Picture of Ear with musical notes.

I hope that you enjoyed last month’s conductor’s post entitled “Hearing 1”. We now move on to “Hearing 2” in which we continue to explore other interesting aspects of human musical hearing.

Last month, I concluded with a tease, saying that having “perfect pitch” (the ability to recognize or produce a requested pitch with out “reference pitch”) is both a blessing and a curse.

One such “curse” for having such a gift, comes when one sings. As a student in high school, I sang in various choral groups. When the church organist would transpose the hymn to another key that what I was reading, I needed to not only “read my part” to get it correct, but I had to transpose it in my head because the notes I was singing were NOT the notes written on the page! It drove me nuts as a youth. Everyone else went blissfully on their way, not experiencing any cognitive dissonance in this experience! Lucky them!

People often wonder what it was like for Beethoven to “hear” music in his deafness. Most everyone knows that Beethoven’s hearing grew steadily worse, to the point where he finally could hear nothing (including the thunderous applause after he would “conduct” a concert – the concertmaster would need to turn him around to recognize that the audience was applauding)!

So, the question people ask is, How could Beethoven compose music when he could not “hear” it?”  The answer is that he DID hear the music …  in his mind. Most professional musicians, and certainly professional conductors and composers, can hear music in their heads. We look at printed music and read it as a book. Just as you read words and understand what they say, so we “hear” the sounds on the page in real time. Some do this better than others, but it is a common skill. Beethoven definitely heard music in his head. He did not need to have an instrument “play” the pitches for him to know how it sounds. Truth be told, that is not wholly accurate. Again, different people have different skills. While professionals DO hear these sounds, (even the complex sounds of an entire symphony orchestra) the actual physical hearing of an orchestra with your human ears can add nuanced detail which can be critical to the composer or performer.

Do you remember the scene in the movie “Amadeus” where he is composing on the table, rolling a ball back and forth? There is no orchestra. There is no piano. But the soundtrack of the movie “plays” the full symphonic sound he is writing – letting us know what Mozart “hears” as he pens the notes. In the background, his wife calls his name “Wolfie”… first gently, then louder and louder to get his attention (because all he hears… is THE ORCHESTRA). Finally, she is loud enough, breaking his concentration, and the soundtrack suddenly breaks off the symphonic sound and all we hear is her voice. That… is exactly how it works, how it feels. So, even being deaf, Beethoven had a very keen sense of all the music he was creating.

Speaking of “hearing” in our head, there is another type of hearing that our mind does. This, again (like perfect pitch), is a rare but not uncommon phenomenon. I am speaking of “synesthesia”. If you are not familiar with this term, it is worth looking up. In short, people who experience synesthesia, experience one of a variety of forms of this condition. The sensory experience is one where senses are combined in some fashion. For some, when smelling certain smells, they “see” a color, or they might “feel” the prick of a needle. For some, when seeing certain colors, they “hear” certain sounds. Others, when hearing sounds, might “see” something or taste something. Note that the first sensory experience is “real” and the secondary one which accompanies the “real” experience, is not. Some actually have more than two senses combined. This certainly is an unusual way to hear: 1) either experiencing another sense while hearing some sound, or 2) hearing some sound in your mind while experiencing some other real sensation.

I will conclude this “Hearing 2” with an amazing story of hearing, knowing that we still have more “hearing” topics to cover next month in “Hearing 3”.

In my college years I studied cello with the principle cellist of the Milwaukee Symphony. He was first a great friend and mentor in life, then… he was my cello teacher. Our “lessons” would continue for hours – sometimes 6 or more hours at a time. One story he told me was when he played first stand in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. They enjoyed working with the best conductors in the world (and he told me MANY stories about many such persons).

A guest conductor (I sadly do not remember his name) began rehearsing the orchestra on a Monday. Typically, conductors get 5 rehearsals (M-F), ending with 2-3 concerts (Fr/Sa/Su). The conductor led the rehearsal on Monday and Tuesday and, on Wednesday, began working as usual. While only briefly into the rehearsal (the 3rd rehearsal), the conductor stopped suddenly. He turned to the 2nd violins, and, addressing a gentleman about half-way back in the section, asked “Sir, where is your violin?” (The 2nd violinist WAS playing a violin, obviously.) The gentleman stood and said “Maestro, I am very sorry. You are correct – I had to take my violin in for some repairs and I am using lesser violin today. I promise it will be back for this weekend’s concerts.”   (!!!) The conductor, hearing ALL the sounds made by each person in this large orchestra, had SUCH keen hearing that he could distinguish the exact sound “every” violin was making (and every other instrument) to SUCH a degree, that he could “hear” the musician was playing on a different violin!!!!!!! Such “hearing” is genius and, I would have thought, not human. But, this is a true story. The human gift of hearing is AMAZING!!!!

Next time, more about hearing – including unusual hearing with headphones and the role of sound engineers, and even “hearing” for deaf people, as practiced by Music therapists.

© Copyright 2021 Michael Kamenski, Milwaukee, WI. All Rights Reserved.