The Sound World…

The orchestra gave a musical tour-de-force responding to the virtuoso’s composition, working its way straight into the hearts of the large and appreciative gathering that responded, at the end of it all, with a thunderous ovation. The venue was the Karntnertor theatre in Vienna on 7th May 1824 and the occasion was the grand premiere of the maestro’s ninth symphony. Yet Beethoven himself, by then almost stone deaf, was least aware that his performance generated such enthusiasm and tremendous acclaim until he turned around to take a look at the audience in state of high decibel raptures.

Sight and sound, without doubt, constitute the main pillars on which our perceptions of the world around are constructed. What if one of these faculties is suddenly waning, that it starts becoming a handicap and nagging constraint in the hurly-burly of day-to-day living? The subject at issue here is impaired hearing, which I have been experiencing since quite a few years but did not bother to check out till it exacerbated to a stage of becoming an embarrassment in official meetings and social fora, where I started cutting sorry figures by not being able to make out anything spoken in a low tone; for some time I was managing to cover my deficiency by looking at the speaker’s facial expressions, interpreting it and responding based on guesses, which in some cases worked out but misfired rather awkwardly in several other situations. Thereafter it was a prolonged debate within myself, as to whether I should go for a check up to get the problem sorted out or not.The apprehension being, what if the doctor prescribed a hearing aid, as, over the years, I had seen a few deficient folks with hearing aids sticking out behind their ear lobes like snails in eternal rest. I was, with all the grey hair on my pate, already looking more than my age, after having decided, some years ago, to relinquish the cosmetic effort involved in colouring it at regular monthly intervals to afford, whatever remained of my youthful looks, an extended lease of life. So here I was, faced with the daunting prospect of putting on one if the doctor so instructed. To be or not to be, with the contraption fitted on that impaired part of my anatomy discharging the auditory function, I soliloquised in the manner of a modern day prince of Denmark. My dilemma was allayed by my doctor sister and another relative, also of the medical fraternity, reassuring me of technology having advanced enough to offer minute and light hearing devices capable of being digitally configured, which could be fixed neatly concealed behind the ear lobes, without attracting anyone’s attention.

What followed was the mandatory visit to the ENT, who in turn referred me to the audiologist; there was a detailed examination lasting several hours during which I was briefed on the structure of human ear as consisting of outer, middle and inner portions and the purpose of each cumulatively accomplishing the function of sensing sound waves, which are actually changes in air pressure, and converting these changes into electrical signals that the brain can analyse and interpret. In my case, the outer and middle ear remained intact whereas the inner portions in both ears, consisting of extremely tiny sensory receptors called hair cells, that turn air pressure changes into neural signals for relaying to the brain, were non-functional. No restoration was possible as the thousands of hair cells in the inner ear constituted a highly intricate network into which medical research was still on. Damaged hair cells being a non-renewable resource, my only option was to go in for hearing aids. Based on the audiologist’s analysis, trial equipment was fitted in both ears enabling me to suddenly hear a variety of sounds in the surroundings which hitherto remained well beyond my audio range. In a flash, the difficulties I had been experiencing in sustaining a conversation with family members, my insistence on keeping the TV volume at high levels, awkwardness in the form of compulsion for louder repetitions of inaudible snatches of conversation of friends and relatives in social settings and staffers and colleagues in the office, the loud tone in which I used to hold forth with others, without perceiving the irritation I was causing, started dawning on me with realisation that the medical recourse I was into now could have been taken earlier. The session eventually got over upon my ordering the equipment costing little over rupees 152 K accompanied by warning from the doctor to use the device regularly, failing which my already impaired hearing would deteriorate further. Thus, like the spectacles, the hearing aid has now become integral part of my accessory.

