THE MISAPPLICATION OF VISUAL CRITERIA IN HEARING AND
OUR CHANGE IN ORIENTATION FROM SPACE AND SOUND TO TIME
©1985 The Anstendig Institute
The orientation of society towards time and space and their sensory corollaries, seeing and hearing, has changed over the course of this century. Whereas people used to be space and sound oriented, they have become time and sight oriented. Instead of adding a heightened awareness of visual phenomena to mankind’s previous orientation towards space-sound phenomena, the newly emphasized awareness of visual phenomena has simply replaced the awareness of sound. The obvious result has been a general lack of conscious awareness of sound. But it has also resulted in the misuse of visual criteria in experiencing and evaluating sound events, which, in turn, has fostered an insensitivity to the important dynamic qualities of sound as a flow in time, i.e., expression and nuance. Fostered by the deficiencies of early recorded sound and the introduction of the static, dimensional effects of stereo, this emphasis on visual criteria in processing sensory perceptions has been at the root of grave errors in the development and evaluation of today’s systems for recording and reproducing sound. The century-old faults in sound-reproduction (notably that most sound-systems cannot reproduce the expressive qualities of sound) have resulted in a general deterioration in musical performance--an emphasis of technical proficiency over expressive values--and a lack of discrimination among listeners.
Until the development of clocks and watches, modern transportation and modern timesaving machines in general, life was more leisurely in the sense that it was not governed by firm time schedules: the crop was harvested until the work was finished; meal preparation could not be judged to the minute and meals were served when the food and the diners were ready; transportation was leisurely and could not be kept to exact schedules. For most people, firm, minute-exact appointments were rare occurrences, mainly public events, such as theater performances, etc. But even public events assumed and allowed for late-comers: all early operas, for example, had overtures, and composers saved the important music until later, when the audience could be expected to have settled down.
Today, firm, minute-exact time schedules rule people’s lives. Most people live constantly under the pressure of appointments for which it is necessary to be precisely on time. A good part of almost everyone’s life is spent rushing from one such date to another, always under the pressure of a shortage of time. This pressure of time was not known to former societies and has affected our perception of sound.
It takes time to hear sounds. The sounds must progress and develop over a period of time before their important expressive and information-bearing qualities become apparent. Also, anything that demands a high level of hearing acuity usually takes even more time and demands quite a bit of physical calmness on the part of the listener. In contrast, most of the visual phenomena in everyday life can be assimilated almost instantly. Under pressures of time schedules, the tendency is to quickly size up one’s surroundings visually. Since people are now constantly in a hurry, there is only time to look where one is going and not enough time to listen for the important qualities of one’s surroundings that are contained in their sounds.
In contemplating the orientation of the senses in relation to time and space, it is necessary to bear in mind that, since time and space are polarities, they are actually inseparable components of the same thing. We only distinguish the one from the other for purposes of analysis in order to gain a deeper understanding of the whole. The process is similar to analyzing a seesaw: we differentiate the end going up from the end going down, but both ends are inseparable parts of the same movement. Similarly, we distinguish the plus pole from the minus pole of a magnet, but both poles are essential parts of a magnet. Without both of them there would be no magnet.
Historically, the most common symbol for the basic polarities has been the cross.1 Since a cross would not exist without both axes, the union of the vertical and horizontal axes both differentiates the two poles and symbolizes their indivisibility. In regard to time and space and seeing and hearing, the horizontal axis symbolizes space and the vertical axis symbolizes time. Our primary awareness of time has been attributed to the eyes and seeing because one “sees” that time has elapsed by seeing changes in the space around us. Our primary awareness of space is attributed to the ears and hearing because it is sounds that convey a sense of depth and dimension in all directions around us.
Basically, one sees only a flat, limited, frontal two- dimensionality, from which depth is implied from experience. Everything that is seen in normal, everyday experience can be placed by a painter or photographer on a two-dimensional surface, and two-dimensional paintings and photographs can convey what is recognized as depth, although they are, in reality, flat (tromp l’oeil is the most famous example). The illusion of depth is also conveyed on the flat, two-dimensional surface of a mirror. But one hears sound, which is vibrating space, all around one. Since sound is heard from all directions, it is intrinsically three-dimensional and cannot be represented two-dimensionally.
