I differentiate ‘to hear’ and ‘to listen’. To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically

– Pauline Oliveros

Two simple listening exercises:

  1. If you own a vehicle, get to intimately know the sound of its engine – absorb the sound when it has recently been serviced and listen for changes to this sound over time – changes that can indicate a loose component or that that tuning, new spark plugs or an oil change are needed
  2. The sound of a person’s voice imparts an enormous amount of non-verbal information. (IBM’s Watson supercomputer is being used to try to predict from the sound of patient’s voices whether they are likely to suffer from a psychotic episode. Other research involves a voice analysis app that is aiming to identify early signs of bipolar disorder and depression – Scientific American June 30th 2016). Next time you are having a conversation, aim to not only hear the words that are spoken, aim also to absorb the sound of your partner’s voice and the non-verbal information this conveys

Overtones and Harmonics

The apps which analyse people’s voices to shed light on their mental health (or determine if they are guilty or innocent of a crime) are studying the harmonics that make up the individual timbre of the voice, a technique that has been used in forensic acoustics for decades.

Here is a brilliant overview of harmonics in the human voice:

Being able to perceive these harmonics in more and more detail is an important step on the road to deep listening.

This exercise will make you more aware of the harmonics within your own voice:

Harmonic Singing: Sing a long, steady note with an open, relaxed mouth and throat. Alter your lip and tongue positions gradually to move smoothly and imperceptibly between the vowels “ooo….ohhh…..ayyy….ahhh….eee….” you will hear harmonics emerging from the fundamental tone you are singing. As you move gradually through the vowel sounds the audible harmonics will ascend in pitch. With practice, individual harmonics will gain definition. (Developing this skill will lead to the ability to sing melodies in these harmonics whilst your voice sounds a drone – brilliantly demonstrated by Tibetan Buddhist monks and the Nomadic herders of Siberia and Mongolia).

In these two short videos, I discuss the process applied to string playing:

At the end of the second video, I am whistling the 9th harmonic of the violin G string (A 2 octaves above middle C) perfectly possible to perceive consciously with practice.

Here is how the mathematics works:

This chart shows the harmonic series for each of the open strings of the cello, plus the violin e string.

The top number represents the note’s position on the harmonic series and the bottom number the number of vibrations per second. The arrows between the lines show where the harmonics match between strings.

When a cellist plays the C string, the lowest note on the cello, the strongest sound is the “fundamental” the low C labelled 1 on the top line of the above diagram. All the other notes are potentially audible, we simply have to train our ears not to filter them out.

In order to keep the maths simple and avoiding recurring decimals, I have assumed a C below the bass stave of 64 Hertz. An interesting digression at this point: a cello C string tuned to C = 64 Hertz results in an A above middle C of 432 Hz. This is the pitch Verdi recommended in 1884. Symbolically this choice of pitch is significant. If C is viewed as the primary pitch (a role it certainly fulfils in Western music theory) using Verdi’s tuning all of the Cs are related to the number 1 through the series 1Hz,2Hz,4Hz,8,16,32,64,128,256,512Hz) etc. Thus, pitch is entwined with rhythm: C, the primary note in Western music theory is related to the average resting heartbeat, from which is derived the second, our primary measurement of time.

Over a period of ten months I held workshops and conducted research with a range of people from pre-school children to busy professional musicians to determine the ability of people to hear the individual harmonics that make up musical sound. The results were fascinating, eventually all of the groups were able to perceive three or more harmonics in the sound of a stringed instrument, however two groups aged 12-16 had the most immediate success, with a group of young people aged 8-11 also able to hear them consistently after three sessions. These were groups of children with little or no exposure to music making.

“Musicians are sculptors of air – air pressure waves are our tools”

Visual stimulus is a very useful aid to awaken the ear to the possibility that there are sounds waiting to be discovered. Whilst working with diverse groups on sound perception, I found videos inspired by the work of scientists Ernst Chladni Michael Faraday and Hans Jenny extremely useful.

Ernst Chladni (1756-1827) became famous all over Europe for his invention in 1787 of “Chladni plates”. These were subsequently demonstrated for leading thinkers and politicians, including Beethoven and Napoleon. This entertaining video from Harvard Natural Sciences Lecture Demonstrations shows how riveting Chladni’s original demonstrations must have been.

In 1831, shortly after Chladni’s death, Michael Faraday began exploring the non-linear standing waves that appear on liquids enclosed by a vibrating vessel, this was the start of his many experiments in visualising vibration and sound.

Here is a contemporary recreation of one of Faraday’s experiments:

Perhaps the most visually striking experiments were by the Swiss scientist, Hans Jenny (1904-1972).

These concepts are explored artistically in the composition Faraday Waves by Rob Godman. The work was created in association with Professor Stephen Morris at the Physics Department, University of Toronto in May 2015. Part of Stephen’s research focusses  on  ‘shaking things’ and sound is often used as a form of stimuli. The video work, created by Sam Jury, uses video documentation of the classic physics experiment invented by Faraday with the analogy of sound to image data transfer as the starting point for the creation of the music.

Faraday Waves uses speech rhythms found in the E.E. Cummings poem I Carry Your Heart With Me placed within the resonance of a bell (sounds are constructed from the resonance formed through the cross-synthesis of a child’s voice and an English bell peal); it symbolizes the creation and birth of a new life.