The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //

February 22, 2008

Life in Mono

Filed under: Perception — Tags: , , , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 12:32 pm

A few days ago I read this very revealing and intelligent article by Nick Coleman, a music critic who recently lost his sense of hearing in one ear. This left him with a very different and rather disorienting sense of the sounds that he heard. Although Coleman is mostly talking about how he hears human music, there are a few points that he makes that I think have relevance to how we listen to birds.

Coleman describes how, previous to his loss of hearing, music was for him ‘architectural’. That is, he experienced music much as he would experience being inside a building. I suppose this is true for a great many people; I know that when I listen to music I can easily imagine being in certain sorts of place, particularly when I close my eyes. Unlike Coleman, these places are not always buildings, but I still feel immersed in the world as the music surrounds me.

Coleman’s once architectural sense of music was detailed and rich, but since his impairment he only hears music as two-dimensional and flat, like an architectural drawing rather than a building. What’s more significant is that he now feels no emotion when listening to music. What was once his way of ‘containing and then examining emotion’ is now bereft of feeling. There are clearly many benefits to having two ears (and also for that matter two eyes) and the sense of depth that the two different sources of information provide is critical, something explained by Gregory Bateson in his magnificent book Mind and Nature. But what’s at first surprising is that this loss of depth, the loss of his architectural sense of music, also caused Coleman to lose any sense of emotion or feeling in music.

Interestingly, the only occasion since his loss in which music has provoked emotion in Coleman was when he watched the memorial service from the Cenotaph on TV. But when he listened to some of the music played at the service on his stereo it was an awful, flat noise once again. Perhaps his response to the service was different because he could see what was taking place and because of his memories of previous services, as Oliver Sacks speculates. Imagination and the familiarity of context provided the depth that was missing through hearing.

What I take from Coleman’s story is the way that music, and perhaps sound more generally, provide us with a feeling of being in the world. And what’s more, the ‘high order’ properties of music tend to heighten those feelings. This, then, has some relevance to why the sound of birds can affect us so much. Hearing birds singing can both heighten our experience of being in the world, and of being somewhere specific. It can also transport us through memory and imagination to other places, times and feelings.

Coleman ends by commenting that he is gradually adapting to the limitations of his hearing. Just as ‘being in the world’ is something we learn to do, it seems that the sense of being that comes through hearing develops and adapts with us.

The University of Aberdeen