Tag Archives: language acquisition

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.”


music stave

Breaking the Sound Barrier

Source: Wikipedia.org

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

In the hierarchy of sensory richness the bias of our times tends to give the top spot to the visual.  People who make it their business to explore how we connect in the 21st Century 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.

Those who lobby for the primacy of the visual justifiably note that images are mostly free of the challenges of mastering the complexities of verbal literacy. They also 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 visual cues and gestures that bridge cultural boundaries. Anywhere on earth we can hand-gesture our way to the idea that we are hungry.

But there is reason to affirm that our most vital sensory equipment—and also the most fragile—resides 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 location 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 feelings and attitudes 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.

 Humans have organized noise into music for the sheer pleasure of finding perfect avenues for expressing emotional intensity.

Perhaps the trump card for the importance of regaining a “sound-centric” view of human capabilities is in the unique and miraculous realm of music. Music untethers sound from its purely stipulative duties of standing for things and ideas. It is the perfect proxy for human feeling. Humans have organized noise into music for the sheer pleasure of finding perfect avenues for expressing emotional intensity. Music is the reliable substitute that takes over when the verbal fails.

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

Even in the visually rich world of film many of the deepest pleasures come from the sound design of a different class of genuine auteurs: film composers. Music 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 solo work 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. 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 by the visual clutter of daily life. But that’s all the more reason to reclaim its special status as the realm that converts intensity of feeling into something that is both sensate and accessible.