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Hearing 3


February 2021 post “Hearing 2”

January 2021 post “Hearing 1”

December 2020 post “What to listen for in music”

November 2020 post “Early History of Conducting”

We have had two articles on hearing so far and this, the third, will be the last on this “conductor post” topic.

Picture of Ear with musical notes.

I would like to conclude with a few topics related to “hearing” that I hope you will find interesting!

We start with “earworms”. You know what that is… those “nasty”, “cute” melodies that we simply cannot get out of our heads! They can drive you nuts! When people ask me about how to get rid of an earworm, I respond “by replacing it with a better one!” They occur typically when you are hearing some music and then leave that particular environment, namely, it was the “last” thing you heard. This can happen in the car, the grocery store sound system, a jingle in a commercial and so on. Some pieces, I submit, are earworm “worthy” and others, not. It IS a delight to leave a concert of great music with the last piece the band or singer or orchestra played, still playing in your ear. This can happen at Church when you keep singing the last hymn in your mind. Do you recall the story from last month about Mozart and his “hearing” the symphony orchestra playing in his head? You can do that too! Music need not be physical sound for our minds to perceive.

That leads to another variation of this “hearing in your head”- namely, “philosophical music”.

Several avant-garde composers, including America’s John Cage (1912-1992) experimented with writing music not playable on instruments or even outside the range of human hearing.

But enough of speculative music. What about the “real” sounds that are made by real people with real instruments? Well, there is much to discuss regarding “hearing” here too! We take our recordings of music for granted. Starting in 1877 with Edison’s phonograph, we have expanded our recording abilities astronomically! One such leap was “stereo”. What a novel thought: to record and then play back music through two speakers (reproducing different sounds from each other) just as our two human ears experience the sounds (Left/Right)! As you all know, we have expanded to quadraphonic sound and 5.1 and surround-sound and so much more! Our headphones create a bubble in which sound can be placed nearly everywhere (above our head) (think – “Tomita” – look him up!).  Recording engineers and sound technicians can manipulate the sounds real instruments make and then “order” them artificially using mixing boards and many sophisticated digital hardware and software. I was made aware of one such creative experiment during my graduate studies. It turns out that Zubin Mehta who was then the Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, recorded Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (a complex 20c work for large orchestra) in a special recording studio using (and here’s the creative part) individual “contact” microphones on each and every instrument in the orchestra!!! (These are small, attachable microphones, typically used for guitars.) Essentially Maestro Mehta created a recording file of the sounds of each instrument which listeners of this recording could experience as if their ears were simultaneously “on” each instrument – a physical impossibility! Thus, this recording was a “hearing” of that piece unlike any I had ever heard and certainly unlike any that any “live” orchestra could ever perform!

We now move from sound engineers who manipulate sounds into our ears to Music Therapists who manipulate the experience of “hearing” music for individuals with hearing impairments. These professionals skillfully use tactile experiences of sound to “rely on the ‘feeling’ (vibrations) of music to reach those with the greatest degrees of hearing impairment” *.  These may include feeling the pulse of music with feet (from the floor), or resonating in one’s chest, or feeling sensations from the vibrating strings of a guitar. Special colored lighting has also been used to represent rhythms (on/off) and pitch and “colors” of sound.

I will conclude with an existential topic: hearing music “in time”. We have all had the experience, when listening to a speaker, of time passing quickly (when the speaker is dynamic and engaging) or painfully slowly (when we know the speaker struggles with the topic and its delivery). Music is one of the “fine arts” which humans experience “in time”, that is, there is a past/present/future in the musical experience. Other such arts include theater and dance. And yet there are other arts “out of time”, like the visual arts (painting, sculpture, etc.). With these, there is no beginning point nor any endpoint. I won’t get into experimental music which designs the musical experience such that it moves beyond such time limits. But here I would like to suggest that Music, by its very design, is intended to transport us from our given, present time, to the type of time which the specific piece of music infers. Think of time moving very slowly (like “tree-time”) when listening to a piece like Eric Satie’s (1866-1925) Gymnopedie No. 1 (look this up – you will recognize it). Regardless your pace in life, this piece will bring you to a snail’s pace, and that pace WILL BE the actual, unique “reality” of that work of art. On the far opposite extreme, we have Anton Webern’s (1883-1945) Symphony Op. 21 in two movements which lasts under ten minutes (recall that a symphony by Mozart could last around a half-hour and a Beethoven symphony could last over 1 hour) (think dog-time or worse – the Mayfly Dolania Americana, with a lifespan of 5 minutes!). Webern’s music is extremely dense, comprised of pointillistic sounds, each of which may stand in place of a large 8-bar musical phrase. The point here, is that all of music is heard best in “its own time”. Concerts in Beethoven’s time could last over four hours! As a conductor, I am told to be sure that our concerts are done within two hours! Time… is so relative.

What a joy it is that Music can offer us so many, varied ways of hearing Beauty, taking it in and allowing it to penetrate our being, tickling our ears, our chest, our minds and our hearts! Please, go find some good music and discover how much there is… to hear!

*  Thank you to friend and colleague Mary Stryck M.S., MT-BC for providing technical information regarding the role of Music Therapy for individuals with hearing impairments!

© Copyright 2021 Michael Kamenski, Milwaukee, WI. All Rights Reserved.