That space and sound are all around us is symbolized by the horizontal line of the cross. Because sight and time are only one-directional, frontal in the case of sight and from the past through the present to the future in the case of time, they are symbolized by the vertical line, which is thought of as moving through the horizontal line of space. Both the new orientation towards time instead of space and the validity of the symbolism of the cross as a representation of the polarities is illustrated by modern architecture, in which the buildings now rise upwards (the vertical axis of the cross) instead of spreading out in the horizontal (the horizontal axis of the cross) as was the case when people were space oriented (the pyramids of Egypt are prime examples of space-oriented architecture).
While it is true that the polarities time and space cannot exist without each other, consciousness can be oriented more towards an awareness of the processes associated with the one or the other. That is because the sensory processes of seeing and hearing, which are involved in being aware of time and space phenomena, and time and space themselves, are infinitely more complex than up and down or plus and minus.
An orientation towards space and sound is not detrimental to an awareness of time and visual phenomena. But, for many reasons, an orientation towards time and sight is detrimental to an awareness of the experiences inherent in the space-sound phenomena and has a detrimental effect on the quality of life in general. An important reason why an emphasized time-sight orientation is detrimental to an awareness of sound is that it is easier to ignore sounds than it is to ignore visual impressions. We continuously use sight to direct our movements and also, since visual impressions can be selectively eliminated by looking away or closing our eyes when we do not want to see them, there is a natural tendency to take note of everything that is seen. But sounds are omnipresent. Unlike the way we see, which is selective in regard to direction, we hear sounds from all directions around us. Because sounds cannot be shut out by closing or turning off the ears, we readily develop the habit of ignoring sounds even though we hear them.
Hearing has traditionally been recognized as the highest, most powerful of the two higher senses because, when combined with sight, it determines the character of the visual impressions and is capable of conveying the strongest, finest quality, longest-sustained experiences. Hearing also contains the more purely “human” factors in life because sounds are the means through which emotions and emotional qualities are usually conveyed. Hearing must, therefore, be seen as the most important factor in life, and an orientation towards time and sight, to the detriment of an awareness of sound, must be seen as a grave impoverishment of life.
To fully understand time and space as it is experienced by the human being and what is meant by being time or space oriented, it is necessary to understand a seeming paradox in the way we experience time and space. Everything, when reduced to what are generally accepted to be the smallest common denominators, reduces to time and space. But the author would like to point out that the reduction can and should be pursued even further, in which case, from the point of view of human perception, space becomes the lowest common denominator and time becomes only an adjunct of space. That is because, for the human being, an awareness that time has passed results from being aware of progressive changes in the space that we are conscious of: we know that time has passed only because we are aware that the space around us has changed and from that we imply that time has passed. However, the reverse is not true: when we sleep, but do not dream, time elapses without causing any awareness of space. We can, therefore, only be conscious of space, not time. If we do not experience an awareness of space we have no awareness that time is passing. From our own experience, we do not even have a way of ascertaining how much time has passed without the aid of some form of clock, which, of course, is a space.
The point I would like to emphasize (because it differs from most concepts of time) is that everything that we are aware of is one form or another of space, i.e., ever-changing space. Time is nothing more than a measure of the progress of the changes in that space and a measure is just another form of space. This concept merits detailed clarification. To rephrase it: space is the thing itself, i.e., space is that which one is aware of, and anything that one is aware of, including what is thought of as time itself, has to be a form of space, not an increment of time.
Over the ages, classic mystical-religious thought has colored and shaped most civilized viewpoints of time and space. The religious viewpoint is that all of the space of which our world consists (including past, present, and future) exists simultaneously in the Creator’s consciousness, which is thought to be unlimited. But human consciousness, being limited, can only be conscious of space along the line from the past through the present to the future. Because time is thus thought of as the progress of our consciousness of space from the past, through the present, to the future, it is seldom realized that, in the way we actually experience them, time is static while space is dynamic. In fact, most people think of time as flowing while space is generally thought of as static. The paradoxical reality is just the opposite: it is the space that is flowing in our consciousness and our awareness of time occurs at isolated, static moments.
