Look into the history of the connection between literature and sound/music and you’ll find the idea of ‘magic’ has a rich, symbiotic connection within the center of it. One only needs to look at how Shakespeare applies music cues to magical beings within the text of his plays. Look at how the connection of magic and music is inferred within the witches of Macbeth, The fairies of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest’s Ariel. It does indeed hint to a mystical view point of the phenomena of sound. This idea of the connection between art forms and magic first came to my attention from famed comic book writer Alan Moore who notably changed his viewpoint of himself from a ‘writer’ to a ‘magician’, noting the metaphysical ability literature has to create ‘magic’ in one’s mind. He denotes several connections in history, reffering to the reliation magic has with spoken word and literature. While he notes several connections, those of which originate from history’s witch doctors, bards and writers, one of the most poignant and simple examples is most probably the following: In order to create a word, one must first ‘spell’ it. This simple use of the verb ‘spell’ in our language quickly hints to a deeper assoisation we have with our surrondings.
But let’s resist getting lost down a rabbit hole of literature and get back to music.
So, what am I inferring? If literature can be magic, is music – by extenstion – magic? Of course, sound isn’t magic in of itself, it lives within the real world, governed by the law of physics.
Sound is (simply put) vibrations that travel through air and interact with our ears, hence the famous tag line ‘In space, nobody can hear you scream’ because space has no air molecules for the vibrations to travel through. But this explanation tells us nothing really of how our ears work. Our ears are an organ that provide a limited perception of one particular sense: Sound.
Our ears do not give us access to every frequency imaginable. They can allow us to perceive generally between 20Hz and 20,000Hz and this has the capacity to change over time. Our ears can also hear only patterns that repeat themselves more or less often than 20 times per second. You can test this by taking a pack of cards and beginning to run your thumb against them allowing them to slap against each other. Doing this slowly will allow your ear to hear each individual card hit against the one below it however do this in a quick succession and your brain will only be able to perceive a blur of sound.
The idea of our organs having a limited perception of its own source material is not an uncommon thing. Our eyes have a particular field of view and can only see within the light spectrum available to us. So, our ears, like our other organs that provide the senses that objectively shape our perception of the world, have limitations too but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a trick or two up their sleeves. I do not hope to arduously explain the science of the ear, nor do I wish to plunge into the realms of physics and psychoacoustics. There is heaps of literature that can better provide the specifics of the realm of the ear and I instead, wish to focus on mainly how sound is perceived when concerning the process of hearing by this organ and how it shapes our associations with sound in practical and understandable terms.
When thinking about the ear, it’s good to consider its main three sections:
The Outer Ear – The Middle Ear – The Inner Ear
The Outer Ear
The first part of the ear consists of three important parts.
- The Pinna/Auricle – Is the name for those external flaps that we commonly refer to as ears. Rarely do we hear someone say that “Jeff has big pinnas” or “Simone has the tiniest auricles I’ve ever seen”. But we usually like to refer to these as simply ‘ears’. They are the only visible part our ears and are not only aesthetically pleasing, they do also provide some use in hearing. When sound travels from different distances, the Pinna is useful in identifying what direction a sound has come from (ie. either left or right). This helps our minds create a mental image of a variety of sounds we are hearing around us. They allow us to know what side of us a car is approaching from when crossing the street, whether someone is sneaking up on us or even to decipher each individual location of all the different instruments in an orchestra. This ability to identify the direction of where a sound originates occurs by how sound waves reflect against the different parts of the Pinna. Since a variety of sounds interact with different sections of the flaps, this allows us to have a better distinction of what direction each of those sounds has come from. In this way it also acts as a sort of funnel or perhaps even an air traffic controller, allowing sound to not simply take a direct route into the Ear Canal but to be guided into our ears. The Pinna essentially collects sound energy passing over a large area of space and funnels it into the Ear Canal and then onto the Eardrum. You can increase this effect by cupping your hand behind the ear, creating a larger space for sound waves to be reflected off of.
- The Ear Canal/Auditory Meatus – Is the small funnel that acts as a bridge between the Pinna and the Eardrum. When the Pinna has caught a variety of sound, much like fish in a net, they swim down this small canal and hit against the Eardrum.
- The Eardrum/Tympanic Membrane – By the time a sound has reached the end of The Outer Ear and before it has moved onto The Middle Ear it interacts with the Eardrum. Fluctuations in pressure formed from when when the sound has been heard, are transmitted down the Ear Canal and are moved toward the Eardrum. Due to the fluctuations in pressure, the Eardrum’s thin membrane cone- like shape vibrates and causes an effect similar to that of a game of chinese whispers, carrying our ear’s representation of sound from The Outer Ear onto the The Middle Ear.
The Middle Ear
This part of the ear lays inside the bone of the skull. The Eardrum almost entirely forms the outer layer or wall of the Middle Ear. At this point the original sound wave is replicated mechanicaly. It consists of two important sections.
- The Ossicles – Is the collective name for the three parts (each made of bone) that it represents:
- The Hammer/Malleus – Around 8 millimeters in the typical adult, this bone echoes, literally hammers against the Anvil, replicating the vibrations transferred from the Eardrum from which it is attached to.
- The Anvil/Incus – Lives in the center of the Ossicles and acts as a bridge between the Hammer and the Stirrup.
