Learning to hear

(Reader of the Internets) #1

There’s a book review in the New Yorker which talks about Franz Boas, the father of cultural anthropology. Among other things, it mentions this:

Boas was trained as a physicist. His student work was in psychophysics, the science that measures things like sensory thresholds, and his dissertation was an effort to determine the degree to which light must increase in intensity for people to perceive a change in the color of water. This might seem an utterly sterile topic for research, but Boas reached an unorthodox conclusion: it depends. Our perception of color is a function of circumstances. Different observers have different perceptions depending on their expectations and experiences, and those differences are not innate. They are, consciously or unconsciously, learned. It made no sense, Boas decided, to talk about a general law of sensory thresholds.

It made me think again about the “rules” for improving sound. The most important, everyone says, is good data (pristine lossless tracks), followed by speakers, followed by room correction, etc. But perhaps we don’t put enough emphasis on learning to hear – critical listening.

(Chris ) #2

Interesting, I have learned a lot by exposing myself to great live music and my feeble attempts to master the acoustic guitar over many years. I suppose I have my own expectations that are my measure of quality.
The problem is, and there always is one, that I am very fussy of the sound in live music venues. If I audition an artist for a possible gig, I have to listen past the PA they are using and listen for qualities that will stand out in our particular venue and it’s very good sound system. A tough job, but someone has to do it…


About those souls who acquire over-hyped new equipment and become privy to previously unattainable degrees of sonic orgasms, I have always believed its that with new equipment one is, at first, totally in the moment trying to decide whether the new addition was worth it.

All things are improved by living in the present, by being attentive, by learning to hear… Unfortunately the supposed delta between old and new is quickly habituated away and one is left only with an artificial memory of any improvement.

(Ralph Pantuso) #4

AKA “expectation bias”

However having golden ears completely prevents expectation bias. :ear:

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No, it’s more than that.

It’s living in the moment, which is a different thing.

Anything will be better with total attention, expectations not necessarily a factor.

Sorry, that’s no antidote.

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(Ralph Pantuso) #6

I do understand what you are trying to say since living in the moment usually results in better attention and better focus which often leads to better hearing of inner details, hence the feeling of improved sound.

Correct, that wasn’t meant to be an antidote, it was meant to be a joke :smiley:


Ha, subtle-ness isn’t my strong suit.:smirk:

(Adam Goodfellow) #8

I would be careful about wanting to learn to hear critically unless you have a professional reason to do so. Once learned, you cannot unlearn.

Sometimes ignorance really is bliss - now that I am no longer doing mixing and mastering, there are many times I wish I could ‘unlearn’ and just enjoy the music, instead I remain hyper-attuned to many very subtle mix and mastering flaws that most people just never notice and this can often be a hinderance to fully enjoying otherwise good music :slight_smile:

(Ralph Pantuso) #9

You are a brave man to admit to having done mastering - the loudness warriors may find out :astonished:

(Ged) #10

No! Really? :facepunch:

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(Ged) #11

A lof the music from the past that I love I first heard on what would now be considered as terrible equipment. Transistor radio with a mono earpiece, dansette record deck, portable radio cassette etc.
Too much emphasis on hearing and too little on listening and feeling IMHO.

(Scott G) #12

Amen to that brother! I like getting new stereo gear as much as the next guy, and a certain amount of careful listening should be part of the mix. But the first and most important cut is whether or not your toes are tapping. If that’s not happening, it’s not the right equipment and I honestly don’t know how to quantify that. But when I bought my current speakers I also listened to Wilson and Magico. No love. Put on the Rockports and the excitement started.
Months later when I had a friend over for listening (and lots of beer) he looked at me after about 20 minutes and said “Your speakers sound happy”, with a big grin on his face.
Much talk about AB testing, lifting veils, and other technospeak. It has a place in audiophilia. But feeling and emotion is where it’s at, and will differ from person to person.

(Adam Goodfellow) #13

Completely agree with this - I have never been that much of a genres specific listener even if most of what I like probably tends to come under EDM, especially classic house era. The thing I go for is really quite simple - an utterly irresistible groove along with some talented musicianship and good production - but mostly something you just cant help but be moved by :slight_smile:

(Mark) #14

Great thread chaps, I don’t have anything to add as I am in agreement but keep it going it’s a good read (especially digs at @Slim_Fishguttz about his un-subtle-ness :grin:)

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(James) #15

As a classically trained singer (and therefore listener) in my youth, I find it possible to step in and out of enjoyment vs analytical mode. Personally, I find that I only switch into analytical mode when something’s not quite right, which gets in the way of my enjoyment, or throws me out of the suspension of disbelief of the recording, and then my brain instinctively tries to narrow down what about the sound isn’t convincing.

For me the endgame is completely about the emotional journey of the music, for others it seems they enjoy analysing everything and hearing minute details they haven’t heard before. Fortunately our hobby seems to cater for both tastes!

I have a great system, which would allow me to analyse everything if I wanted, however I selected it carefully over the years to be enjoyable above all, at eventually great expense. The other night at a friend’s house, though, I had goosebumps listening to Gigli singing Quanto è bella reproduced through a single tiny B&O Beoplay A1 speaker plonked on a wooden table. When the artistry is that fine and the emotion so captivating, it’s not the equipment which matters.


Just stumbled across this -

(Ged) #17

Harman Kardan put software together to train the listener