Although time is a measure of the steadily progressing flow of space in our consciousnesses, we can only be aware of time at given, static moments: by comparing the impressions of space at these isolated moments we recognize that the space has changed and, therefore, infer that time has gone by. On the other hand, space is usually thought of as a static, solid “thing”. But that is misleading. Sound, for example, is not solid, but definitely is a form of space. Since space can only be experienced as a steady flow of space in our consciousness, it is really our awareness of space that is a flowing thing, while our awareness of time is not. In truth, it is not even an awareness of time; it is simply a realization--a mentally arrived at conclusion--that time has gone by based on the awareness that changes have occurred in the space around us.
To comprehend space as flowing and our awareness of time as intermittent, it is helpful to think of a well-known exercise in developing concentration: the discipline of looking steadily and unflaggingly at a candle. In terms of time and space, the candle is a space which is steadily flowing in time. It is not intermittent impressions (flashes) of a candle, but a steady continuous, unceasing flow of the candle that takes place in the viewer’s consciousness. In other words, it is the space (the candle), with all of its characteristics and qualities, that is flowing, not time. It follows that, for a human being, time is not experienced and, therefore, possesses no qualities in itself. Any qualities attributed to time (that it is passing slowly or quickly, that it is boring, etc.) are really qualities of the space being experienced and not qualities of time itself, even if that space is just emptiness. But space can have many qualities that are essentially independent of time. It is true that these qualities of space, even those that occur in a split instant, must be experienced in time, i.e., over a period of time, however short. But it is the space and its passage in time, not in any way time itself, that possesses the qualities.
Similarly, visual impressions, like time, do not, in themselves contain emotional (or other) qualities. The emotions that we experience in relation to visual images are mentally supplied in relation to past experience or anticipated effect. For example, what is seen as tragic or frightening by one person can be completely neutral or even funny to another person unfamiliar with the experiences associated with that image. But sounds in themselves contain the emotional qualities that people experience from hearing them. Good music, for example, contains harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic vibrational patterns with which the body vibrates in sympathy (like the sounding board of a musical instrument, only much more complex). The music actually causes the body to vibrate in the emotional patterns of the music and a new emotion can actually be experienced through the music itself. If music is played along with a visual image, the experience of the combined musical and visual experience will essentially contain the emotion of the music, not that of the image: a happy scene with sad music will result in a sad experience; a sad scene with happy music will not result in a sad experience, etc. (The examples are oversimplified to make the point. Some elements of visual images such as color and brightness do directly affect us and influence the combined audio-visual experience, but much less strongly).
Since we only infer time from an awareness that space has changed, a precise awareness of time is impossible except by taking isolated instants in the progression of ever-changing space and measuring the intervals between those instants by comparing them to a space that is changing in a constant, known manner, i.e., a clock, sun dial, heart-beat, etc. It is important to comprehend 1) that a human being experiences space, not time, 2) that the fact that time has elapsed is only recognized, not experienced, at static, isolated moments, and 3) that we human beings only recognize that time has passed because we experience changes in the space that we were aware of (if we could sleep for 8 hours without dreaming, when we woke up, it could just as well have been 1 minute, because we were not aware of any space during that time).2
Direct comparison of unchanging subjects at given, isolated moments in time is the analytical method of the time-oriented person. A time-oriented person will preserve isolated impressions of space at given moments in time and study them, usually visually, by direct comparison, i.e., by placing them next to each other. The characteristic of all such studies is that the object of study is static, at least at the moment it is studied (the object may change or deteriorate over a long period of time, but, essentially, at the moment it is compared and studied, it is static). Of all analytical processes that use sensory perceptions, direct comparison, which is only possible with sight, is the most precise and the most comfortable because it does not place demands on our memory.
The study and evaluation of sound, however, does not allow for such direct comparison because sounds, being a flow of space in time, do not remain still to be compared directly to each other. Most of the important contents of sounds themselves are contained in the manner in which the sounds flow in time, i.e., the expression, inflection, nuance, etc., which occur as the connected sounds progress over a period of time. These expressive possibilities, which are intrinsic only to sound, contain and convey most of the human emotional content of life itself. They are more powerful even than the meanings contained in words or other informational sonic symbols.3 The expression with which words are pronounced, for example, will determine and even change the meaning conveyed by those words. Isolated sounds (e.g., single, isolated instances of everyday sounds like a split instant of a baby’s crying or a motor starting, and single notes, chords, or instrumental colorings in music, etc.) do not have any significance or communicate anything meaningful except in relation to that which precedes and follows them, even if what precedes and follows them is silence.
