Enjoy the Music.com
The Absolute Sound
Issue 224   July / August 2012
Hearing Vs. Seeing
Editorial By Allen Taffel


TAS Issue 224 July / August 2012  For many years I have wondered why people treat hearing so differently than seeing. "Trust your eyes" is a common expression, but there is no "Trust your ears" equivalent (at least, outside audiophilia). Why, I have puzzled, should this be so?

Compared to ears, our eyes are rather weak instruments. They are not good at discriminating between fine variations in shade. They are dependent upon adequate light. A huge portion of people require corrective apparatus, even at a young age. On the other hand, ears are highly sensitive and are particularly adept at discriminating extremely small differences in pitch and timing. Indeed, our ability to localize sound sources is based on the latter.

Yet the vast majority of people trust their eyes over their ears. They are confident that they can discern the difference between light and dark blue, but express skepticism that they’ll be able to draw a distinction between bright and dull sound, or between open and compressed dynamics. Even sound engineers who organize listening tests to, for instance, fine-tune a speaker feel that they must have a "panel" rather than an individual, and in many cases test over several days to take into account changing listener mood.

The question is not why people should be confident about their vision; after all, most of us are able to discern light blue from darker shades, and that ability does not vary from day to day. The question is why these same people should so universally lack the equivalent confidence in discriminating between audio differences. On that point, I have a theory.

Colors do not trigger emotions, except in the most abstract sense. When I look around my living room, the brown chair does not make me feel any different than the tan chair. Some experts have determined that different color rooms affect our mood; but this is an unconscious response (we’re not overtly aware of it) that manifests itself over time. If that were not the case, we would not have needed experts to point it out. True, when color is organized for the purpose of expressivity, as in art, then it does convey emotion. But this is not how we see colors in our everyday lives.

Notes are the musical analogy to colors. But notes are rarely heard individually. They are typically strung together to create everything from sirens to music. And those strings of notes, as in these examples, are inherently emotional. Nor is this emotion analogous to the effect of room colors; musical emotion is conscious (you know it’s happening), immediate, and direct.

So we have one medium where emotions are rarely the result of exposure, and another where they are a common result. This fact, I believe, has given hearing the reputation of being as ephemeral as emotions — of being interpretive and subject to factors like mood. Hearing is considered so unreliable that many believe double-blind tests are required to obtain trustworthy results.

The fallacy here, of course, is that people are ascribing to their ears characteristics that only apply to the entire ear-brain mechanism. It is like saying our eyes are not accurate because we see works of art differently each time we look. In other words, just because hearing music and other note combinations is often an emotional experience does not mean that our ears themselves are emotional. They are, in fact, every bit as objective as our eyes.

I have never noticed a CD player that sounded bright to me one day sound dull the next. I have never heard an amp change its coloration based on my mood. And it doesn’t take a listening panel to determine that a speaker’s dynamics are compressed. Now, different people will react differently to these characteristics. Some can’t stand a bright sound, while others may even prefer it. But the point is that the sound remains bright either way.

Music moves us, and it does so in different ways at different times. But before that happens, pure sonics enter our ears. Those sonics register with consistent and impressive precision. Confusing these two phenomena has given hearing a bad rep. But disentangling that confusion can help us understand why you really can trust your ears.  


--- Alan Taffel



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