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The Ears Have It

Article from Making Music, January 1987

First, a little test. How many EARS do you have, and how many MOUTHS? Here's some music while you work it out. Tum-te-tum-te-tum-tum-tum, tiddle-iddle-iddle-thwacka-tum-tiddle-tum, diddle-iddle-dum...

Ah good. Two ears! That's right. And one mouth! Excellent. And what do we conclude from God's particular distribution thereof? Correct — it is more important to listen than to speak.

If you listen and react to fellow group members as you play, your own performance and thereby that of the whole group will improve. Listen to the entire effect rather than your own contribution during a studio playback, and your evaluation will be more useful. Listen with greater care and attention to a wider variety of music, and your own compositions and playing will be based on firmer ground. Play by ear, in fact, while keeping the other to the ground.

Your ears are transducers. Pardon? A transducer converts one form of energy into another: an ear very efficiently converts vibrations in the outside air into nerve impulses for the brain. These vibrations — 'sound' as we like to call them — travel through various parts of the ear inside the head before the brain registers 'Freddie Mercury with a slight cold' or 'my guitar is well out of tune this morning'.

Let us briefly follow a typical journey that our brave outside vibrations will make.

Choose one of your ears as an example, but bear in mind the rumour that the right ear is best for dealing with speech, the left better at music (supposedly to do with their separate routes through the brain). And that when your ears burn because someone's talking about you, this is actually due to your guardian angel touching it — the haloed one will finger the right ear if the talk is favourable, the left if not. And, of course, STEREO needs two ears (though Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys managed some pretty good tracks with only the left ear fully functional).

But we were busy vibrating the air near one of your ears with some sound, remember? So what happens next? The funny shaped bit of skin and bone on the outside of your head directs the vibrations toward that little hole, which goes a couple of inches into the head. It's a mere 8mm in diameter, and is lined with skin that secretes ear wax and has lots of tiny hairs to deter visiting earwigs.

At the far end of the hole is the ear drum — imagine a tiny drum head stretched over the opening. Behind the drum is not the drummer but the middle ear, where three really small bones form a chain between the drum and the 'inner ear', transmitting our famous vibrations onward. This transmission is aided by the Eustachian tube, which rather usefully equalises the air pressure in the two parts of the ear. You can hear the tube at work when you swallow — hear that clicking noise? The inner ear contains the all-important hearing gadget, called the cochlea (Greek for snail, which it apparently resembles), and here it is that our by now weary vibrations are translated into brainspeak.

On good form, the ear can pick up a very wide range of frequencies from your mate thrashing away at the DX27. In theory the ear's working range is usually quoted as 20Hz (lowly bass end stuff) to 20kHz (wispy pingy cymbally stuff), often referred to as full bandwidth. But in practice it can be a good deal narrower than this, depending on how many Iron Maiden gigs you've been to. Very young kids have been known to hear up to 24k, but they waste this listening to the tape hiss on nappy ad jingles.

The most sensitive range of the ear is from 1 to 4kHz, which is worth bearing in mind when you wield the EQ knobs — remember that the human voice sits between 500Hz and 4k (or 8k if you're Aled Jones). Keyboard players will be well aware that the ear is less SENSITIVE at the frequency extremes: the highest and lowest keyboard notes can sound less 'apart' in pitch than the middle ones; some piano tuners, reportedly fed up with our ears' inefficiency down the bottom end, don't even bother tuning the lowest notes. And the higher a note is, the easier the ear can pinpoint its position in space.

Anyway, before we go, prick up your ears to a bloke called William Shakespeare, whose TV play "King Lear" featured these notable lines: "A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears."

Still, what's the point of telling you lot all these jolly useful facts and stories? It's in one ear and out the other.

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Publisher: Making Music - Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.

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Making Music - Jan 1987


Previous article in this issue:

> Torch Baring

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> Skill Centre

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