Unfortunately, society’s change in orientation from space and hearing to time and sight has resulted in its wrongly applying the criteria and procedures for evaluating visual phenomena to the evaluation of sound. This misapplication of visual criteria to the experience and even the study of sound is the cause of the already lamented loss of awareness of important aspects of sound. Since sound is a progression of constantly changing space in time, certain aspects of the experiences that can be had from sound which are caused by the progress of sounds over a period of time are intrinsic only to sound. These special phenomena are the expressive-emotional experiences as well as the communication of meanings and subtleties beyond the power of words. It is the effects that result from sound progressing in time (the quality of attack and release of notes, the inflections, the subtle dynamic fluctuations, in other words, the expressive nuances) that are most intrinsic to the sound experience, that set it off from other experiential phenomena, and that contain the essence of what mankind seeks in the sound experience, particularly in music, but also in speech and other sonic communication. The loss of awareness of these factors has had particularly deplorable ramifications in the field of sound-reproduction.
In evaluating the accuracy of the various means of recording and playing back sound (records, tapes, CD and other digital recordings, sound-systems, etc.), the emphasis has been mistakenly placed on static factors that do not take time to hear. Those factors have nothing to do with the flow of sounds in time, i.e., they have nothing to do with the expressive, musical content of the sounds. Little is said about the factors in the progress of the music which determine real musical culture, i.e., the quality of attacks and releases, the subtlety of, and lack of vulgarity in, the phrasing, even though these factors, especially the phrasing of the melodies, are the most important aspects of musical performance. People no longer listen for these aspects of sound.
The major factors that are mentioned in evaluations of sound- reproduction are static spatial dimensions such as the “sound-stage” (the height, width and depth of the “stereo image”), distortions in the coloring of the sounds, “gritty” highs, too little bass, too much treble, etc. These factors are all essentially static factors usually associated with sight, which can be determined by analyzing single isolated moments in the progress of the sounds. They have little to do with the important expressive or informational contents of sound. In fact, any of those static factors can be changed quite a bit without ruining the expressive or informational content. For example, the expression of music comes through just as well in monophonic recordings as in stereophonic recordings and, while instrumental colorings can enhance music, changing them somewhat does not change the expressive content unless the new colorings add irritations that disturb the listener. In real life, no two instruments sound the same and each instrument sounds different in each room in which it is played. It takes quite a bit of distortion or introduction of irritations to disturb the expressive content, if that expressive content has been reproduced (unfortunately, irritations, which can be eliminated, do occur in sound-reproduction and most sound- reproduction does not reproduce all the nuances of the flow of sound in time4).
In sound-reproduction, the misapplication of visual criteria to sonic phenomena has resulted in such unfortunate developments as the introduction of Stereo (the two-channel attempt to reproduce static spatial dimensions) before sound reproduction via a single channel had been perfected, and the introduction and almost universal acceptance of a not yet perfected form of digital recording that cannot accurately preserve dynamic subtleties.5
The introduction and acceptance of the present digital recording systems is proof that the deterioration in the awareness of expressive nuance has already progressed to the point where people no longer listen for or care about fine expressive nuance. In analog recordings, the dynamic qualities were at least preserved in the recording process. It was the retrieval of this information by most playback systems that was inadequate. But, with the digital recording system that has now been adopted by the whole recording industry, the subtle dynamic information can never be retrieved because it is simply not captured in the recording. Yet, despite much publicity about the shortcomings of digital, the public does not miss those finer nuances and digital is having a big success.
