Tag Archives: sound

The Dominance of Light and Vision Imagery

Metaphors and analogies are always interesting to consider because they function as rails guiding the engine of thought.

Here is a thought experiment.  Why are there so many more metaphors and analogies built from visual terms than terms used to talk about what we hear? One slightly disconcerting thing about writing a book on sound is how often I must reach for descriptive terminology using metaphors based on sight. It undermines my key argument that sound is the true “first sense.”

Metaphors and analogies are always interesting to consider because they function as rails guiding the engine of thought. “Life as a game” or “Organizations are like badly made machines” are consequential in suggesting what to look for, what to fear or what to ignore. If organizations are “like machines,” they ought to be pretty easy to disrupt. Machines require all parts to work together. If an organization is like an “organism,” no such tinkering will make much difference. Plants like bamboo are nearly indestructible. But I digress. Back to descriptions based on sight.

They are everywhere in our narratives of the world. Hence, we have “soundscapes,” and audio engineers construct a “soundstage.” Both terms are derived from words describing what we see. I’ve found myself as depicting tubas as producing “fogs” of sound, or high frequency noise as being like “looking into bright sunlight.” A recording is said to by “dry”—not improved by signal processing—or “wet:” a track that has been put through any number of fillers and filters. Moisture or the absence of it is something we see or feel. We also seem to talk a lot more about sound “reflections” than “echoes,” especially when considering acoustical problems. The first is more visual; “echoes” are clearly aural. One more example: the gap that separates the arrival of a sound  coming from the right side to the left ear creates a “sound shadow.” That microsecond delay between the arrival of sound between our two ears is partly how we locate a source in three-dimensional space. Again, the visual reference dominates the explanation.

Communication owes a great deal to the aural. But the conversion of  perception from one sense to another requires the new terms to survive on foreign soil. That can sometimes help us think more creatively. But the seeming dominance of visual imagery even to describe sounds represents a kind of rhetorical synesthesia. This condition applied here means that someone will experience one sense via the language of another sense. It’s not a cognitive feature most people seek. We generally like our senses to stay in their lanes. To be sure, Italian words commonly used in musical expression are helpful, at least to Italians and musicians. But they haven’t caught on. Descriptive terms for sound still seem limited.

This quandary isn’t keeping me up at night. But thoughts are made available to us by the words we have for them. What might we be missing because we don’t have names for sonic effects? Then, too, perhaps that part of sound that is music needs no help for language. We sense it when an a musician caught in the web of a long interview seems relieved to quit talking and actually start singing or playing.

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.”