- The Stirrup/Stapes – The smallest bone in the body, this transfers the vibrations replicated by the Eardrum then transferred through the Hammer and the Anvil finally being repeated once more at this point, vibrating against the Oval Window. It acts almost like a reverse piston, creating waves in the fluid found within the Inner Ear.
The process of The Ossicles plays a vital role in transferring as much sound energy as possible into the Inner Ear. This enables us to hear very faint sounds by essentially amplifying the energy transferred from The Outer Ear to the The Middle Ear and then finally onto The Inner Ear.
- The Oval Window/Fenestra Ovalis – Is located at the end of the Middle Ear marking the beginning of the Inner Ear. It is a thin membrane wall – like structure.
The Inner Ear
Sometimes to referred to as ‘the Labyrinth’, this is the final section of the ear. This part of the ear not only acts in the process of our hearing, it is also part of our balance system. It consists of three important sections although I have omitted The Vestibular (The part of the inner ear that helps us balance) since I wish to only focus on how sound is perceived through this part of our bodies.
- The Cochlea – Shaped like a snail’s shell, this section of the ear is filled with fluid. The fluid inside the Cochlea receives sound through the form of vibrations which is then transferred onto the Auditory Nerve.
- The Auditory Nerve – This acts as a messenger between the Cochlea and the brain, transmitting electrical signals that replicate the mechanical vibrations sent on through by The Middle Ear that first originated from the Eardrum. Made up of somewhere between 20 to 30 thousand nerve fibres that are connected to the Cochlea, these fibres resonate with particular pitches that are heard by the ear. Once the hair fibres resonate, this raw data is sent up into the brain through electrical impulses for the brain to interpret.
So you can see that from this simplified explanation of how our ears process sound there is, as I aforementioned, a chinese whispers- like effect. When we hear a sound, the energy that originally formed it has been replicated and interpreted by a chain of events to represent a part of the world that resides around us.
I wish to look back ever so slightly however to the process of The Inner Ear which is, to me, one the most important aspects of this idea of music being ‘magic’. The relationship of how our brains interpret the electrical impulses within this section of our ear creates, hints to a very important to how our minds perceive sound.
To understand the phenomena of hearing in a more concrete way, I will refer to the work of Daniel Levitin, record producer turned neuro-scientist, and his book ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’.
I quote extensively as his explanation is beautifully explained.
‘The word pitch refers to the mental representation an organism has of the fundamental frequency of a sound. That is, pitch is a purely psychological phenomenon related to the frequency of vibrating air molecules. By “psychological”, I mean that is entirely in our heads, not in the world-out there; it is the end product of a chain of mental events that gives rise to an entirely subjective, internal mental representation or quality. Sound waves – molecules of air vibrating at various frequencies – do not themselves have pitch. Their motion and oscillations can be measured, but it takes a human (or animal) brain to map them to the internal quality we call pitch’
He goes on to say,
‘Newton was the first to point out that light is colorless, and that consequently color has to occur inside our brains. He wrote, “The waves themselves are not colored”. Since his time, we have learned that light waves are characterized by different frequencies of oscillation and when they impinge on the retina of an observer, they set off a chain of neurochemical events, the end product of which is an internal mental image that we call color. The essential point here is: What we perceive as color is not made up of color. Although an apple may appear red, its atoms are not themselves red. And similarly, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett points out, heat is not made up of tiny hot things.
A bowl of pudding only has tase when I put it in my mouth – when it is in contact with my tongue. It doesn’t have taste or flavor sitting in my dried, only the potential. Similarly, the walls in my kitchen are not “white” when I leave the room. They still have paint on them, of course but color only occurs when they interact with my eyes.
Sound waves impinge on the eardrums and pinnae (the fleshy parts of your ear), setting off a chain of mechanical and neurochemical events, the end product of which is an internal mental image we call pitch. If a tree falls in the forest and one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? (The question first posed by the Irish philosopher George Berkeley). Simply, no – sound is a mental image created by the brain in response to vibrating molecules. Similarly, there can be no pitch without a human or animal present. A suitable measuring device can register the frequency made by the tree falling, but truly it not pitch unless and until it is heard.’
From what we can see, the phenomena of sound is an illusion. Much like our mental interpretation of the moving images that make up our films and tv shows. We all know that we’re viewing a succession of photographed images shown at great speed, yet to us, within our minds, within our very ability to suspend our disbelief, we are viewing a moving image. I’ll offer perhaps a simpler explanation that hopefully reinforces Daniel Levitin’s point. Imagine Martians have come down to Earth and experienced the sensation of sound. Perhaps to them, for arguments sake, it would be the same way that we interpret heat except their bodies/minds would interpret the information known as ‘sound waves’ as the same feelings we feel when we touch things. Perhaps when a sound was quiet, they would feel colder. Perhaps within this train thought, when a sound was louder, they would feel hotter. A pleasant sound may feel smooth whilst a horrid sound may feel rough.
This shows us that the phenomena of hearing is really just a way of our brains interpreting the sound waves around us and our process of hearing is not a literal representation of that information whatsoever. Our minds simply offer a perception of the world around us. They don’t show ‘the real thing’ – they show an illusion, a very useful ‘magic trick’.
‘This out there and this in me, all this, every – thing, the resultant of inexplicable forces. A chaos whose order is beyond comprehension. Beyond human comprehension.’ – Henry Miller