Tag Archives: hearing

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.

The Primacy of Sound

Source: Wikipedia.org

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.”