Tag Archives: music

soundwaves 2

Our Neglected Sense

Most of us are not very practiced in using a tool that have we’ve been given.  We listen to others.  We notice sounds. But we’re not very sophisticated in appreciating what pristine sound can reveal. 

Imagine a relative who rarely strays from home and who has also just bought a luxury performance car.  It will transport him to and from the grocery store, along with a few other places in his community.  But the car will probably never see the open road. So it all seems like a mismatch. The owner will ask so little of a car that is designed to do so much.

The same can be said for how we use the miraculous sense organs thoughtfully attached to both sides of our head.  We and most animals are binaural listeners.  We hear in stereo.  And that gives us the ability to locate where sounds come from.  But that’s only the start.  The mechanical bones and nerves of the middle and inner ear are amazingly sensitive.  They are—pardon the pun—perfect windows fully open to mere whispers coming from the outside world.  Admittedly, if you are my age, they are mostly open.  Hearing acuity is best in children, which is one reason they are easily startled by the rude noises of the everyday life.

Here’s the point.  Most of us are not very practiced in using the tool that have we’ve been given.  We listen to others.  We notice sounds.  But we are too accepting of assaults on our ears in places where we work and play.  These intrusions into our aural space may come from motorcycles, lawn equipment, loud restaurants, car horns and a hundred other sources.  We tolerate loud noise and constant sound—frequently frying ears and brains in the process. A result is a dulling of our hearing, forcing us to miss what pristine sound can tell us.

All of this forces us to overlook the pleasures of natural sound layering, where ambient sounds can mix or contrast with dominant foreground source. For example, stand in a quiet forest long enough, and our aural sense of depth can open up.  In the woods, air moving through trees has its own auditory signature.  Add in a pair of birds calling back and forth to each other over a distance, and the whole scene seems richer and more interesting.  This is dimensional listening, reclaimed when we liberate ourselves from the racket of a world.

The organized sound of music is where we are more likely to pay attention to the spatial capabilities of the aural.  But even here, we frequently ruin the experience by depending on cheap electrical devices that distort, or are too loud for the delicate mechanisms of the ear.  The result flattens music into a one-dimensional experience.

Putting ambient noise into the mix helps us hear the dimensionality that we have often trained ourselves to ignore. 

Consider a variation on this problem. If you view nearly any Hollywood film produced after 1950, the sound of the actors singing will usually not match the space they are in.  Most were recorded on a sound stage first, lip-syncing later on the set.  So at the start of the landmark musical Oklahoma! Curly rides his horse across the open prairie gloriously singing Oh What a Beautiful Morning, but in the incongruous acoustics of a reverberant studio. The same is true with most action sequences, where dialogue is re-recorded later on. “On location” sound is difficult to capture. There is an old assumption that “pre” or “post” dubbing will not be noticed.  But your ears can easily recognize the aural discontinuity of different spaces.

Try this simple experience.  Listen to a good acoustic recording on good headphones.  And see, if over time, you can place the layout of the players or singers.  Are they all in the same acoustic?  Who is in front and who is in back?  Where is the piano on the ‘sound stage’?  And what is the room contributing to the sound? Hearing dimensionality recovers what we have often trained ourselves to ignore.

Listen to the iconic recording of Chan Chan from the Buena Vista Social Club below.  You can hear the musicians spread out in the space of an old Havana studio once owned by RCA.  The recording, like some live concerts, is a feast of coherent aural information.  To use the old cliche, it seems like we are with these musicians, some of whom remembered when Havana at night was a rival to Miami.

Might Their Hatreds be Tamed?

Sergei Rachmaninoff Wikipedia.org
Sergei Rachmaninoff                               Wikipedia.org

The romantic in me wants to believe that a person filled with the poison of division might learn from seeing other human beings literally acting in concert.  

Never mind that some of the people we encounter have rough edges.  It’s the murderers and vengeance-seekers we need to fear, like those who sow justifiable terror in the citizens of Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, and a host of other states that are struggling to again become civil societies.  News of terrorist mayhem in the Middle East and elsewhere feeds the obvious conclusion that human misery often flows from tribal tensions.  But our knowledge in a 24/7 satellite-saturated world hasn’t really helped us understand the cultural origins of long-held animosities. We see effects more than their causes. Even so, with enough optimism it is possible to imagine how we might begin to tame regional hatreds that feed the impulse in some to fight to the death.

Call me naive, but I wish every actual or future ISIS executioner would volunteer to spend an evening listening to an orchestra of diverse members perform something like Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony.  I’d especially wait in anticipation to see if their hatred might begin to melt under the warmth of the Third Movement.  The romantic in me wants to believe that a person filled with the poison of division might learn from other human beings literally acting in concert to produce something transformative.  You know this Adagio of the Symphony, where the melody is passed from the violins to a clarinet, back to the French horns, and eventually back to the strings. It’s probably the most breathtaking theme this melodic Russian master ever wrote.


This version by the Radio Philharmonic of Amsterdam is followed by comments on U-tube such as “beautiful,” “sublime,” “transfixing,” “magnificent,” and “incredibly emotional:” these, in a space usually owned by trolls.

Is it possible to find transcendence in a lyrical phrase?  Can music soften anger and the kind of fixed rage that feeds the impulse to destroy?  Could it be that we are looking for peacemakers in all the wrong places?

The idea of using music as an arena of shared experience is partly behind the efforts of Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said, who in 1999 founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.  The group is made up of Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians.  When war broke out in Gaza in 2009 Barenboim noted to audiences on both sides of the Palestine/Israel divide, “We aspire to total freedom and equality between Israelis and Palestinians, and it is on this basis that we come together to play music.”

The same impulse to return us to our shared humanity occurred In 1989, when Leonard Bernstein celebrated the end of a divided Berlin by performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the wall with an international orchestra of musicians and singers.  He noted that “we have not yet found ways, short of murder, to act out our suppressed rages, hostilities, xenophobias, provincialisms, mistrust and need for superiority. We still need some kind of lower class as slaves, prisoners, enemies, scapegoats.”  The concluding section of the symphony is its triumphal “Ode to Joy,” which can be easily understood as an affirmation of the new freedoms possible in a country made whole again.  Americans probably also heard a victory anthem at the rapid demise of a repressive Soviet Republic.  But Bernstein meant that Beethoven’s music should mean more, noting that “somehow it must be possible to learn from his music by hearing it. No, not hearing it, but listening to it, with all our power of attention and concentration. Then, perhaps, we can grow into something worthy of being called the human race.”1


1Bernstein quoted in Greg Mitchell, “When Bernstein and Beethoven Celebrated the Fall of the Berlin Wall,” The Nation, June 1, 2013.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu