If a Tree Falls in the Forest….

     Is there sound without someone to hear it?                                    Tim McKamey

Ripples and Leaf

     As healing musicians we are of course interested in finding appropriate tunes and tempos. But on a much more fundamental level we need first to be aware of the enormous amount of processing that is going on in a person’s brain even when listening to the most basic sounds. Only when we begin to appreciate how the brain perceives the simplest of sounds can we begin to really get a handle on how a patient will respond to more complex music.

     In Daniel J. Levitin’s book This is Your Brain On Music, we see early on that pitch, for example, is a psychological phenomenon, it happens in the brain, it’s what our brain does with the vibration or frequency of sound waves that enter the ear and sends signals up to our own internal auditory processors. This is an important distinction to make when exploring music and the mind. The patterns of vibration that travel through the air really do exist “out there” in the world. But as those vibrations enter our ear and trigger the auditory mechanism that transmits those signals to the brain, the actual sound we hear and identify as ‘pitch’ for example, that cognitive act of perception, takes place inside our brain. As listeners we are actively involved in the co-creation of what we hear in a very basic and fundamental way right along with the person playing the music.

     We are reminded of the philosophical thought-experiment; “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, is there a sound?” While this is an interesting line of conjecture for contemplating knowledge of the unobserved world, in the strict sense of ‘sound’ Levitin would agree, ‘sound’ only happens when our brain actually processes the vibrations. However, if those vibrations had not existed in the first place outside “in the world”, in this case from the falling tree, then sound would never have had an opportunity to happen in our brain. So the vibrations exist without our necessarily being aware of them, but sound occurs through sensory awareness.

     One can see after reading Lynne McTaggart’s The Field, how this is an important thing to bear in mind. If, as many have stated, the universe is a manifestation of interweaving patterns of energy, then we are surrounded, even permeated with vibrations all the time. What we are able to hear as sound, or see as color, is limited by the mechanics of our sensory apparatus, or in some cases, how we use it, our ability to focus and other factors.

     Humans are tuned to hear vibrations that occur between 20 and 20,000 Hz but sound occurs anywhere from just above 0 cycles per second up to 100,000 cycles per second or more. The lowest note on a standard piano vibrates at a frequency of 27.5 Hz. Interestingly, Levitin describes how it is at about this same frequency that a series of still pictures when presented in rapid succession will meld into the fluid motion of animation and we no longer perceive them as separate pictures. So when we hear tones much below this frequency it becomes difficult to perceive the pitch.

     The point is that there is on the one hand the physics of sound and music that occurs “out in the world”, and on the other hand there is the processing of those phenomena through the senses which takes place in our brains. Even if we were to only consider the sounds that occur in nature like the rustling of the wind in the trees or thunder, or the pitter-patter of falling rain, all these things generate vibrations in molecules of air which our ears perceive and our brains then render into the actual sounds we hear.

     If an acorn drops from a tree into a pond, the rippling concentric circles on the surface of the water will be there whether or not anyone is there to see it.  So it is with the sound of the falling tree. Ripples of sound waves will move through the air whether or not anyone is listening. But those vibrations only become sound when we hear them.  

     We see then what a complex and interactive subjective experience music is. As objective as musical notes on a page may appear to be, they are merely rough sketches of what the composer had in their mind. Then the musician’s mind becomes involved to interpret the sketch into a an actual musical performance and finally, a listener must be present, even if it is only the musician themselves, to hear the actual sounds and to actually experience those notes as music.

     This synergy involving music from inception to perception is an example of the maxim attributed to Aristotle “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The idea of synergy appears frequently as ’emergence’, or the complex emergent qualities of multiplicity that arise out of relatively simple interactions. This is an important aspect for the healing music practitioner to bear in mind, remembering that in Old Saxon, Proto-Germanic and Old Norse, the words ‘heal’ and ‘whole’ stem from a common root.

For more insights and reflections on Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain On Music, see Elements of Music and Restoration of the Missing Fundamental.


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