Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Good Ear

You might have heard the phrase, "He has a good ear."

It's often used in regard to musicians and singers, people who easily pick out melodies and harmonies, people who sing and play in tune, people who can translate what they hear into written music; all are said to have good ears.

The funny thing about having a good ear is that your ear has very little to do with it. For that matter, your sense of hearing has very little to do with it. There are plenty of people who have acute senses of hearing and yet lousy ears. There are others whose aural senses are compromised, but have great ears. To be sure, the basic mechanics of translating the vibration of air molecules against your ear drums into electrical signals in your brain is necessary, but it's not what makes you have a great ear.

What does? I believe the answer lies in understanding what it is you're hearing and being able to translate aural sensation into other media.

OK, that may be clear and specific, yet a little esoteric. So let me explain.

Processing Sensation
We humans have an amazing capacity to integrate and translate sensory input. While sitting at the dinner table sharing your experiences of the day, you effortlessly process hundreds of sensory stimuli. Your sense of smell tells you where on table the buttered corn is and where the blackened fish is. Your tactile senses keep your teeth from biting your tongue as they grind through a mouthful of coleslaw and let you know that your knife has made it through the slab of beef. Your ears tell you that the kettle's ready to boil while simultaneously informing you that uncle Fred just dropped his fork on the floor. Your eyes catch a pie being pulled from the oven.

Not only do you integrate stimuli from all these sense, but you translate from one sensory domain to another. As you hear the dropped fork hit the floor, you can visualize its location. The texture of the coleslaw on your tongue and the way it resists your teeth contribute to how it tastes. With just a glimpse of the pie being pulled from the oven, you can feel the heat slowly penetrating the oven mits.

Humans are amazing sensory processing machines. We take in thousands of stimuli. We filter and sort. We translate. We respond. And we do it all effortlessly.

Actually, we don't do it all effortlessly. Sometimes your teeth mistake our tongue for coleslaw. Not everyone translates pie-from-the-oven into too-hot-to-touch. Not everyone translates clunk-rattle into uncle-Fred-dropped-his-fork.

Translating Sensation
Why is it that some people hear the rumble of water roiling in a kettle suddenly settle into a smooth pur and know that it's reached the boiling point and others don't? Why is it that some people can translate the content of photo into a drawing? What leads to one mechanic diagnosing auto problems simply by listening to the car while others struggle for days with diagnostic equipment and tools? Why is it that some people follow metaphor and simile, and others are hopelessly literal?

All the above processes involve the translation of stimuli from one sensory domain into other domains. The mechanic who hears the mechanical problem, the artist who feels the drawing, the chef who cooks by listening do so through pattern recognition and association. Some are keenly aware of their processes, some have no idea that there is a process. Still, the ability to take sensory stimuli from one domain and accurately associate it with activity in another is a process that we often call intuition and, if rare enough, genius. It's a shortcut that bypasses the long roads of serial thought and takes you immediately to your destination, a shortcut that can be learned.

Learned Genius
Most of us spend little time actively learning to associate across senses. We're rarely taught it, and if so, only indirectly. When taught it directly, it may be unidirectional or limited.

For example, most people who learn to play the piano, learn to translate from the visual domain to the tactile domain. Yes, to the tactile domain, not the aural domain. We learn to see a note on a sheet of paper and then to press the associated key. Sound is just a byproduct. We don't learn to see a note and hear a sound, we learn to see a note and press a key.

Because of this, one can take piano lessons for years and still be frustrated that they don't hear any better than they did when they started. The reason is simply that they've never been taught to translate from the visual domain to the aural domain, but they don't know that. So, instead of thinking, "Wow, no one ever taught me how hear what I'm reading", they think, "I just don't have a natural ability to hear music. I have a lousy ear."

The fact is that anyone with a reasonably functional auditory system can be taught to play by ear and to hear what they see. It's all a process of creating the associations and as with most things, it starts with little steps.

Of course, if you can learn to hear what you see, you can learn to see what you hear. For that matter, if you can learn to translate from one sensory domain to another, then you can probably do it for any pair of domains.

That's it for today. Tomorrow, I'll tell you how to develop a great ear (or eye or nose).

Happy Tuesday,

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