Our lives are supported by many faculties which we often take for granted without even realising its value until we are on the verge of losing them. The legendary stories of Helen Keller, who was deaf-blind, the genius of Milton and Beethoven that virtually flowered, even after respective visual and audio challenged stages of their lives , shine forth as brilliant examples of resilience and determination of human spirit. Gradual deterioration or loss of a specific faculty is known to heighten the remaining senses to such ranges, as to not only compensate for but also enhance the creative flair in poets, musicians and artists. What readily comes to mind is the story of the talented but hearing impaired British solo percussionist and composer, of the last century, by name Evelyn Glennie, who could play captivating rhythms on a variety of percussion instruments. Beethoven and Glennie, making music they could not hear, inspire awe and wonder at the extent to which human faculties can stretch to overcome seemingly impossible limitations. In this connection, research has postulated that music can be ‘heard’ and ‘experienced’ much beyond the normal sense of hearing. A musical genius well versed in pitch and scale can indeed listen to and create great music even in the absence of the sense of physical hearing. He or she can hear music so clearly in the mind that there is hardly any difference between the physical sound and the goings on in the mind. For a talented musician, the internal listening to music transcends the common physical experience. Such individuals can literally read and write a score as most people would a novel, and experience music in their minds. There is the anecdote of a famous pianist who, while reading a musical score in the library, experienced it so intensely that he spontaneously broke into a loud applause upon completion of his perusal. Yet another example is that of a famous composer in contemporary Indian cinema, who composes by writing out the background musical score by just viewing the visuals in the studio without the aid of even a single instrument; the entire score is written and simply handed over to the orchestra for re-recording. For Beethoven, the benefit of his deafness was that it forced him inwards to tune in to his other stimuli. The quartets of Beethoven, composed during last few years of his life stand out for its style and complexity, which may not have occurred had he not been deaf, according to authoritative opinion, as they are not merely introspective but very complex, contrapuntal and clearly indicative of someone reflecting in his own mind about sound in all its nuances.

Impaired hearing is known to heighten the tactile sense whereby deaf people develop the faculty of feeling music from vibrations. It is reported that there are deaf people who can dance beautifully based on feeling musical sounds and rhythms from vibrations. It is evidenced in schools for the deaf in the USA, where dancers perform based on vibrations picked up from stereo speakers positioned down to the floor. A normal person walking in will never know that the dancers are deaf.

Scanning the fields of horticulture, science, astronomy and aero-space, we have several glorious examples of audio challenged people such as Raymond Atwood, who has made important contributions in vitamins and antibiotics, Thomas Meehan for his work in horticulture and who was an associate of Charles Darwin, Annie Jump Cannon who made her mark in astronomy by classifying over hundred thousand stars, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky through his contribution to rocket functioning and the concept of multi-stage rockets.

Wherever communities of deaf and dumb people exist, sign languages develop. Interestingly, these languages use space for grammar in a way that spoken languages do not. There is, however, no such thing as an international sign language, as it varies from country to country, save for few similarities. According to 2013 edition of Ethnologue, there are 137 sign languages extant worldwide.

The partial loss of hearing in my case, medically defined as presbycusis or hearing deterioration naturally occurring with age, can also be hastened due to elevated noise levels in the environment and hereditary factors. High levels of noise pose as much a general health risk to humans as it is a threat to marine and terrestrial eco systems.

To revert to the aspect of inner listening, creative articulation of the concept of internal listening to music or hearing an entire musical composition in the mind, without the option of physical sense of hearing, may be observed in Keats “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”. A melody that is imagined and anticipated, is invariably in tune and played perfectly, as the scope for any error or an imperfect note can only be in its physical execution at the auditory level. Thus there is perfect fulfilment and contentment in imagining as compared to actual performance in the real world. Similar thinking probably had its precedence in Plato who believed that all material objects in worldly life are like shadows on the wall; just as shadows are caused by the flame behind true images, we and all objects around us are imperfect copies of a perfect world that can, as things stand, only exist in imagination of the cosmic mind. All scientific inventions, art, music and literature are more beautiful and enjoyable in the mind in its pristine conception and consummation than in its physical reality that is bound by constraints of human deficiencies and all conceivable resource limitations.

