Tag Archives: The Sonic Imperative: Sound in the Age of Screens

Finding Our Musical Melting Point

Metals have a melting point.  Zinc turns to liquid at about 800 degrees. That’s low for a metal, but an appropriate analogy for some of us who begin to get gooey at the sound of even the simplest music. Music can easily soften our hardened selves.

There are rough estimates by those who study such things that perhaps five to ten percent of the population suffers from what is sometimes called “musical anhedonia.”  The “condition, if that’s the word, is the clinical term clinicians like Oliver Sacks have used to describe a person who is mostly immune to the pleasures of music.

Ironically, the condition is probably harder on avid music lovers than the people with this trait. Those of us who are “sound centric” are surely mystified by the indifference of persons who could care less about a particular concert or recording. We all know the experience, and we may wonder why someone is not capable of appreciating what is at the doorstep of their ears.

If the indifference of a person is total and across the spectrum of all musical forms or genres, it could well invoke a degree of pity, akin to the feeling we might experience if someone says that the Grand Canyon they visited was “nothing special.” What a loss  to never really know a great avenue of human experience.

Can He Be Serious?

In How the Mind Works the influential psychologist, Stephen Pinker, partly reflects this vacuum of feeling. He compared music to “cheesecake:” certainly nice, but “biologically functionless. . .” That’s stunningly dismissive, and at least a little offensive. The comparison of a piece of unhealthy food with a consequential form of human expression (the most consequential?) suggests the very kind of indifference that is so puzzling about musical anhedonia. Pinker misses the impacts of the far richer domain of music, which in its ubiquitous 12-note forms may well be the world’s only universal language.

The Victorians understood what it meant to “swoon” over something. The word has gone out of favor, but was usually meant to suggest a profound emotional response within a person to someone or something: a trigger to feelings of ecstasy. Old it is. But it’s a good word, and it works for all of us who can name exactly the many pieces of music that send us to welcome arcadias. Those characteristics represent our musical melting points: triggered perhaps by a chord sequence in an old pop hit, a particular mix of voices or instruments (doubling a cello with a voice always works for me), or the “resolution” of a dark piece of classical music into a sunnier major key.

I surely saw swoons a few years ago that you can see as well in a video clip from PBS’s In Performance at the White House (seen here via YouTube). The guests were in the East Room listening to singers that meant a lot to the Obamas. When the multi-talented Usher and the band took the stage and led into the first notes of the Marvin Gaye classic, Mercy Mercy Me, the faces of the staffers and First Family in attendance lit up like a Christmas display. The audience swayed; they smiled and sang along. Some found it impossible to not move with the rhythm of Gaye’s catchy and knowing lyrics. It is a representative moment of what so many musicians and appreciators live to hear again and again. We anticipate the chance to add greater depth to our lives through auditory magic, be it from Gaye, or Taylor Swift, or Haydn, or Basie.

In The Sonic Imperative: Sound in the Age of Screens I tried to describe conventional theories about music with ordinary words, and mostly failed. Music is its own idiom: all expression and feeling, but little stipulation. It often surpasses the limited meanings possible with ordinary language. We need it to fill in the gaps between what we can verbalize and the far more inexplicable impulse to reach toward what we feel.

Our Fragile Hearing

More and more Americans are experiencing the social disorientation that comes with partial deafness. No longer just grandpa’s problem, its now a development affecting millions of younger Americans.

Imagine that you have a friend who has the unusual habit of glancing directly at the sun while they conversing with someone outdoors. That’s not a good thing.  Obviously, the sun is too intense for sensitive eyes, a point we would surely make to the friend.  A lifetime with such a habit will leave them with a host of eye problems, if not complete blindness.

Suppose you have another acquaintance who is rarely seen without lanyards hanging down from her ears. They are always present when she is commuting or working at her desk.  Like millions, she would rather forget her purse than not having her ear buds with her.  And because the sounds she listens to spill out beyond her ears, you can tell what music she likes.

In a sense, she is also looking into the sun. The volume level of her music is probably past a threshold where loudness so close to the ear is safe. Like one in three Americans, she on her way to hearing loss, which will mean that in a few years she will be struggling to connect in a wide variety of social settings.

Our dilemma is that we live in a loud world that our ears were not designed for. Think of noise as aural trash: stuff that piles up around us that we hardly notice less because it has no visual presence.  But its there all of the time: at music concerts where the sound is punishingly loud, or in the everyday equipment of modern life like leaf blowers, hair dryers, vacuums, and hundreds of other sources.  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 hearing will deteriorate over time.  There are bones in the middle ear to protect us from loudness.  But they are no match for what we throw at them.

Loud sound destroys the microscopic stereocilia–tiny thin cells–in the cochlea within the inner ear. They do the important work of converting sound pressure waves into nerve impulses sent to the brain.  One scientist studying the cilia of a nearly deaf person said they looked like a forest of trees that had been blown over in a storm.  But unlike a forest, they usually will not regrow.

New research points out that there are significant costs for those who have lost even a fraction of their listening acuity. With hearing loss, clinical dementia increases by 50 percent and depression by 40 percent. Overall, participants in some studies report increased feelings of isolation and disconnectedness, as documented by a reporter recounting the story of one 68-year-old woman.

[H]er world began to shrivel. She stopped going to church, since she could no longer hear the sermons. She abandoned the lectures that she used to frequent, as well as the political rallies that she had always loved. Communicating with her adult sons became an ordeal, filled with endless requests that they repeat themselves. Now considered as hazardous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, loneliness vastly raises the risks of depression, dementia and early death.

Your ears will not send messages that they are being forced into a destructive death spiral. You need to be motivated enough to protect them. Exercise a few simple precautions to stave off hearing loss.

  • Always wear ear protection at arena concerts and even professional sporting events. In my recent book, The Sonic Imperative, I reported that one baseball stadium nearby is equipped with 1400 loudspeakers. Fans notice that noise at a game is frequently over the top, since the sound system is programmed like a dance club.                                                                                                                                    
  • Always wear ear protection when using power equipment like lawnmowers, lawn trimmers, leaf blowers and even vacuum cleaners and hunting rifles.  I use a comfortable 21-dollar 3M over the ear headset.  There are even many with Bluetooth speakers in them: an incredibly dumb idea.                                                                                                                                                    
  • Carry a clean pocket tissue. When an event turns into an unexpected auditory assault, such as in a movie theater or noisy bar, it pays to have a piece of tissue that can be crushed and placed at the entrance of the ear canals, temporarily muting the racket.                                                                                         
  • When listening to music, playing games or watching videos, learn to set aside the mistaken belief that louder is always better. Heed the cautions that come with portable audio players. In many cases, loudness creates unpleasant distortion and listening fatigue.                                                                         
  • Teach your children about the fragility of hearing.  We know from studies that teens will reject requests to ‘turn it down.’ The message needs to come earlier.

The ability to hear is a wonderful gift, and modern applications of sound are full of interesting surprises.  For more insights see The Sonic Perspective: Sound in the Age of Screens, available at a low price from Amazon.com.