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What is Sound?

My favorite definition is that sound is a disturbance of air. Another, more detailed, definition is to say that sound is “the sensation produced in the organs of hearing when certain vibrations (sound waves) are caused in the surrounding air or other elastic medium.” The difference in these definitions is subtle but present. It is the essence of the puzzle:

If a tree falls in the middle of a forest and no one is there, does it make a sound.

I tend to lean towards the idea that sound doesn’t necessarily need to be heard (by a human) to exist, however, for our purposes, we will assume that there is a receiver for the sound wave. And if there is a receiver for the sound wave then we must discuss auditory perception.

As I was working on this blog post yesterday, an interesting phenomenon was developing on the interwebs. In case you missed it (perhaps while under sedation), it involved a recording of the word Laurel on vocabulary.com.  The word was recorded by Jay Aubrey Jones, a Broadway singing artist and actor (one of eight singers vocabulary.com employed to record its catalog). The frevor was caused when high school student, Richard Szabo noticed that a classmate’s assignment was being misheard and uploaded the sound file to Reddit. Most of you know what happened next, some people heard the word Laurel, some heard Yanny and the internet lost its mind. There was a smaller percentage of people who could hear both, more on them in a bit.

By afternoon, there were several articles out explaining how if you isolate the lower frequencies you hear Laurel and if you isolate the higher frequencies you hear Yanny  (The NYT article is fun, find it here). Still, there was that irritating group of people that could hear both and could also isolate one or the other at will. Who are these people? Weirder still, could you convince yourself that you hear Yanny while you are hearing Laurel and make it change? For some people the answer is yes.

In a previous post titled That can’t be my Voice: Perception and Truth about Sound, I explained why the voice we hear as we speak isn’t the voice others hear in the room. That is complicated enough but, as our friend Laurel proved yesterday, what people hear within a room can also be different even when the sound is coming from the same source. Again, auditory perception.  So what is it?

Auditory perception: The ability to identify, interpret, and attach meaning to sound.(from medicine.net)

In other words, the ear drum:

  1. Receives the information (sound).
  2. The information is transmitted via a relay system to the thalamus, the part of the brain which processes all sensory signals, and sent them on to the auditory cortex.
  3. The information is manipulated in the auditory cortex for transfer to the brain in a form that allows you to interact with it.

Yup.  The third step in this process is information manipulation.  Our ability to hear something and develop a context for what we heard depends on our individual cognitive processes and our past experience with the sound.  It is why we recognize certain voices or types of music and attach a feeling to that.  Prior knowledge gives us a basis for attaching meaning to the sound.  That basis can have communal regularity but there can also be variance in your individual hearing even when what you are hearing is not in dispute.  In other words, we could both like and listen to U2 but Bono may sound slightly different to each of us.

All of this highlights the importance of interacting with lots of different sounds in order to develop a better library for hearing.  For some people, this is incredibly challenging especially if there are auditory processing issues in their individual physiology.  Still, I believe it well worth the work.  Remember those people, the ones who heard both Laurel and Yanny?  Most of them were trained listeners, 90% of my tiny polling model (100 people) were trained musicians.  So here is my challenge for you.  Listen to a style of music you rarely encounter, even if (especially if) you think you hate it.  Listen for 15-20 minutes without letting yourself verbally reinforce any bias you have about the music, then come back to it in a week or so and see what, if anything, has changed.  Brain plasticity is such an awesome thing, go have fun.

Gina Razón is the principal voice specialist at GROW Voice LLC, a full-service voice and speech studio in Boston’s Back Bay.  She has over 16 years of experience both as a teacher of voice and speech, and a voraciously curious voice user.  Gina has worked professionally as a classical singer for over a decade and more recently as professional public speaker.  For more information on the studio or to book Gina visit www.growvoice.com.