Sudden or gradual loss of faculties, therefore, needs to be seen in the grand perspective of precision and equilibrium of the universe with its ineffable beauty, like luminous stars in the darkest of nights or the diminution and augmentation in a musical score that makes for a pleasurable listening experience. Apparent loss or deficiency or misfortune in perceived reality lies more than perfectly compensated or even enhanced in the sum total of other positives; no one wants to know what finally befell on Keatsian Porphyro and Madeline, as the consummation of their love remains suspended in eternity, and to finish the story would be to defile an imaginatively perfect conclusion with the dry-as-dust reality that cannot possibly match the picture-perfection in our minds. The same goes for the nightingale and its song, and images of lovers and musicians embossed on the Grecian urn, enabling our escape on the “wings of poesy” from “the drowsy numbness” of the real world of imperfections, frailties and finity. So my imperfect physical hearing let it be, as long as life sustains a carefully cultured mind to experience the tonal delights of the forever perfect and eternally sweeter “unheard melodies”.

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12 thoughts on “The Sound World…

  1. Great essay, I like how you’ve used examples of composers to show how creative forces work around the senses, and that all of them are not required to assimilate information from the environment.

    When you say:
    ““…Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”. A melody that is imagined and anticipated, is invariably in tune and played perfectly, as the scope for any error or an imperfect note can only be in its physical execution at the auditory level. Thus there is perfect fulfilment and contentment in imagining as compared to actual performance in the real world. Similar thinking probably had its precedence in Plato who believed that all material objects in worldly life are like shadows on the wall; just as shadows are caused by the flame behind true images, we and all objects around us are imperfect copies of a perfect world that can, as things stand, only exist in imagination of the cosmic mind.”

    I couldn’t agree more. What may be alluded here is “perception”, and it comes though different channels. “The special senses” are:
    Taste- taste buds
    Smell- Olfactory Epithelium
    Hearing- inner ear
    Sight- eye

    There are still discrepancies as to how many there are, the reason for this being that in medicine and anatomy, the “special senses” are the senses that have specialized organs devoted to them. The distinction between “special” and “general” senses is used to classify nerve fibres running to and from the central nervous system – information from special senses is carried in special somatic afferents and special visceral afferents. In contrast, the other sense, “touch”, is a somatic sense which does not have a specialized organ but comes from all over the body, most noticeably the skin (the peripheral nervous system) but also the internal organs (viscera). Touch includes mechanoreception (pressure, vibration and proprioception), pain (nociception) and heat (thermoception), and such information is carried in general somatic afferents and general visceral afferents. Balance (the ear, which includes the auditory system and vestibular system) is the other one that sometimes is not considered, because it functions independently from hearing. You can actually hear well, but have “poor” balance.

    So both touch and balance do not have “specialized” organs devoted to them, although poor “balance (equilibrium)” does have a connection with the CNS, mainly the cerebellum, it can also be related to the semi-circular channels in the inner ear. Since this is a known fact, now “balance” is included in more modern medical terminology:

    Taste- taste buds
    Smell- Olfactory Epithelium
    Equilibrium- inner ear
    Hearing- inner ear
    Sight- eye

    So now, they are actually 5, but “touch” is still left out, because it’s “somatosensorial”, and it doesn’t process through the CNS.

    But when you test a newborn or even an adult with brain injury, you actually look for the whole 6 senses, regardless of whether they are the “special” senses or not, because both equilibrium and touch do become affected with physical trauma. Even “normal” newborns come to this world with absolutely no skills to use these senses, even when their specialized organs are anatomically intact. The brain must be “nourished” with “sensory” material in order for the newborn’s brain to develop normally. Lack of “sensorial” stimuli and nourishment has proven to lead to “neurologically” immature infants, and later on to other difficulties.

    According to Buddhism, even “perception” has inherent difficulties of its own. The “precepts” that begin to guide us in this or that direction, leads me to question how is that one finally “filters” all this sensorial input, and put it to “good” use? The growing child must have all of his/her senses nurtured thoroughly, so as an adult, he/she will be “mature” (neurologically speaking). I have found that “training” or “acommodating” the senses is what works the best for me. When I cannot read, I listen (to audio books or podcasts), when I cannot listen, I observe (I put earplugs in and try to use my eyesight only), when I need touch, I caress a person, pet, or flower. Isolating the senses helps me to refine them.

