Training your Ears

Apologies for leaving this blog to rot for a few weeks, I’ve had other things on my mind. However, I woke up amazingly early this morning (0600!), so thought that I would post something. For those interested, I have a solo gig tonight at Redbourn Folk Club, supporting Brian Peters. Please do come along if you’re free.

The post this week is on ears. Now ears we all know, they are fleshy protuberances which enable us to hear with absolute clarity the pneumatic drill being used on the road outside. Your ears are amazing devices, which are sensitive to a huge range of frequencies and loudness (the response to none of which is entirely linear, making everything extremely complicated). They are, in my wholly biased opinion, one of the most amazing parts of the body. One has to wonder why it is that we simultaneously have exquisitely designed pieces of apparatus like the ear and hastily put together travesties like the ankle and elbow. But I digress.

Over the last few years I have been making a conscious effort to train my ears. Train is I think the right way of putting it. I went to a talk by Chris Wood at Broadstairs this year and one of the many things that he said that I agreed with was that the ear is like a muscle; you can’t ignore it for years and then expect it to do whatever you want. So I have been training my ears and it has thrown up some interesting effects.

The most obvious is that I am now much more picky about speakers. Before, I would quite happily listen to music on any old thing, but I have a sinking feeling that before long I am going to have an opinion on what properties speakers should have and which make has the best frequency response. This is a pain, not least because I don’t have the money to buy a decent pair of speakers anyway. This pernickitiness extends to gigs as well, obviously. I find myself more critical of sound during a gig, which is unfair because I am a not terribly accomplished sound technician. The flipside to this of course is that I appreciate good sound much more than I did; it now gives me a lot of pleasure.

The most striking thing however is that I value silence a lot more than I did before. For most of my life I have given myself a continuous soundtrack of music. I take a portable music player with me wherever I go and will listen to music in the car, when working, when eating and when writing blog posts (when writing this I am listening to R. Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for two pianos, the second piano part of the second movement I once played with my county youth orchestra). I never really thought about why, but now I think that I know. I listen to music partly because I love it, but also because if I don’t, the noise annoys me. That’s not just things like traffic noise or the aforementioned pneumatic drill, it’s things like the noise my keyboard keys make, or the noise of my computer humming, or the tick of the clock, or the noise of a plane going overhead. Subconsciously, these noises annoy me. And I don’t think that I’m alone in that.

A little while ago I went to the house of a friend of mine to do some work on the sound of There and Back Again’s new album. He lives in the middle of Devon and when you step into the garden, the only sounds you hear are natural: the wind in the trees, the birds singing and so on. It made me feel utterly serene and relaxed and it was a bit of a wake up call. It made me wonder just how much misery is caused by noise. It is a subtle thing, perhaps, but I have been in enough poorly designed spaces to appreciate just what it can do to you. Things as slight as air conditioning whine, or the noise of cars on the street can make people bad tempered or miserable. I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where people took noise more seriously. I would love to see someone design a car for instance where the priority is not acceleration or horsepower, but an absence of tyre noise from inside the cockpit.

I’ve been watching a lot of Grand Designs recently, as I am unemployed. Most of the episodes result in an unusual and often beautiful building, but my heart always sinks when the proud owners show Kevin McCloud (the presenter) around and you can hear that the reverberation time is too long, or that the frequency response is all over the place. To spend such a lot of time and energy on a beautiful space and to not take into account its usability is very sad.

To be fair to the world, noise is already considered very important and there are lots of building regulations concerning it. There are also lots of very intelligent people (including some of my former lecturers) working on projects to reduce noise. But I can’t help but think that acoustics is something which is thought about as an added bonus, rather than as a key part of the design process, which it should be. Anyway, that’s why I’m applying for jobs as an acoustic consultant.

I’m going to leave you with a TED talk. TED, for those of you that don’t know, is a series of conferences held worldwide, which includes some of the most inspirational talks and speakers that you are ever likely to hear. TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design” apparently. This talk is given by Julian Treasure and he makes the case for good acoustic design of spaces far more effectively than I can. Next time, more melodeons.

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3 thoughts on “Training your Ears

  1. I think older Rolls-Royces (and maybe new ones too) were designed with lack of noise as a priority- famously, at 60 mph the loudest sound audible inside the car was supposed to be the dashboard clock ticking.

    I don’t think they just did this by using a really loud clock…

  2. Pingback: An illustration of the non-existence of God | Music and Melodeons

  3. Pingback: It has been too long | Music and Melodeons

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