Tag Archives: hearing

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.

The Sound-Centric Individual

           Source: Wikipedia.org

I mean something altogether basic and elemental: the pleasure some receive from the raptures of music or the sounds of the human voice.

One way to grasp the increased importance of auditory content in the lives of Americans is to appreciate the huge numbers who could be fairly called sound centric. This inexact but suggestive characterization represents a mixture of individuals on life different paths who are consistently driven to find fulfillment in the creation or consumption of auditory media: mostly music, but not exclusively so. With podcasts and portable music so ubiquitous, there is some truth to Amazon’s marketing slogan for its audiobook division:“Listening Is The New Reading.”

We could generate some faux psychological metrics to try to explain this tendency. But there are some advantages in not placing so valuable a human asset in the hands of clinicians and the inevitable reductive theories of neurology. I mean something altogether more basic and elemental: the pleasure a person receives from the raptures of music or the sounds of the human voice. If you find yourself usually waking up in the morning with an “ear worm” of a song heard the previous day, you may share this trait.

These individuals are spread across the population.  In the past, sound archivists like Tony Schwartz, reveled in the recorded voices of his family and the myriad noises of the city. The portable tape recorder was Schwartz’ talisman. What he was able to capture gave significance to everything he encountered. When it first came into exist, he notes, tape-recorded “sound made me feel much closer when I heard it than a black and white still photo [of my family] did.”  His 30,000 recordings of moments from everyday life are now housed in the Library of Congress. He was not unlike folklorists Chris Strachwitz, Allen Lomax and Moses Asch. All used their resources to record indigenous folk and roots music mostly beyond the interest of bigger record labels. Asch’s Folkways Records became its own Smithsonian library.

In 2017 Americans in the aggregate listened to music over 32 hours a week.

Their affinities for recorded sound were not so different from the DJ and writer Jonathan Schwartz, who remembers his earlier years assessing every moment through music, including future partners. He played his records and they listened. “I was wooing, working, waiting. I was presenting myself in the music. That is who I am. I am those songs, those string quartets, I am Nelson Riddle’s muted trumpet.” Nor was Schwartz much different than the music obsessives represented by the erstwhile record store employees in Nick Hornby’s popular novel, High Fidelity.  They were only slightly less exotic versions of the opera-lover in Fitzcarraldo (1982), Werner Herzog’s epic film documents the story of a plantation owner intent on building an opera house in the Peruvian jungle, dragging a steamship over a mountain as part of the plan. Actor Klaus Kinski’s co-star is a Victrola scratching its way through a stack of Caruso recordings: a case of common sense overtaken by inexorable passion.

According to the market-analysis firm Nielsen, in 2017 Americans in the aggregate listened to just music over 32 hours a week, with more each year curating their own playlists of favorites. The trade publication Billboard estimates that 125 million are paying for at least one music streaming service that can be customized to a person’s preferences. To be sure, not everyone represented in these large numbers is sound-centric. But the enthusiasm represented by the term is one that many Americans can recognize in themselves or others.