Sound, Hearing, and the Brain

Spoiler Alert – this one is a bit dense and philosophical.

How do sound qualities arise?  And how do we hear music as pitch, tone color, harmony, and melody, when nothing like these things actually exist in nature?

Sound waves go through cycles, often countless times per second.  During each cycle the “amplitude” (the wave height) changes from one instant to instant.  The number of cycles per second correlates with the ‘pitch’ that we hear.  But in this conscious phenomenon there is no awareness at all of the loudness changing from instant to instant.  As long as the frequency of the wave holds constant, the sound that we hear prolongs itself constantly through duration in time.

Thus, perceiving a steady pitch at a steady loudness is due to something that in terms of what is going on physically in nature is quite discontinuous.  When the piano plays a Middle C, we do not hear a series of 261 sudden increases in loudness each second.  Nor do we hear 440 sudden increases in loudness when the oboe plays its A above middle C to tune the orchestra.  Something discontinuous, fitful and periodic in nature ends up as something continuous and steady in consciousness.  Only when the vibration rate drops below around 20 cycles per second do we begin to hear the separate puffs of air, but at the price that we no longer hear a pitch.

What if our consciousness could run at a ‘tempo’ that allowed us to hear these individual peaks in loudness?  Seconds would seem to take minutes, and small fractions of seconds would seem like seconds. The result is that the very nature of what we would ‘hear’ would be totally different: discontinuity in time would replace continuity.

This would be the equivalent in time of putting a specimen under a microscope and magnifying it in space.  The greater the magnification, the less the specimen looks as it did to the unaided eye. If we were not told that it was the same object in both cases, we would be hard put to realize its identity.

Conclusion One:

Pitch, the basic substrate of all our musical perception, would disappear, and be replaced with an effect somewhat like a ratchet, or a rapid series of metronome clicks with silence between successive clicks.  Gone would be the very building blocks out of which musical structure is created.

Sound: Instrumental Tone Quality versus a Chord of Pitches

Our experience of instrumental tone color (a clarinet’s sound versus a violin’s sound or versus the sound of a human voice) is, as with pitch, based on a fortunate illusion, a simplification and then recasting of sensations reaching our brain.

When an instrument, like a clarinet, plays what we perceive as a single pitch, a scientific examination of its wave form reveals something that resembles more a ‘chord’ of many pitches than what gives us the perception of a single pitch.

There is no ‘reason’ why, we might hear simply one chord versus another in the different instruments, minus any change in instrumental quality.  After all, chords are part of the normal conscious phenomena that we perceive about sound.  Why do we need something extra when we might content ourselves with just perceiving chords?

When we perceive what we term a chord, most often the various individual pitches in the chord are sounding with approximately the same loudness.  What if the different pitches in a chord all had different loudnesses.  This would add a serious level of complication.  It is this extra layer of complication that the brain “simplifies” for us.  What we hear is not different loudnesses among the different pitches in otherwise similar chords, but simply a different tone quality, or timbre, to the overall sound.  A French horn and a violin playing Middle C produce the same chord of pitches, but the relative loudness of one pitch to another is different.  How impoverished would our perception of sound be if it was bereft of this extra
parameter of tone quality.  Sound would “sound” like shades of grey without any other color.

Part of the ‘illusion’ of tone quality is that we hear one pitch instead of many, and our brain casts the lowest pitch in the chord as the pitch we associate with the note, and as for the rest of the notes in the chord, depending on their mutual loudness, the brain recasts the phenomenon of pitch as the phenomenon of tone quality.

What if our brain had the ability to resolve the single sound of an instrument, at a single pitch, into a chord of many different pitches? The answer is simple.  Gone would be melody and gone would be harmony.

Conclusion number two: This almost deceitful sleight of hand by the brain allows for the richness of musical structure.

P.S. Two other parameters of musical sounds, rhythm and duration, do not depend on sound to be perceivable.  Duration is simply the inner experience of time in consciousness, and needs nothing external to
mark its progress.  And rhythm, which in a way depends on duration, can be taught to a deaf person through a sense other than hearing: touch, for instance.

