Hearing and Listening


Hearing And Listening

The 'Never Ending Staircase' Illusion.

The ‘Never Ending Staircase Illusion.’

Please Play This Sound File Before Reading Further.

But Do Stop When You’ve Heard Enough!

The sound is part of a famous auditory illusion called the Shepard-Risset Scale or sometimes the ‘Sonic Barber’s Pole.’ What we seem to hear are musical tones that continually rise in pitch, but which actually never get any higher or lower.  You may be able to hear through to the true sounds if you listen to the excerpts a second time while looking at the  optical illusion above.

Wikipedia explains that ‘the tones as heard above….were first published as the ‘discrete’ Shepard scale.  Jean-Claude Risset subsequently created a version of the scale where the tones glide continuously, and it is appropriately called the ‘continuous’ Risset Scale or the Shepard-Risset glissando.

The scale does seem to rise in pitch, yet never actually deviates from its starting frequencies. According to Wikipedia, ‘Risset has also created a similar effect with rhythm in which tempo seems to increase or decrease endlessly.’  The glissando also happens to be an example of what the American Cognitive Scientist Douglas Hofstadter calls a ‘Strange Loop’, which we will discuss in some detail in our section on Consciousness.

Darkness and Light versus Noise and Silence

One of the more curious aspects of thinking about sound (and to some extent, thinking about almost all philosophical thought), is that a good deal of the language used to describe experiences – at least in English – uses terms that are actually visual in nature. We ‘see the light’ when we finally understand something after struggling to work it out, and differences in pitch between musical tones are often described as ‘the distances’ between them – not to mention one sound being ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ than another. Likewise, discrete sections of musical works such as symphonies or sonatas are often called ‘movements’.

Now, however, we want to ask whether Goethe’s ‘Theory of Colour’ has any implications for thinking about sound – the main topic in this section.  In fact, we can speculate that it might have, at least in terms of its methods and procedures, which we suggest have some marked  similarities to those of dowsing.

Goethe’s method of carrying out a scientific enquiry was to attempt to discover or mentally grasp the essential nature of human experiences  (as in, ‘Yes, I’ve got hold of that now’), rather than being content with fitting them into existing theoretical frameworks.  According to Henri Bortoft in ‘The Wholeness Of Nature – Goethe’s Way With Science’  Goethe was trying to reach more intensively into our natural sensory capacities to reveal the intrinsic understandability of the thing under investigation.  He was, in fact, interested in developing our capacities for perception.

Since Goethe had discovered that the human eye reacted in very different ways when exposed to total darkness – when the eye’s innate ‘propensity towards light’ seemed likely to be dominant (or to very bright light, when ‘an inclination towards darkness’ was activated), we wonder if there might be a similar pair of opposites within the behaviour of the human ‘ear.’  Can we say anything sensible for example about ‘the ear’s’ reaction to Noise and Silence? If we can, what (if anything) might that have to do with music?

There are clearly some marked  differences between visual and auditory activity, especially within the mechanics of how we experience our vision and our hearing.  Vision, naturally enough, is mediated essentially by the eye, but hearing – especially the processes by which we hear our own voices – is mediated both by the ear, but also by conduction through the bones and sinus cavities in our skulls.  This is why our voices sound unfamiliar when we hear recordings of ourselves.  It is also why the extremely loud music heard at rock concerts and discos uses – and needs – the visceral quality generated by high acoustic volumes to provide its emotional effects.   The excitement we feel comes, in part, from our bodies literally vibrating when exposed to sustained high levels of loud noises.

If we think of sound then, as ‘the perceived summation of noise and silence’ the possibility of a parallel ‘Goethian’ Theory of Sound seems worthy of exploration – as long as we remember that it is theexperience of sound that we are trying to grasp here, rather than  the physics of the transmission of sound, or of acoustics.  Once we begin to do this, sound  is revealed as having some important characteristics that we might not otherwise notice or rank as especially important.

Some examples may help to explain this concept.  Sound alone can tell us about the shapes of things – for instance when we have no visual clues to follow. (Imagine the sound of a small solid cube rolling around inside a closed wooden or cardboard box, contrasted with the sound of a sphere inside the same box.)  Sound can also help us think about our breathing, when other noises around us are quiet enough to allow us to hear it. This is  a process often used during meditation.

Sound can even be self-referencing. (once again see the section concerning Consciousness to understand more).   As evidence of this, BK first discovered his age-related hearing loss, through the so-called ‘Cocktail Party Effect’, whereby the inability to filter out loud background noises prevents a listener hearing what someone close-by is saying.

Listening To Silence

By contrast, in 1952 the American composer John Cage devised a concert piece called 4′ 33″ (four minutes and thirty three seconds), in which a performer sits in front of a grand piano, raises the cover from the keyboard and remains completely silent and motionless for the designated time period.  There are no sounds at all, except those that emanate from the concert hall and from the audience.  At the end of the performance – for such it really is – the pianist closes the keyboard’s cover, takes the customary bow and leaves the platform, often to considerable applause.

Note: There’s a new, rather interesting and highly relevant article about John Cage today (28.11.2015) in MusicWeb International.  We hope that some of our visitors may find it helpful to our discussion here. BK.

Using this ‘Post-Goethean’ framework, which space prevents us from expanding anything like as much as it deserves, we can begin to think about music as organised noise and silence – as opposed to the more common definition of ‘organised sound.‘ The silences within music – as any musician will confirm – are at least as important as the noises. Couple this with the overloaded ‘Goethean’ ear’s natural ‘propensity towards silence’, and it seems to us unsurprising that Hearing and Listening are activities that are increasingly neglected in favour of more and more visual imagery – and also to the more-than-aptly named ‘sound bite.’

We might all benefit from learning to listen more attentively it seems, especially perhaps to apparent silences themselves – during which, there may be a lot more going on than we generally assume – but also to the silences within music. There are certainly many more of those than we usually notice, and listening for them deliberately often makes music much more interesting.

PWB Electronics

Click For PWB Electronics – Exploring The Perception Of Sound

Nigel Twinn and Bill Kenny 2015

A useful reference: For a much fuller and far more academic exploration of phenomenologies of sound, please see: ‘Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies Of Sound’ second edition, Don Ihde 2007, State University Of New York Press. ISBN 978-0-7914-7256-9. (Amazon UK LINK)

Comments are closed.