and click” style of digital roaming that most of us are used to. Along with the seminal philosopher Susanne Langer, those who lobby for the primacy of the visual justifiably note that images are mostly free of the challenges of mastering the complexities of computer or verbal literacy. They rightly conclude that the body is an instrument for universal communication. “Talk” to an outsider with no knowledge of your language, and you still receive lots of meaning in cues and gestures that bridge cultural boundaries. Anywhere on earth we can hand-gesture our way to the idea that we’re hungry.

But there is reason to affirm that our most vital sensory equipment—and also the most fragile—reside along the cochlear nerve that links our ears to the brain. More than sight, sound is the great passageway into the human experience. Sound is the primary agency for knowing and understanding others. Like so many other higher-order animals, binaural hearing provides most of the context clues we need in order to map our places in specific physical and social environments. We disguise the body in clothing and create architecture to separate ourselves from open space. But our words carry less camouflage. Even when we are in full rhetorical flight our essential selves tend to be visible. As the saying goes, you can lie in print more easily than on a phone.

It’s also important to remember that language is acquired in the very young by hearing others. Language is speech. The visual mode of print is vital but derivative. In its subtle tonalities talk gives us the kind of rich data of feeling and attitude that can easily be lost on the page, a fact that makes it somewhat easier for a blind person to meld into diverse communities than those with chronic deafness.

Perhaps the trump card for the importance of regaining a “sound-centric” view of human capabilities is in the unique and miraculous realm of the sonic: music. Music untethers sound from its purely stipulative duties and allows it to become the perfect proxy for human feeling and emotion. Humans have organized noise into music for the sheer pleasure of finding additional avenues for expressing emotional intensity. Music is the able substitute for the point where the verbal poetry of feeling begins to fail us.

To be sure, as an industry the music business is in shambles. But that is partly because the pleasures of the song must be satisfied even in the face of faltering attempts to monetize its value. Downloaded music files and ubiquitous earbuds reign with the young and increasingly the old because we need the catharsis that music enables.

Even in the ostensibly visual world of cinema many of its deepest pleasures come from the sound design of a different class of genuine auteurs: film composers. Music especially creates an expressive language that is frequently more evocative than what even a master-director can make literal on the screen. Consider Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). The film pulls in viewers by the kind of aural “foretelling” that so often gives its slow and confusing plot an unmistakable urgency. Most of the film’s mystery lies between the staves of Bernard Herrmann’s dreamlike score (the longest of any Hitchcock film). The same can be said for Sidney Pollock’s thriller, The Firm (1993). Pollock papered his story of a creepy Memphis law office with the piano jazz of Dave Grusin. The film today is a reminder of how much its exquisite tension was actually created in post-production by Grusin’s piano-only score.

Music heightens and transforms the natural limits of human action. Revisit one of Arthur Freed’s classic MGM musicals such as Brigadoon (1954) or Singing in the Rain (1952). Heard with fresh ears, they often soar above their predictable “books” because of the innovative brass lines and countermelodies written by arranger Conrad Salinger. Salinger was the Ravel of Hollywood, creating musical sequences that have become enduring cultural markers for a period where the nation would never again be so self-satisfied.  It’s little wonder that there’s a renaissance in the recording and concert performance of classic film music.

It’s a novice’s mistake when a film director treats aural elements as merely supportive of the story. Sound is more fragile. It’s easily swamped in the noise and visual clutter of daily life. But that’s all the more reason to reclaim its special status as the sensory realm that converts music into emotion and speech into meaning.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu