Altered States

Altered States

As my ears have been convalescing over the past week or two, my mind has wandered idly in the direction of macabre speculation: What happens if my ears don’t get better? (Thanks, by the way, to last week’s commenters for their reassurances that I’ll probably make a full recovery.) The difference in pitch perception I experienced has evened out, and the depletion of high frequencies I initially predicted has taken up residence in its stead. What if my treble dial has fallen off for good? Now that I’m old enough to remember when audio appliances had treble dials, the invincibility of youth is necessarily receding.

Nothing irritates me more than when composers and writers on music pontificate about what “the ear” is capable of perceiving—a threshold of musical complexity, an apex or nadir of sensual beauty, etc. Whenever I read this kind of injunction, the bile rises in my throat: Who the hell do you think you are, to tell me what my ear can do? Besides, most of the time, they’re not even really talking about the ear itself but rather about a culturally mediated network of listening and sense-making mechanisms.

But I digress. The point is that my current ailment has impressed upon me the extent to which the subjectivity of listening is as much a physiological phenomenon as a cognitive one. In that light, the possibility of inhabiting a new acoustic world, at least until my tympanic membrane heals, is strangely appealing. Maybe it’ll furnish the same novelty I got from messing with the color controls on the TV to change Bart Simpson’s complexion in my youth. My understanding is that some psychoactive drugs can affect the perception of musical sound; having never taken any of these chemicals, I’ll have to settle for a perforated eardrum to get a new psychoacoustic perspective. In this light, a better question than “What happens if I don’t get better?” is “What if I get hooked on altered hearing?” Maybe I’ll go around with specially constructed earmuffs or get one of those middle-ear piercings the kids are abuzz over. Perhaps these next few weeks of dampened highs will be a blessing rather than a curse, providing otherwise unattainable revelations about the act of listening and the behavior of musical comprehension while skimming off the top layer of yappy dogs and car alarms. I’m always looking for that silver lining.

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5 thoughts on “Altered States

  1. Lisa X

    It seems perfectly reasonable to me that musicians would be curious about and explore thresholds of hearing, physically and culturally as well as personally and across populations. How do you have a problem with that?

    Also: “My understanding is that some psychoactive drugs can affect the perception of musical sound; having never taken any of these chemicals,”

    Colin, seriously, do yourself a big favor and don’t take anyone’s word for it any longer. And good luck with those ears.

  2. stevetaylor

    Flattened perfect pitch
    I hope you feel better soon Colin! I noticed, as I passed 40, that my previously infallible perfect pitch has now shorted out: sometimes I hear things as much as a half-step higher or lower (usually lower) than they are. If it were constant, I could just adjust, but it’s not. Very frustrating. But the more I play piano, the closer my hearing tends to be. And it’s good to live not knowing, exactly – it makes me listen more carefully.


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