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How We Listen To Music

April 2, 2008

A couple of years ago, while attending the NEA/Columbia Arts Journalism and Opera Institute in New York, a professor from NYU gave a lecture about how we listen to music. The lecture was mind-expanding though infuriating. The session basically consisted of the guy asking the same question -- "how do you listen to music?" -- over and over again. No one, including him, was able to answer the question in a satisfactory way. "With our ears?" was about as close as anyone got, to which the professor replied, "yes, but how?"

My own pretentious attempt to respond to the question -- something to do with hearing sound in terms of layers of melody and rhythm -- was deservedly scoffed at and instantly dismissed.

I've given the question thought on and off since then, without making much progress. But while watching Thomas Riedelsheimer's 2004 documentary about the Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, Touch the Sound, a couple of days ago, I realized that maybe Glennie might be in a better position to answer the question than many other people.

As a profoundly deaf musician, Glennie often encounters the question, "how can you hear music if you're deaf?" Glennie sees this line of thinking as an affront. In the documentary, she's adamant that she hears music -- with her entire body. What if we all hear music with our entire bodies and not just our ears? Perhaps ears are only part of the equation.

This thought lept out at me as I watched Touch the Sound, a film which in most other respects doesn't provide any particularly interesting insights into the nature of sound or Glennie's life and work. Riedelsheimer's previous documentary -- Rivers & Tides -- about the envrironmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, was much more intriguing. The documentarian's languorous, intuitive approach works much better I think for capturing the life of a visual artist than it does a musician. I found myself getting impatient with Touch the Sound. Romantic, endlessly lingering shots of Glennie thwacking a snare drum in the middle of a train station or burbling on a vibraphone in a disused warehouse reminded me of an 80s pop video. Rather than connecting me with her sound, the documentary estranged me from it.

Follow up:

Thanks to Jonathan Mayes of The Barbican Centre in London for forwarding a link to a fascinating essay on Glennie's website about how the percussionist hears music. From the essay:

A common and ill informed question from interviewers is 'How can you be a musician when you can't hear what you are doing?' The answer is of course that I couldn't be a musician if I were not able to hear. Another often asked question is 'How do you hear what you are playing?' The logical answer to this is; how does anyone hear?. An electrical signal is generated in the ear and various bits of other information from our other senses all get sent to the brain which then processes the data to create a sound picture. The various processes involved in hearing a sound are very complex but we all do it subconsciously so we group all these processes together and call it simply listening. The same is true for me. Some of the processes or original information may be different but to hear sound all I do is to listen. I have no more idea of how I hear than you do.

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