Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Sound vs. Sight

Roger Bourland posits, "Music has to be SEEN nowadays, and not just heard." He is understandably frustrated that people more readily click on YouTube video clips than mp3 examples. I also find myself discouraged by our increasingly visual culture.
While there is nothing wrong with visual arts, there does seem to be an unfair emphasis on the visual over the aural. I assert to my music appreciation students that while they are good hearers, they are not necessarily good listeners. Hearing is a sense, but listening is a cultivated skill. A parallel might be made between looking vs. seeing. With the increasing amount of input in today's world, I think listening and seeing are both falling by the wayside (bedfellows with critical thinking). However, a typical non-music major, when given the option between the two, will chose seeing over listening. I would also submit, that when an aural element is paired with a visual element, it is usually the former that gets short-changed. It is easier for most people to focus on the visual element and put the aural in the background. Perhaps this is because the aural (in particular music) is so often the background of our daily existence.
There have been many times I have had to close my eyes to remove a visual distraction in order to focus fully on my listening. I often have my students close their eyes (always an interesting exercise in self-consciousness) and nine times out of ten, they report being able to "hear" better. While I'm not sure wearing earplugs would necessarily enhance the visual experience (at least not immediately), this business of sensory isolation is important. It has long been agreed that people who are blind, deaf, etc...often have other enhanced senses to compensate. I wonder if those of us with all our senses compensate by dulling all of them. We couldn't possibly give priority to our smelling, tasting, touching, seeing, and listening all at the same time. So, we are forced to make choices.
More evidence that we prefer the visual over the aural is presented by the absence of those elements. More people will readily choose silence (some crave it, actually) over darkness. Not that absolute silence OR darkness are easy to come by, but it is relative. Silence in contrast to sound is discernible. Some film makers have inserted blank screens as sort of visual "grand pauses." But even then, the darkness is confined to the screen.
In the end, there has to be room for both seeing and listening. But until people become more practiced listeners, the visual will often overcome the aural. So what does this mean for music?
In the case of film music, I don't think the relationship is exactly symbiotic, even if it is meant to be. If I show a student a film and ask him/her to describe it (outside of a music class context), rarely do I hear anything about the music. Sometimes, when asked about the music directly, students will have something to say, but most often they tell me they've got to "watch it" again. Many composers (of operas, of films, etc...) wind up writing suites of their scores. Ostensibly, this is because it gives the music some sort of form and context outside of the film or opera. But does it then become something different? I think about Corigliano's Red Violin for instance. I wish I could erase my memory of the movie (just once) so that I could listen to the suite without superimposing images from the movie. I feel enslaved to the visual. While I recognize that the original material was composed to accompany the visual, it seems that the visual is forever bound to the aural, even when presented in isolation (as with a concert suite). Maybe that isn't necessarily a bad thing (in the case of film music), but I for one, would like the option.


Rebecca said...

I don't see well. I like to listen to music with my eyes closed as it removes the distorted view I have of my surroundings.

One weird thing I have noted in the past is that I have been able to see better when it is absolutely quiet. I have actually said, "shut up, I am trying to look at something."

Glad to have you back -- not much deep thought lately. :/Po)te

John Michael De Marco said...

Listening as a refined skill is a key premise in my organizational development work. It is crucial to meaningful conversation, and meaningful conversation is the only viable antidote to apathy. - John

Anonymous said...

Hey, this is a cool blog you've got going. I stumbled upon it on a relatively unrelated google search and had to comment. I feel like the advances in music-technology over the last 20-30 years has lead to a big increase in the "aural density" of a recorded project (only for artists who shoot to utilize it, of course).

As an example, my dad listens to a lot of the same music I used to listen to in highschool... he is a musician and I would say he has a good set of ears. However, when I made him sit down in front of my studio monitors and listen to "Weird Fishes / Arpeggi" on Radiohead's In Rainbows album, he didn't care for it too much. I think he's so used to listening to the NOTES that he can't make the adjustment to dissecting the fine details of a complex musical image. For me it's a more mentally active activity than reading, usually.


Mostly Musicology, Teaching, and a bit of Miscellanea