Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hearing With Our Skin

Storrs, C. (2009, November 26). People Hear With Their Skin, As Well As Their Ears. Scientific American. Retrieved from

A recent study by Bryan Gick and Donald Derrick from the Department of Linguistics at UBC shows that very small puffs of air directed at participants' hand, neck, or ear, contributed to their accurate hearing of the syllables "pa" and "ta." These puffs were equivalent to the air released when these sounds are verbally made. Without the puffs of air, "pa" was heard as "ba" and "da" was mistaken for "ta" 30 to 40% of the time. Accuracy increased by 10 to 20% when air puffs corresponding to these syllables were sent over their skin. There was no improvement with air sent to the ear.

For tests with the sounds "ba" and "da" that were accompanied by puffs corresponding to "pa" and "ta", participants' accuracy decreased by about 10%, compared with their accuracy without any puffs of air at all.

Gick explained that when we speak, the tiny puffs of air released help us distinguish sounds. A windy day can even stop us from hearing accurately.

Though this article didn't pertain to music specifically, it did make me wonder about how we might perceive live music as compared to recorded music. Anecdotally, many people seem to enjoy concerts more than sound recordings. It's possible that the visual spectacle contributes to this preference, but even in more intimate venues, without flash and glamour, many still enjoy the live setting in a very different way.

This study makes me wonder if emotions in music might be more potently felt when heard in a concert hall, small club, outdoor setting, etc. This also means that if there are any disruptions to the air in the environment---in a crowded room, a smoky bar, etc.---audiences would respond in a variety of ways.

If music can be heard differently through our skin, I wonder how performers might be able to manipulate the environment in order to heighten particular emotional effects of their sound. What types of challenging messages might be sent if air that "contradicts" the content of music is channeled to listeners? What might happen in silences within a piece (while our brain processes the music that came before) by "playing" on our skin?

1 comment:

SarahRose Black said...

I find the idea of listening with more than your ears very intriguing, specifically because of Evelyn Glennie's lecture which I just recently blogged about. This study is exactly along those lines, but in a much more exaggerated tactile way. Maybe we as humans are far more musically inclined than we ever imagined. I wonder if, because sensory stimulation has such a profound effect on our experience of music, we could benefit from more sensory stimulation when we experience music in the western world.

At a rock concert or a night club, even a jazz bar or a symphony orchestra concert, we are more likely to "feel" music as opposed to simply listen to it. If you're at a Rolling Stones concert, chances are you have no choice as to whether you will feel the vibrations of music through your skin or not. The amplifiers are turned up so loudly, and the energy in the crowd is creating a buzz, thus having a physiological impact on the concert-goers. This seems to be the appeal for many people. As Myrtle mentioned, many enjoy the concert hall experience more than listening to a recording. I wonder if this is because we are naturally resonating, vibrating, tactile-stimulated creatures.

Myrtle's comment about potentially feeling emotions more strongly when listening to music in this context is particularly intriguing. I wonder if because our senses are heightened, our emotions are too. Maybe the opposite is also true; if our emotions are heightened, maybe our senses are, as a result, also stimulated and thus heightened.