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You are what you hear

Hi everybody!​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Today I would like to talk about a topic that is not well discussed anywhere, and that most of times we tend to underestimate. I will push you a bit farther from the ordinary operational field of a sound engineer, by taking into consideration some psychological implications that bind us to the realm of sound. The contents of this article are subject to the perusal of anyone interested, not only for geeks! This article is the result of personal experiences and thoughts, derived from the studies of the famous French otolaryngologist Alfred Tomatis. Those studies explore the relationship between medicine, philosophy, psychology and linguistics.In one of his books, Alfred Tomatis highlights the capacity of a fetus to listen, giving hypothesis on how nine months of the listening experience in utero influences the future person, introducing the concept of sound birth. Tomatis also shows how this bond is preserved for a human being’s whole lifetime.​​​​​​​

What do you hear?

Now, imagine the human hearing range. Ideally it spans between 20 and 20000 Hz, with three major ranges:

  • the Low range, that spans between 20 and 200 Hz;
  • the Mid range, that spans between 200 and 5000 Hz;
  • the High range, that spans between 5000 and 20000 Hz.

Those three ranges have different weights in Audio Production, because of the different frequency contents and our physiological sensitivity to them. In fact, as humans we are more sensitive to the Mid range, where everything that is related to language lies: spoken, musical or metaphorical. In the two other parts we generally have all sonic information that seems to have no bond with the limits and the superstructure of the languages.

Everything in the right place

However, those two ranges are still as important as the Mid range, since they contribute to the denotation of the sonic information. Generally speaking you can think of the Low range as contributing to the energy and the High range to the spatiality of sound. But as it often happens, this spectral division is not as precise as it theoretically seems, there are continous interactions between the parts!

Reverbs, equalizers, compressors and other signal processors, as well as the acoustic features of an environment give to a voice or sound frequencies, features that cannot be naturally found in them, adding extra denotative elements. As you will notice, when this coloring happens toward the High range, the sound becomes shinier, sharper, more defined. On the contrary, when this coloring happens toward the Low range, you will notice an enhanced depth and/or energy.

However, word of caution: all this happens on that thin line between objectivity and subjectivity! Let me take you a few steps further away from that line, toward the pure subjectivity, where emotions do not always answer to the criteria of a structured and universal language, touching that intimate bond between sound and people, unique from person to person. In this field, when the Low frequencies are increased, you can notice an almost involuntary dancing-related activity, like the small movements of your head or your shoulders when the bass or the kick hits, or, inversely, a totally relaxed listening experience, when the low end is less rythmic and made of longer and smoother sounds. In both cases, you become more emotional, beginning your trip to the sublime.

A familiar sound

Do you remember when I talked about the listening of experience of a fetus? Consider that, before using their eyes, a human being is able to hear and consequently listens. Imagine how a fetus listens in its natural environment, and picture an aquarium.

Totally submerged in the amniotic fluid, the fetus perceives all the sounds with a sever filtering going on in the High range, having an increased Low range. The resulting human being is also capable of remembering, involuntarily and at a subconscious level, his first nine months of hearing. The Low frequencies assume a fundamental role in this kind of mechanism, being a synaesthetic bridge between their origin and their daily/routine, increasing the emotional permeability of certain kinds of stimulations.

Also, especially because there is collateral contamination between the information contained in the Low and the Mid range, these reach our subconscious easier, creating unique relations for all of us, between our human living and our in utero life. Why does a warm and deep voice, rich in the Low end, generally infect us with a sense of calm and security? Why does it also increase our permeabilty to emotions? Because it takes us back to our in utero life, where every sound was rich in the low end.

So, we are what we heard

As for the the dancing related movements, what really happens? What is the first sound you were constantly exposed to? Without any doubt, that sound is the mother’s heartbeat, that, amplified by her body plays day and night, contributing to creating the rhythm and the character of the person they will be. In simpler terms, some sounds remind us of the heartbeat, that sound that is needed to indicate life, suggesting to us the synchronicity between ourselves and what we listen to, sync that is often needed to allow us to become fully emotional with a song or the rhythm of a voice.

I hope that from today, you listen to the world differently!

We all were here, once.

10 Responses to You are what you hear

  1. Magdalene

    Never looked at it from that perspective before. Really interesting!

  2. Thuku(TDY)

    I will have to start reading these articles, never thought they would be this interesting. Sound has roots

  3. Mary

    Such a beautiful article very insightful.

  4. Zak

    Really interesting Article, will sure learn to listen differently.

  5. Nice article, thanks Marco

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