    The problem comes when all them start working together. Why problem? Because the issue of “multitasking” comes with the price for being taken at face value. In order to “multitask”, I have to use all of my senses simultaneously. Multitasking is a virtue, a talent highly priced in society now these days. When I multitask to do something, I take the risk of not concentrating well enough, so I have to take it at face value that what I did was right or wrong, as opposed to when I do one thing at a time. Multitasking is something I know is a skill that must be refined in order to deal with emergencies, for example, or complex working situations. Nevertheless, the practice of “mindfulness” has helped me tremendously, even in situations where multitasking is simply inevitable. Mindfulness acts as a “filter”, and lets me decide, or at least anticipate what is worth “letting in”, and what is worth “letting go”.

  2. Raj,
    Your writing as always is of the highest quality. Your perceptions on the value of sound are astute. That Beethoven created some of his best symphonies when he was almost completely deaf still gives me chills to think about – what genius! I thank you for being honest about your hearing loss as many people do fail to accept it with older age (I can think of someone doing just that right now!). It is not a sign of weakness to get a hearing aid but instead a sign that you want to hear more about your world around you!! I thank you for such a wonderful post, my friend.

  3. I am very glad that you got to the specialists Raj and managed to get some good hearing back. Isn’t it strange how people resist hearing aids and yet are happy to have glasses? I always find this strange. My own Dad had hearing aids from when I was young – back when they were long wires with boxes, then onto the ones behind the ear. Sadly he has not lived to see these sweet little ones which now are barely visible. What a wonder these technological advances are in restoring our senses so that we can hear our loved ones and beautiful music. It’s been lovely to visit you today and I’m wishing you well. Ruth 🙂

  4. Raj such a very interesting post.. Music to my ears in fact..We are all of us Vibration.. and Music plays such an important role within all of our lives.. both the outer and inner vibrations of thought also which echoes within its own density of matter.
    Even Mother Earth has her own tone _Frequency.. .. Now is the time we listen well to what sounds the world is uttering.. And make sure we start to tune our instruments into the correct key…

    Loved reading your thoughts here my friend.. a very profound read..
    Blessings
    Sue

  5. Another wonderful post, Raj. Thank you for sharing your story with such honesty and humour- “with hearing aids sticking out behind their ear lobes like snails in eternal rest” is one of the funniest sentences I’ve ever read! 😀 And that Keats quote is SO beautiful. As you know, I totally agree music/sound/vibration is incredibly important, and for me is the way for my soul to express so I can’t imagine a world without it! I always wear ear-plugs at concerts or in loud places and have a huge appreciation for my ears as so much of my daily life involves listening. I realised just a couple of weeks ago how much I took my eyes, and really all my physical senses, for granted though. Some friends and I went to a restaurant called ‘dinner in the dark’. The waiters there are all blind and the idea is for sighted people to gain an experience of what it feels like to be blind by dining in complete darkness. It was quite an intense experience- two of my friends got quite panicky and almost had to leave because they found the darkness so over-whelming and claustrophobic. I found it near-impossible to guess what I was eating as I was so over-come with the myriad of smells around me. I also had real difficulty placing where the girl beside me was when she spoke- everyone else I could locate exactly where they were but for my friend beside me, sometimes she sounded behind me and sometimes it seemed like her voice was coming from the other side of the room! And we all had absolutely no idea of depth-perception. It was such an amazing and humbling experience that gave us all a new level of appreciation for our sight. Thank you for the reminder of how most of us take our senses so much for granted- mine have most definitely been added to my morning gratitude list now! Best wishes, Laura.

    • Thanks very much for your perceptive observations, Laura. I am only too glad if this post, as you say, heightened awareness of your sensory perceptions. I have not had a dinner in the dark, except in few situations where I was momentarily stuck at the dining table when the lights went off in power failure, and the inverter restoring it in a few seconds. But I have dined in a restaurant with an orphaned group of blind men and women more than a decade ago. My wife and a friend of ours were with me; we had invited the group for that dinner; like yours, it was an unforgettable experience, serving as a reminder of how blessed I was, with my treasured gift of sight and other senses still fairly intact..best wishes.

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