Improvisers not by our ears alone; the limitations of hearing; attuning to a multiplicity of senses

“We perceive that there is a physical space in our universe within which we move about; as we move, we change our relative positions over time with respect to various objects in the environment. And in this environment the objects themselves also may move relative to each other as well as relative to us. Objects heard and felt, as well as objects seen, are perceived as external, as existing out in space. When a blind person explores a portion of the external world with his cane, what he feels is an external array of surfaces and substances, a world outside of him, not an array of sensations in his hand and arm.” – Lawrence E. Marks, 1978 (29-30)


We musicians perceive ourselves, during the act of music making, as projecting an accurate reflection of our musical ideas out into the sonic world. This seems like a simple idea, but is it actually so?

First, when we generate a sound (acoustic or electronic) through some kind of physical gesture–for instance by pressing a piano key, blowing across the mouthpiece of a flute, or initiating a computer algorithm–a sound results. When we hear it, we perceive that sound as as if it has become part of the external world. We hear a sound that we ourselves have made  as something outside of ourselves. That is not unlike looking at ourselves in the mirror and seeing a physical body that is one of a myriad of physical objects that exist in the world. Think about it; it can be rather startling.

Are our perceptions of the sounds we make an accurate reflection of our musical intentions? Do others perceive the musical content of the sounds we make in the same way that we do? What is the role of musical perception in how we exchange musical information with others? Is there any objective projection and reception of sound between people? And of course, our cultural understandings about sound, musical interplay, communication (for instance, signifying) and other aspects of social/cultural/racial/political context are greatly relevant (explored in depth by great musicologists, among them, George Lewis, Olly Wilson, Ingrid Monson).

Further, sounds we make may—or may not—reflect something we hear in our heads. I have written previously about the role of physicality in how our musical decision making unfolds in real time. Sometimes we hear our sounds only after we have made them. To some degree, our decisions on a muscular level are at the root of our musical choices. This may vary between players. Certainly there is much interplay between what we physically “do” and how we mentally conceptualize musical ideas.

But let’s return to the idea of how we and others perceive the sounds we make. There is a certain degree of variability, and sometimes distortion, in how two people will hear the same sound(s) (and beyond that their culturally-related meanings; a topic for future essays).

Lawrence E. Marks, whose book The Unity of the Senses: Interrelations among the Modalities, (Academic Press, 1978) was a bouncing board for some of the ideas in this essay, documents the way that vision can distort the appearance of objects; consider the effect of looking at a stone or shell that is underwater. Marks writes: “objects are perceived in accordance with their optical size rather than with their tactual size.” Are there parallels in how we perceive sound? I believe there are.

We hear low frequency sounds as if they are softer than high frequency sounds. After listening to very loud sounds, the sensitivity of our ears change, at least temporarily. If distracted for even an instant, we will not notice sounds that transpire at all; it can be as if they never sounded. If we focus on one of multiple layers of sounds, we will miss other layers. Depending upon where we are sitting or standing, there will be variety in what combinations of sounds are foregrounded. Thus, fellow players will hear a very different “mix” of the sounds that each other make, and modify that further by paying attention to different aspects of those sounds. Another player may not even be aware of a musical gesture we’ve made that to us is of highest personal significance.

What we hear also does not operate in isolation from the rest of our perceptions, even if we close our eyes. Pinpointing the spatial location of sounds is one example. Marks cites the work of S. S. Stevens and Newman (1936) to note how difficult it is to identify this attribute of sounds. Marks observes: “… Under normal circumstances spatial information obtained from different senses is coordinated. Auerbach and Sperling (1974) concluded that perceived direction in vision and perceived direction in hearing derive from a single, common spatial representation… Evidence has been presented to suggest that infants as young as 30 days of age manifest a common auditory and visual space (Aronson & Rosenbloom, 1971) …” (p. 31) Marks offers this conclusion, one that is counterintuitive to many musicians: “We tend to hear sounds where we see them.” (p. 32) Here is another example relating to frequency: all of us have experienced the Doppler Effect; we perceive sounds approaching us in space as not only becoming louder, but also increasing in pitch. In short, acousticians do not treat the words frequency and pitch as synonyms, although we musicians and listeners do exactly that.

Simply put, different people, even members of the same band, playing together, may perceive the sounds produced in the same room quite differently. Marks offers as parallel relative experiences of people’s taste buds, for instance how sweet two people may perceive a food item to be, and color, such as how two people may identify the hue of an object or the brightness of lights.

The differences between our relative sonic perceptions is a reason I am interested in musical perception from a non-literal, metaphorical perspective. I introduced this idea in a July 26, 2016 blog essay. There, I discussed the work of Lakoff and Johnson and introduced the “center-periphery” metaphor. I treated the physical sensation of sitting at the piano, perceiving the keys immediately surrounding middle C as physically, in pitch terms, and metaphorically as “center” and those further away as “periphery.” I explored some of the meanings that we associate with that metaphor, socially, emotionally, and otherwise, and their interaction with a physical relationship playing the piano.

Marks (p. 107-108) reports a 1970 study [Owen and Brown] interrelating how people report the complexity of multi-sided geometrical objects. The group was divided into those reporting tactile and others, visual experience. Both sets of subjects correlated “the number of sides, perimeter, and distribution of angles” with a factor that the researchers termed “jaggedness.” Is there an analogy to be found with angular melodies? Do we perceive musical gestures in differential degrees of jaggedness, and does this translate for some into metaphorical terms: complexity, multi-dimensionality, variability, (sudden) changeability, our bodily positioning in space—-and maybe quickly changing emotional states?

The more we pay close attention to the musical responses to the sounds and gestures we make as improvisers, the more we can learn about how those sounds are perceived by our peers. The closer we listen, and not just with our ears—but as part of a constellation of perceptions that guide musical experience—the deeper our ensemble playing can become.


~ by bobgluck on August 10, 2016.

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