Issue 224 July / August 2012
Hearing Vs. Seeing
Editorial By Allen Taffel
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
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
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
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.
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