P.P.S. Of all the arts, music comes closest to being the simple conscious perception of time.

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Ear Training Part 2: Sound is a “quality” and not a measurable “quantity”

A reminder – no prior musical training is needed to begin ear training.

If you have difficulty understanding what I say here about the difference between a ‘quality’ and a ‘quantity’, it is only because almost always substitute in our mind a quantity for a quality.  We think we’re dealing with a quality about something, but we have already substituted something countable, quantitative, about it.

Sound, as we hear it, as it occurs in our consciousness, is a quality.  By this I mean that it is like a perfume, which impresses us directly with its scent, without our having or needing any extra information as to the chemical makeup of the molecules bearing us the fragrance.  A quality can be experienced, but not explained.  Quality is something that we can grasp instantaneously – unless of course one is willing to lose the immediacy of the conscious experience of that quality, in which case we often substitute for the quality an idea about the quality.  This is no longer a quality but a form of an intellectual idea.  As an idea we can analyze at will, and for as long as we want.


Ear Training is most successful when you work with qualities; when you use your fast, intuitive faculty, possessed by all of us, to directly perceive and recognize the quality of the sound.  It does not help our ability at ear training to change or convert the feeling of the sound to quantities which we can measure, counted, or analyze.  Sensing the quality of a sound is as easy as knowing when you are smelling a rose, and not some other flower.  We can even use the word “smell” with sounds.  You ‘sniff’ or ‘smell’  the quality of a sound or a group of sounds.  Being able to tell the difference in the quality of a ‘major chord’ from that of a ‘minor chord’ is no different smelling the difference between a rose and a lilac.

An example:

As an example of the difference between quality and quantity, consider two “notes” sounding together at the same time.  We can use the intellectual term of “interval” to mean the relationship between those two sounds.  But this name is irrelevant to our experience of it as a sound.  Each so-called ‘interval’ has a characteristic sound-quality, different than any other ‘interval.’   It is best if we don’t think of words at all.  It is best if we avoid the temptation to convert quality into quantity.  We should avoid the temptation of thinking that there is a distance between the two notes, which distance we can measure, with some sort of “musical ruler”; a ruler that instead of counting inches counts something called “Half Steps”).    If we leave the sound of the two notes as a quality to be enjoyed in our consciousness, enjoyed as a certain shade or coloring among the sound(s), then we need only give the name that we have learned to associate with that sound-quality, for instance a ‘third’, or a ‘fourth’, or if we prefer a ‘shlumff’ or a ‘flibbertigibbet’.  The names are important only if you are communicating with someone else: you have to agree about you terminology.  But otherwise, you can give any name, you want to give, to a quality of how sounds mix together.

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Ear Training Part one

The next series of Blog entries will have to do with the subject of “Ear Training”.  Here are the topics of the first three in the series.

-Why ear training?  And who can benefit from it.

-Sound is a quality and not a measurable quantity.

-How to work together with a friend on ear training.


Ask any student or performer if she or he listens to what he plays.  The answer, usually given without much pause for reflection, is most often yes.

Yet the ability to hear clearly while playing, and to understand what one is hearing, sets a good player apart from others.  The distinguishing factor in the playing of the finest artists is not so much a matter of their technique, but of their ability to listen completely and objectively to the sounds they are creating.  In the hands of a master, technical matters are brought under the control of the ear.  It should surprise most musicians to learn that they do not really listen when they play, and that furthermore, they are unable to do so because they lack the basic know-how involved in listening to and recognizing the qualities that make up sounds.  Being a good musician means having a mastery over the medium in which music exists: sound. When possessed of such mastery, one can mold this medium as one wills.  Becoming better at Ear Training means reaching towards mastery over the phenomenon of sound in its many forms and combinations.


-The general population, those without any prior musical training, to foster “sound literacy”.

-Non-musicians who want to understand what sound is all about and how sounds interrelate in the most abstract and general ways.

-Musicians, of all descriptions, at all levels, to enable them to gain secure mastery over their medium – “sound”.

-Young children, so that they grow up understanding what they hear in their environment.

No prior training is needed to begin ear training.

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