What the Ears Miss

The Human EarThe human ear reacts to acoustic waves between 20 and 20,000 oscillations per second. While wave frequencies outside of this narrow band certainly exist, they are entirely outside the scope of human experience. Our senses have been honed over millennia to match the unique needs and interests of human beings—and that has required both a sharpening of senses as well as a narrowing of focus, in which our senses privilege what has supported survival in the past and shut out most everything else.

We have all become so conditioned by our culture to think that there is an external reality, “out there” and independent of our own observation, that many times we are inclined to forget how a large component of our perception originates from our own neurological wiring. We open our eyes and see a breathtaking array of colors, but these colors aren’t “out there” in the world at all; they are our brain’s way of coding for three different ranges of light frequencies perceived by the retina. Through echolocation (the kind of bio-Sonar used by bats and a few other mammals), an organism is able to develop a remarkably precise and well-populated map of its surroundings. But knowing the map of the territory is not the same as knowing the actual territory; we know only our own knowledge of the world outside ourselves, never the world itself. Our apprehension of the external world remains indirect—an inference based on our sensations and wiring.

It’s truly startling to imagine all the sonic data that our ears are missing. To begin with, our ears miss almost all of the ultrasonic squeaks used by bats in echolocation, despite these squeaks being quite loud—about the volume of a fire alarm, if we could hear them. Other animals (such as elephants) likewise employ low frequency “infrasound” for long-distance communication. We humans live our lives within a narrow band of sonic possibility, and to us it is everything. Until the last few hundred years, we weren’t even aware of these sounds lying beyond our perceptions.

Hearing Chart

It’s reasonable to assume that the music created by human beings also reflects, among other qualities, the particular possibilities and quirks of our own human experience of hearing—not only a predilection for the audible range of sound, but also for timbres and gestures derived from our earliest experiences in the world. There’s a part of me that is frustrated—disturbed, even—that I am stuck in a body that can never hope to perceive the totality of wonderful sounds that surround us each day. But there is also a part of me that cherishes these limitations, which are an emblem of our own humanness. Given the relatively few sounds that are audible to our species—in a range somewhere between the rumblings of elephants and the ultrasonic soundings of bats—we have managed to cultivate traditions and individual works that reveal much wider universes of feeling and expression.

4 thoughts on “What the Ears Miss

  1. Jacob

    Speaking of “universes of feeling,” our perception of sound depends not only on this frequency band but also on the very particular chemical composition of the Earth’s air and the patterns in which these molecules move. I sometimes wonder, for example, what an instrument or any familiar sound-producing object would sound like (if it could “sound” at all) on another planet, or any situation in which the air was composed of even slightly different elements & behaviors than our own Earth air.

    I guess until we know for sure, we simply have to trust Stockhausen (and Schoenberg via Stefan George).

    Reply
  2. Ratzo B Harris

    Mr. Visconti,

    You write well of an illusion that is confounded by our ever increasing reliance on listening to recorded music to keep up with developments in our milieu. While it’s true that our otic system doesn’t allow most of us to process frequencies outside of the range you describe, our ears are not our only source of sensing vibration in our environment. Evelyn Glennie has demonstrated this to us very well. We bring our whole being to live music performances and experience far more than just what we process through our ears. Even so, if we just relied on our ears, we only process the frequencies lying between the extremes you mention; we still “hear” them as subtleties in tone. It’s a conundrum that the record industry somewhat addresses in it’s push for ever greater and more expensive technology. With sampling rates that go far beyond what we process as sound, we can experience something a little bit closer to what we do in a live concert.

    -RBH

    Reply
  3. mclaren

    Michel Redolfi patented underwater loudspeakers and has composed music designed to be heard underwater. You can snag his latest opus at amazon.com as an mp3 download, though how you’re supposed to hear it without his patented underwater speakers remains a mystery.

    Reply

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