Striking the Right Note
Professionals in the “sound” industries should work hard on developing their audio cognition to drive excellence in the field of sound experience.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right? Well… perhaps not. But it depends to a large part on both the dog and the trick. In the audio industry, good hearing is obviously a key asset, but how natural does that ability have to be for industry professionals to reach the top of their game and deliver the production, mixing and mastering results that clients demand? Can it be taught?
A good place to start is research into ‘absolute pitch’ – the ability to identify and name a note without reference to an external reference pitch. As party tricks go, it’s quite impressive, since only about one in 10,000 people possess the skill. Research indicates that it may be hereditary and strongly associated with the ability to speak and understand foreign languages – but hope is not necessarily lost for monolingual musicians with tone-deaf parents – many researchers have identified that the skill can be taught.
Indeed, Howard Nusbaum, from the University of Chicago, has suggested that ‘the ability to identify notes by hearing them may well be something that individuals can be trained to do… It’s an ability that is teachable, and it appears to depend on a general cognitive ability of holding sounds in one’s mind’. Nurture may therefore have as much of a role to play as nature in extracting the pitch-related cognitive abilities of individuals. That said, psychologist and ‘perfect pitcher’ Diana Deutsch identifies that adults ‘have been shown to possess an implicit form of absolute pitch, even though they cannot label the notes they are judging’, but that this can be more difficult to train ‘in contrast with its unconscious and effortless acquisition in early childhood’.
What does this mean for the development of critical listening skills in audio professionals who are beyond early childhood? Well, a lot and a little. Whilst working on tone accuracy may be a good starting point for audio professionals, the range of skills needed extends much further. I often like to think of the difference between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’. Tone recognition – and acquisition of perfect pitch – is a process of hearing and labelling; it’s like being able to look at apples and pears and put the right label on them. It’s nice to know that the feedback you are hearing is at 8KHz, not 2KHz. Certainly useful, but not the whole story.
Listening, on the other hand, is a far more critical activity – critical not in the sense of important, but in terms of being analytically cognitive. Knowing the right label for a tone is like identifying a “quantity,” but what about the “quality” judgment? For audio professionals, understanding the quality characteristics of sounds via ‘listening’ is essential. Listening is the process of not just hearing, but of understanding what you are hearing; knowing when something is out of phase, what it feels like when frequencies are unbalanced or signals are distorted, what it means to have a signal either fall flat and dead or bounce around a reflective space. These are critical skills – in both senses – and audio professionals can and should make deliberate efforts to develop them.
This is certainly something that can be learnt – but as with many skills acquisitions, it is a matter of deliberate, considered and repeated effort. I recall back to my youth when my mother helped me to learn the piano. Much of my learning happened well away from the ivory keys; my Mum would ‘sing’ a song and ask me to move my fingers in time. With this achieved, the activity was repeated but with the fingers also in the right positions. Finally, it fell to me to ‘sing’ the music only in my head, and move my fingers accordingly. The point was to develop the ‘muscle memory’ associated with the process; to allow it to become unconscious, instinctual – a process of feeling and understanding the sound rather than applying formal and rigid tonal analysis to it. First we hear. Next we listen and cognitively process. Finally, with practice over and over, the culmination of critical listening goes past a specific exercise and becomes an intuitive discernment based upon feeling instead of thought – much like muscle memory allows motion without the interference of thought process.
The audio industry certainly recognizes not only the importance of these skills in its professional body, but also that they are skills that can be taught and developed. Experienced industry professionals need to be encouraged to mentor and provide access to real-world listening situations. It takes repetition through many varied opportunities for new-comers to grasp and develop the instinctual understanding of what they are hearing. In addition, a number of training tools are arising on the internet; products such as SoundGym, ‘Improve Your Listening Skills’ by Auricula and the Ears Studio 2.0 plugin all constitute ‘brain training’ type applications that allow the development of ‘natural’ cognitive audio analysis through focus and repetition. These are useful tools for even the most developed sound engineers; encouraging an often-overlooked part of personal professional development in an industry that increasingly relies only on tech analysis to gain understanding and meaning of the sound signals it encounters.
For us at Alteros this is vitally important, because we are strong believers in remembering that the audio industry ultimately boils down to people and connections. Music and sound are devices of communication and emotion – inherently human activities. Whilst we are at the forefront of developing technological solutions in the audio world, we recognise that these exist as tools to supplement and enhance the sound activities of people, not to replace them. An audio technician – with their inherently human understanding of sound and music – can never be replaced by the non-sentient analysis of a digital data processor, but we do like to develop tools that enhance our development efforts. Many times I’ve said to my engineers “I can hear this. I want to be able to measure it. Let’s find a way to measure this that matches better with what I am hearing.”
When we at Alteros work on the development of new audio tech – be that microphones, electronics, wireless devices or software – we don’t just rely on the metrics to tell us that our products are making (sound)waves in the industry; we use trained professionals with a genuine understanding of sound – a feeling, an intuition, a discernment – to judge the quality of our offerings. Because it is ultimately people that matter in the technology industry, not just wires and signals. We would encourage all who are interested in working as professionals in the “sound” industries to work as hard on we do on developing their audio cognition, so that together we can keep driving excellence in the field of sound experience.