Hearing is Our Newest Sense

The pop recording “High the Moon” was the audio equivalent of an early photograph, or the first photocopy of an original. It changed everything. 

Granted, the heading for this piece is a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.  In broad terms, a bit less than 100 years ago sound arguably became the premier source of leisure and pleasure. Think of radio, recordings, sound on film, concerts and dances, audio reports of events, and the growth of music education. These are just a few of the cultural landmarks represented by the capture of ephemeral sound on the medium of magnetic tape.

To be sure, Thomas Edison starting making stylus-in-groove recordings in the late 1870s.  But the German invention of audio tape during World War II perfected recording, creating  a level of accuracy in musical reproduction that surpassed the early Edison technology.  With tape, sound as we know it began to throw off its previous history as a subordinate sense.  More recent digital recording developed in the 1980s was certainly a technological breakthrough, but offered only slightly better sound. Magnetic tape provided the true gateway to the world of captured auditory content.

The pathway to this rebirth was certainly helped by the growth of what was then the supermax medium of radio in the 1930s. Radio networks and their stations would also benefit from new tape machines made by Ampex and others, adding stunning clarity and opening up a range of recording options.

In the recording studio the new system yielded greater clarity, and allowed for many synchronous tracks. A musician could now create amazing audio effects that would have been difficult to duplicate in live performance.  As mentioned in my recently published The Sonic Imperative, one particular song especially turned jukeboxes across the nation into the musical equivalents of slot machines. The only difference was that most jukeboxes came up with the same winning result: Les Paul and Mary Ford’s How High the Moon. Rarely has a single pop record meant so much. Prior to 1951 few had ever heard anything quite like its sound-on-sound and multi-track effects. It would signal the acceleration of music processing that continues down to the present.

A little more about that song. . .

Our dilemma is that we live in a loud world our ears were not designed for. Think of noise as aural trash: stuff that piles up around us that we hardly notice because it has no visual presence.  But its there: at music concerts where the sound is punishingly loud, or in the everyday equipment of modern life like leaf blowers, hair dryers and vacuums.  Previews shown in movie theaters, for example, regularly play at about 100 dB: only slightly less than standing at the end of an airport runway.  With this kind of noise, a person’s ears will not survive intact to adulthood.  This is why one in three older adults have hearing loss. It turns out that our newest sense is also the most vulnerable.

“Freedom” Claims: The Seeds of a National Crack Up

“Freedom” as used in many public forums is stretched beyond what the founders of the country probably had it mind.

Generally speaking, there are words that we can use that make it less likely we will hear challenges to our views. These are words like “truth,” “honesty,” “education,” “freedom” or “justice.”  These broad evocations of transcendent values are intended to beg for acceptance.  Hanging ideas on them will likely subdue opposition. Rhetoricians call them “God terms.”

“Freedom” is clearly Exhibit A.  Presumably, you are safe from an rebuke if your reasons for acting include the exercise of tried and true personal “freedoms.” The term is like an automatic “get out of jail” card.

But “freedom” as used in many public forums today is stretched beyond what the founders of the country surely had it mind. It seems like people will defend every crazy and bad choice today under the banner of a person’s “right” to act as they see fit.  Given this logic, any action is defensive as a representation of a core American birthright. While most of us are not fooled, the urge to wrap a bad idea in the eulogistic term is a deeply ingrained human habit.

Recently Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio badgered Dr. Anthony Fauci in a House hearing, suggesting that the expert on infectious diseases was impinging on a person’s freedom be urging the use of face masks. It’s a feature of his rhetorical style to not drop a point. His repetition of the word seemed to be based on the intellectually dishonest belief that he had Fauci trapped in some sort of values conundrum.  See the exchange here:


The Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases patently noted that the issue wasn’t freedom at all, but a simple matter of following best public health practices during the worst public health crisis in a generation. Masks have dramatically reduced the spread of the covid-19 virus. But Jordan would have none of it, and continued to practice this common form of rhetorical malfeasance. Similarly-minded folks have noted that it is apparently a violation of their personal freedoms to pay the federal government fees for using federal lands to graze their animals, or to pay taxes, or to register a boat with local authorities, or to use the visitors’ entrance to the United States Capitol.

The bloat in the meaning of freedom makes us all potential victims.

Even more troubling, we continue to pay dearly for using “personal freedom” as a rhetorical cover to ward off attempts to regulate handguns and assault weapons. Some who are familiar with the “right to carry” case the Supreme Court is considering believe it will continue to strike down a number of local restrictions, leaving the rest of us to risk our personal safety so others can be “free” to brandish weapons. Armed Americans can now enter some state houses, college campuses and various businesses.

Language has consequences. The bloat in the meaning of “freedom” makes us all potential victims.  If opinion-leading media and the courts continue to put the vast majority at risk by tacitly accepting an overly expansive definition of personal freedom, we will surely enshrine the “shooter society” we have become. (The Second Amendment predicate and qualifier of “well-regulated militias” seems to have been defined out of existence.) All of the predictable post-hoc prayers for the dead won’t begin to mitigate our complicity.  We can never become a true civil society if the most desperate and ill among us have the right to keep a lethal weapon inches from their hands.