We may see lightning first. But only when it’s roar reaches our ears has the drama begun
The writer and musician Robin Maconie calls sound “the second sense,” ceding the top spot to vision. But I think he’s wrong. In its varied forms, sound more directly nurtures our capacity for language, serving as the gateway to the richest forms of consciousness and communication. The modern preference for content that comes via screens sometimes encourages us to miss our indebtedness to the aural. But even when our eyes have shut down at the end of the day, we have a consciousness of our environment through the 24/7 sentries of our ears.
Ultimately, a reduction of our senses to simple binaries is usually not helpful. But it is important to understand how a sensory platform supports what matters most in our lives.
The common property of language visits us first as sound, years before it is converted into the diverse media we know in later life. As linguists remind us, oral speech is the source of learned language. Our consciousness depends heavily on the verbal. We think in words. Words trigger experiences that know because they can be named. In addition, beyond speech as the generative driver of all communication, other myriad elements of the auditory world carry us deeper into every corner of the world.
We hear by sensing minute variations in air pressure, which are subject to the vagaries of wind, weather and even degrees of humidity. The thin tissue of the tampanic membrane, must work with the small bones and nerves of the middle and inner ear to pick up tiny variations in air pressure that we convert into sensations of hearing. Altogether, this is a fragile enterprise. Our visual capacities may be robust, but our auditory acuity is more subtle. On a clear day it may be possible to see the spine of the Rockies on the distant horizon about 80 miles away. But sound as heard by humans has no such range. We measure the audible in feet rather than miles. And single sources are easily swamped by noise.
Air is the mother of all media.
In the vacuum of space astronauts may still see each other, but they can talk only through visual signs or radios. The essential medium of air is absent except for the very thin layer of mostly nitrogen and oxygen that rings the earth. Even so, films about space are awash in wall-to-wall music and effects. On the ground and in a theater, Dolby ATMOs can drop a single unit of sound behind one ear. It’s another reminder that air itself is the mother of all media.
This localizing capacity of binaural listening sometimes compensates for what the eye misses. Sound offers the advantage of insights and warnings at 360 degrees, not the limited 90 or so of our vision.
More than we realize, the clamor of everyday life never ceases to contribute to how we understand the places we inhabit and the people we know. What we finally express in response is our bridge back into this world. As musician and naturalist Bernie Krause has noted, “Without sound…there would be no music, no legend, no voice to stir the soul, evoke the memory, or transport the spirit.”