Canadian Murray Schafer noticed that "at 60 years old, Africans had a hearing as good, if not better, than the average of the population of 25-year-old North Americans" (SCHAFER, 2010, p. 256). His studies underlined the fact that the Western world not only had a different soundscape (an expression first coined by Schafer), but also that background noises increased in numbers and were less and less perceived by our ears. As a consequence, they would get older sooner than in wild parts of Africa for instance.
Hearing constitutes one of the most solicited of our five senses. For some, like musicians, it is even an essential tool. The aim of this article is to discover how such a difference can occur among individuals of a same species and also explain the inner workings of the human hearing system.
Functions of the Ear
It might sound peculiar to wonder what the purpose of our ears is. The first answer that would come to mind would probably be ‘to hear’ or ‘to listen’. But the real answer is not as obvious as it might seem.
Pierre Schaeffer was a composer of the 20th century, father of the ‘musique concrète’ (concrete music) or acousmatic music that consisted of inserting concrete sound objects recorded on magnetic tapes. This unprecedented music required a new type of listening in which the object that produced the sound is invisible. He thus questioned the idea of intentionality in the listening process, just as Schafer who explained the difference between the hearing system of a Western youth and an African elder is the consciousness of the sounds perceived by their respective ears.
In the Western world, sound would most often come to us and remain unprocessed by the conscious part of our brain whereas in Africa, hearing would serve partly to keep away from danger.
If partial silence has long benefited from positive connotations and was practised in many circumstances to encourage concentration and critical reflection, today, on the contrary, it is only perceived as an evocation of total silence, in other words, of death and of the absence of human beings, and therefore, devalued, considered as something to avoid (Schafer, Murray, In Marconi, Luca, p. 815.).
Pierre Schaffer distinguishes four levels of listening: ‘les quatre écoutes’. In French, the verbs for each of them are ‘ouïr, écouter, entendre, comprendre’, meaning hearing (perceiving the sound with our ears), listening (focusing on the sound without necessarily defining it, but can help in creating a reaction in certain situations), hearing (as in perceiving the sound as a determined feature) and understanding (a real comprehension of the message conveyed) (Schaeffer, 1966, p. 101–108). In the Western world, people’s ears have become lazy due to overstimulation. Westerners mostly live in environments full of signals but people rarely deliberately listen to these sounds, neglecting some aspects of the four kinds of listening coined by Schaeffer.
An Introduction to the Human Ear
If we travel back in time, following Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, our ancestors used to live under water. Roughly speaking, they intercepted waves – variations of pressure – of the water and used their sensors to locate themselves in a 3D environment. Mammals, on the other hand, were evolving in linear environments and would use their hearing system to find their balance. The main functions of the ear would firstly serve for purposes of situating oneself in a space, a dimension, and to manage one’s balance then amplify any sign of disturbance to sound the alarm.
When our ancestors slowly evolved to become amphibians (individuals that could live between lands and aqueous environment), their inner amplification system had to evolve as well. It is still possible to see their eardrums at the back of their head. The air sacks of batrachians produce sounds in the water. A new function adds up to the ears making it part of a communication system. The hearing adaptation thus makes itself according to the vocal emissions produced: species listen to what they can communicate.
When fully out of water, our ancestors slowly abandoned their underwater hearing system to hear what is out of water. We then created improved amplified system: auricles. Compared to other animals, human auricles are motionless. Our hearing spectrum is limited to sounds that are in front of us. It is good at detecting sounds coming from sideways, but not as efficient in detecting sounds coming from behind.
The ear calculates a clear angle of perception and identification of the sound, and our visual field is similar to our hearing field, just as Schaeffer defended in Traité des objets musicaux: human hearing system is often limited to what humans see (Schaeffer, 1966, p. 104).
Structure of the Human Ears
Our ear can be divided into 3 parts: the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. Each of them follow a different kind of mechanic – the air mechanics, the solid mechanics and the fluid mechanics respectively – and have different roles. The outer ear picks up sounds and channels them into the ear canal. The middle ear helps in the amplification or in the filtering of a sound. It transforms the latter so it can be intercepted by the inner ear which helps in the processing of the sound, and sends the message directly to the brain which then sends back messages in response if needed. It is also what conducts our sense of balance. The eyes help in the anticipation of a sound and the focus of hearing. A sound can appear violent when the body is not prepared for intercepting it.
Within the inner ear, hair cells each correspond to a frequency. When it is over-stimulated, it can seriously damage them, making people incapable of hearing such frequencies in the long-term and leading to hearing problems. It is necessary then, to grant oneself a proportionate amount of time to rest the ears in silence after a long exposure to loud sounds or to even use earplugs when exposed to a soundscape saturated with background noises (for instance, in the subway, etc.). If not, the hearing system of the Western world’s population might get worse and worse over time.
It is often forgotten that our ears are muscles and need to be worked out and protected. They constitute tools that are essential and need to be treated with care. The contemporary Western world increases the level of background noise tearing up the ears of its inhabitants. Consequently, people lose their conscious perception and the intention behind the hearing process.
Philosophically speaking, could that mean that humans could become less and less capable of listening to signals sent by their environment and, since listening and communication are interdependent, to people around them? Since the quality of listening differs from one culture to another, its relativity is intriguing regarding the real ability of humans to coexist in a single environment. One thing is for sure, is that human beings keep on evolving over time. Maybe its hearing system will adapt to new ways of listening brought by the so-called modern world and new technologies, contributing to new ways of communication.
KANE, B. (2016). Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice, OUP the USA, reprint edition.
SCHAEFFER, P. (1996). Traité des objets musicaux : Essai interdisciplines. Seuil edition.
SCHAFER, M. (2010). Le paysage sonore : le monde comme musique. Wildproject.
SHUBIN, N. (2009). Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body. Vintage.
VALIQUET, P. (2017) Hearing the Music of Others: Pierre Schaeffer’s Humanist Interdiscipline. Music and Letters. Volume 98 (2), 255–280.
Figure 1: Laszlo Ruszka, 1980, François Bayle in command of the acousmonium of the room Olivier Messiaen in la Maison de la Radio, photography, ©INA, retrieved from https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/acousmonium-laszlo-ruszka/DgHtjrC0HSegAQ?hl=fr&ms=%7B%22x%22%3A0.5%2C%22y%22%3A0.5%2C%22z%22%3A9.49286376438325%2C%22size%22%3A%7B%22width%22%3A1.1966724984033%2C%22height%22%3A1.2375000000000014%7D%7D
Figure 2: Dr Neil SHUBIN, 2009, the evolution of the human ears from fish scales, drawing, retrieved from his lecture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6ruIZYddhk (extract)
Figure 3: ©Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2010, structure of the hear, drawing, retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/list/7-vestigial-features-of-the-human-body
Figure 4: ©Hearing Health Foundation, 2022, a decibel scale explained, retrieved from https://hearinghealthfoundation.org/keeplistening/decibels