Wednesday, September 30, 2009

From Sound

Jourdain, Robert. “From Sound.” Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy. NY: Harper Collins. 1997. 1-29.



In this chapter Jourdain discusses:

How the sense of hearing has evolved in animals and how animals perceive sound.

The evolution of the ear from obsolete parts of the jaw.

The middle ear and how it functions.

The evolution of the Inner ear.

 Why humans hear music while animals hear “relationless noise.”- Humans hear music, because, we can identify complex patterns in sound. Music is made of layers of many patterns, chords, motif, melodies, phrases ect. Humans are able to recognize these patterns and thereby perceive music. 

Presbyacusis -the desensitization of the hair cells. As the hair cells become less sensitive we cease to hear the richness of tone produced by frequencies.

Localiziation -how we are able to hear where a sound comes from. Sound reaches each ear at a slightly different time; this enables us to calculate where the sound is coming from, based on the difference between the sounds.

 Primitive Hearing- how the brain receives the information from the ears. Olivary bodies activate according to disparities in time and intensity, thus, the brain can recognize the differences between the sounds from each ear. The inferior colliculi creates a “spatial map” for each sound we hear. The superior colliculi maps the sensory information from all the senses arriving at an over arching picture. However, understanding music requires the use of the cerebral cortex.


I find it profoundly moving that so many beings live in “soundlessness.” Especially for musicians, music is all-consuming and cathartic. It is difficult to imagine life without sound. Even more startling, is how late in the evolutionary process hearing developed. It is a necessary survival skill and I thought it would have developed earlier.

Knowing how our sense of sound developed makes me realize that music is a universal human pleasure. I don’t know anyone who dislikes music; although, we all have varying tastes and cultural backgrounds. Somehow music taps into something primitive within us. However, I think the cliché phrase “music is a universal language” is erroneous. I have a lot of friends and relatives who have no formal training in music. When they hear a piece of classical music, they remark that the sound is pleasant, but it is evident that they don’t understand what is happening in the music or the skill it takes to perform the piece. They don’t speak the language of classical music. Similarly, as open minded as we may be, listening to music from foreign cultures is often baffling. We may appreciate the sound and think it’s compelling, but our understanding is at very basic level, if we are not educated in that particular musical language. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that humans have developed a myriad of music genres. We all enjoy music despite the fact that we don’t all speak the same musical language.  

  Jourdain notes that “Nature’s priority is not to listen and interpret; it is to hear and react.”  (27). I found this statement interesting, because I have often marveled at how unnatural the process of music making is. It is poignant that a lot of music has been inspired by birdcalls; their language is extremely conducive to music, but they do not perceive music.

  I also found it interesting that a goldfish can hear notes, but does not perceive the relationships between the notes and consequently does not hear music. I had an orchestra conductor in high school who said “Music isn’t the notes itself, but what happens between the notes.” His statement rings very true after learning about the goldfish.

  I did not know that we hear our voice two ways: through the bones in our head and through the pinnae. I wonder what kind of problem this presents for singers. Now I question how the sound travels from my clarinet to my brain and if my body distorts the sound.





Brian Graiser said...

Music may perhaps be the "universal language," but as various cultural music traditions dictate, some dialectic accents are stronger than others!

As for your thoughts on how the sound of your clarinet may be altered on its way to your brain: this is a long-standing point of interest I shared with my former professor during my undergrad. Both of us are avid vibraphone enthusiasts, and yet on an equal number of occasions, some audience member or patron would remark to my old prof that they either truly enjoyed the pure sound of the vibraphone, or else found it to be the most piercing and irritating sound imaginable.

My personal working theory is that there are variances (sometimes slight, sometimes drastic) in how different individuals perceive sensory input; put simply, my "red" may not be quite the same as your "red." From personal experience, I can vouch that this rule applies to smells (interesting story for another time, I think). Assuming I'm not completely and disastrously wrong about that, it's a safe bet that even without bone conduction, not everyone hears your clarinet the same way you do.

(...actually, it HAS to be true; if everyone heard oboes the same way I do, no one would ever play them!)

Renee Kruisselbrink said...

Right... definitely different individuals have different perceptions and varying associations with specific sounds.
Brian, I laughed at your comment about oboes. I have to say, my opinion is rather like yours for the most part. They are okay as quails though, in the "bird" cadenza of Beethoven's' Pastoral symphony.
...seriously? who could think the vibraphone's sound is "piercing and irritating"?