Of Hearing And Perception

Birling Gap wave recording session — no audience was listening

I recently came across my dissertation again and believe it or not, it still can be inspirational reading through your old work and what kind of conclusions one could draw after going through pretty much all the publications about designing sound for linear and interactive media. I have published this on the BOOM Library blog before but as I recently heavily discussed my conclusion (the three layer based hearing model) with my mate Byron, I thought it might be nice to give you another insight.

“One can look at seeing, but one can’t hear hearing” (Marcel Duchamp)

Still one of my favourite quotes, it really was the sentence to guide me through the writing process. And still today I find it fascinating how I can never tell what people are actually listening to, I can do my best to steer their listening towards anything I create but I can never be sure they are actually hearing it..

My dissertation, titled ‚The Audience Is Listening — Of Hearing And Perception‘, started off with an examination of the term ‚audience‘, explaining its importance in the paper. After taking a closer look at the anatomy of the human ear and the brain‘s processing ability of sounds, research about the historical development of the sonical perception and human hearing habits were presented. Furthermore the transition to the age of the industrial- and electrical revolution were explained as both caused a drastic change to the sound of the world. This led to the everyday soundscape which is today surrounding all western human beings. After that there was a critical view on whether or not an auditive turn will bring an end to the long lasting visual dominance. The second section turned special attention to silence, to its presence in the daily surroundings of human beings and its usage in contemporary media. The third section discussed interactive and linear media. After focusing on specific theories and techniques there was a more practical view using case studies in the third chapter. The final part presented the conclusion and answered the original research question ,what does the audience hear?‘ The conclusion will be the part in this blog post I want to pay special attention to.

What does the audience hear? That’s a question all sound design people should have asked themselves before. It’s always in our interest to deliver the best quality to our clients and subsequently to the audience so it seems like a pretty important question. The most important one if you ask me. When I was working on my dissertation I went through loads of books, various movies and computer games. In the end it took me half a year to come to across a satisfying answer to my main research question (both pleasing me and my tutors). I came up with the idea of the “three layer based hearing model”. Don’t get me wrong, obviously I was inspired by clever people like Chion, Cage, Stockhausen etc, it clearly wasn’t just my own effort.

So how does the three layer based hearing model work and why would I, as a sound designer, turn special attention to it? The first layer is basically ruled by sounds with high volume. So for example if you walk on a street and there’s a car blowing its horn you will hear it immediately and your brain will work out in a millisecond that you should better not cross the street at this very moment. Yeah, you are basically alarmed, and yeah, this is what alarms are for usually. The next layer is a bit more complex as it represents our hearing habits. We grew up with sounds constantly surrounding us, if I had grown up on a farm it would be more likely that I am familiar with the various sounds of the animals, so if a noise like that reaches my ear it would be recognised immediately. (I know the farm example seems a bit weird but I think you will get the idea of hearing habits). The third layer consists of all the other sounds which are constantly surrounding us. “The rest is noise” as John Cage already mentioned, but for my model it’s more than that. Imagine yourself sitting in front of your computer working on a sound design. Suddenly you notice the fan noise of your computer, although it is so low in volume you focused on that sound and you can’t get rid of it until you hear another event which draws your attention.

So the three layer based hearing model is like an endless (vicious) circle which starts over and over again. You can’t think of it as a slow process, hearing happens ridiculously fast. So just an example to sum this up once more: I’m in Central London — I hear a car horn — my brain works it out — I focus on other car sounds next as I grew up surrounded by cars and I think to myself how awesome it would be to record that nice Porsche over there — next thing I notice is this really annoying pneumatic drill cracking up the street, which was in my soundscape before but has just been noticed and bloody doesn’t want to leave until the next sound event gets my attention.

Although the above example is a very simple one you should get the idea, the question is, how that can help me designing sound for my clients? It does indeed help if you try to pay a little attention to the three layers when working on a sound layout for both interactive and linear media. Now, after reading this, you have a slight idea what the audience can and will hear. They hear a selection of dynamic sound signals which, depending on subjective hearing habits of the hearing individual, will be sent to the foreground and therefore will be actively received.

„Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.“ (John Cage)

(I love overusing this quote!)