Sound Or Sight?

A sense comparison by Alex McIntyre

Sound Or Sight?: A Critique On The Importance Of Human Hearing

When asked which sense you couldn't live without; your sight or your hearing, most would find it difficult to choose but I think itʼs safe to say that, over all, most would pick sight. The smiling faces of your loved ones, the soft glow of your smart phones, witnessing a double rainbow for the first time.

Vision helps us to navigate our surroundings, we find things aesthetically pleasing and it helps us to deepen our admiration of others. But I would argue that our hearing is just as, if not more important to our interpretation of the world around us. One of the fundamental progressions of human evolution was our ability to formulate and communicate through language.

This brought us closer together as a species and allowed us to develop civilisation and order. Hearing is the reason we can chronicle and trace our history as well as for our ability to create rich narratives or write complex music that can cause listeners to feel a plethora of emotions. Our ears, much like our eyes help us to experience beauty but I feel sound can also provide us with a richer definition of our immediate environment.

Sight is limited to our peripheral vision, where as we can hear from all directions. Our ears can pinpoint the exact direction of a sounds source, we can detect whether sounds are travelling from a great distance or from behind walls, the only things that are affected are the relative volume and frequency content (sounds would be muffled and faint) which again help our brains to interpret and understand what weʼre hearing. This ability allows us to have more of a grasp on our surroundings, it helps to make us aware of potential danger beyond our field of vision and can grab our attention when necessary.

Through listening and learning during our development we begin to associate sounds with particular emotions, events or objects. Certain sounds have a universally innate effect within most humans; the noise of a baby shrieking or nails on a blackboard will cause most to have a physical reaction; recoiling with distress.

As sound enters our ear and signals are sent from the cochlea to the brain, they pass through our Limbic system, most importantly the amygdala and the hippocampus which are the parts of the brain that interpret signals into emotions and motivations as well as dealing with the consolidation of both our short and long term memories. So it makes sense that there is great potential for strong emotional reaction to sound and music.

Professor Trevor Cox from the University of Salford surveyed over a million people worldwide regarding their ‘worst soundsʼ and came to the conclusion that sounds of a higher frequency, particular those associated with suffering (crying, vomiting etc) could have a potent psychological effect on us. They trigger a moderate fight-or-flight reaction within our minds because it is instinctual for us to to react when our we think something vulnerable is in danger.

The same theory can be applied to lower frequency content. Our brain equates low-end rumbles with imminent threat as well as sudden spikes in volume (think thunderstorms, animal growls).

Learning these techniques aided our evolution as a species and made us more adaptable. Most likely developing this capability as hunter-gatherers in order to detect the position of stalking predators, this information became an innate part of human brain function over vast periods of time.

Nowadays, the majority of us have much less of a practical use for this but this knowledge can be applied to exploit our minds and emotions in order to scare us. Sound is fundamental to the process of generating fear in audiences of horror films. It is unexpected loudness, twinned with a split-second of silence that causes the jump scare and the sharp, scratchy dissonance of strings that make us squirm with discomfort.

To conclude, Iʼd say that sound, as a whole, can have a deeply resonant and poignant emotional effect on us, both positively and negatively. It can give us subtle hints that our other senses cannot manage and has allowed us to advance our influence on the world, on each other and on our raw human creativity. For me, I would always choose my ears over my eyes. But what about you?

Written by Alex McIntyre - writer for Artisound

Alex McIntyre is a music producer, sound designer and music blogger.

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