Regarding the introduction of Stereo, since human consciousness is limited, there is a limit to how many different things a human being can be simultaneously aware of. In fact, most people can only concentrate fully on one thing at a time. Placing an emphasis on an awareness of static effects of spatial dimensions has to detract from an awareness of the expression and the development of sensitivity to fine nuance. That is exactly what happened when Stereo was introduced. Since sensitivity to delicate, exquisite nuances of sound is an epitome of sensory experience, this mistaken emphasis on static, dimensional aspects of sound was a serious tragedy for mankind that is reflected in all aspects of modern life, but particularly in the the impersonal quality of modern life and in the quality of current musical interpretation. At that time, playback equipment had not yet been able to reproduce the finer nuances of the great recorded performances. The addition of a slew of new, static stereo effects to listen for cemented an already well-developed insensitivity to the finer, more delicate aspects of sound, which contain the most strongly moving and emotionally meaningful aspects of the sound experience.
Further reasons why the public has never become aware of the lack of expressive detail in the playback of its recordings are because 1) it has no way of knowing what subtleties the original performances contained, 2) some expression is heard and experienced, albeit a changed, degraded, coarser, less meaningful expression, 3) the static, spatial aspects of sound are much easier to hear than subtleties of expressive nuance, 4) the static effects are superficially entertaining, especially when one is not aware the fine points of the music are missing, 5) the music itself is usually sufficiently robust to retain some appeal without expression or with the wrong expression, and 6) since the public has become time-sight oriented and expression and emotions belong more to the realm of space and hearing, mankind’s tendency to be aware of and seek out, experience, and evaluate the emotional contents of things in general has been greatly weakened. Society has been conditioned not to hear subtle nuances.6 Of course, emotions are still experienced, i.e., through films and TV, but the critical, evaluative tendencies of society are directed towards the visual-informational aspects of experiences.7
Unfortunately, the performers and music students have also grown up with the deficiencies of sound-reproduction. Like the rest of the public, they listen to recordings and are peppered with recorded background music wherever they go. This, along with the general orientation towards visual aspects of life, has resulted in a deterioration in interpretive insights and subtleties, a vulgarization of expressive content, and a general interpretive crisis in the classical music field which serious, knowledgeable, older musicians have been aware of for decades. For decades, the emphasis of superficial technical wizardry at the expense of expression has been epidemic and is now firmly ensconced in the musical scene. All the better music teachers currently complain that there is enormous technical talent in the schools but very few of these technically proficient students have anything to express. Possibly the worst result of the new time-sight orientation is the now universal use of bad, vulgar, expressionless background music. This uninvolved, either emotionally dead or emotionally vulgar, music has acted as a sedative to a public sensitivity already crippled by the deficiencies of recorded sound.
A disturbing result of the shift in orientation from sound to visual phenomena is the introduction of visual distractions to the experience of music. Most people have become uncomfortable with and unable to enjoy music unless they have something interesting to look at. Unfortunately, since human consciousness is limited, music itself almost always consists of more than the amount of space that most people can be simultaneously conscious of. There are all the voices and all the notes of a chordal accompaniment plus such details as the expression with which each voice is played or sung, which include minute nuances of tempo and dynamic fluctuations. Introducing visual elements has to distract the listener from some part or other of the music.
The Anstendig Institute has many opportunities to observe the effects of visual distractions on listening. The institute’s programs of recorded music and its other activities in the field of sound-reproduction place the listeners in the situation where there is finely nuanced music to listen to and nothing to look at. We have had the opportunity, both in our public programs and our research sessions, to observe that reading while listening disturbs and even ruins the experience of the expressive content of music. The experience of a recording of the Virgil Thomson, Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints In Three Acts was compromised by passing out librettos. The audience read instead of listening and experiencing, and the experience of that music did not happen as it did with other audiences that just listened without reading. At a program of a recording of the Mahler Third Symphony, a gentleman who brought a score to follow and, at the author’s request, consented not to do so, left early in the performance, evidently not entertained enough by merely listening.
Probably the most subtle problem relating to visual distractions in music is whether or not to use subtitle-translations projected above the stage during opera performances. This question is still being hotly argued in the musical world. But the fact that those in favor of subtitles are winning and subtitles are being used in more and more productions is further proof of the new visual orientation of society. A learned, well considered decision on this subject demands a clear understanding of why a disproportionate time-sight orientation is detrimental to the awareness of sound, particularly such complex sounds as those of music. Undeniably, an awareness of exactly what is going on in the action is helpful in experiencing the musical content. But just as undeniably, our institute’s experience has shown that the subtitles can be expected to distract from some musical values. They also can keep the audience from sinking as deeply as possible into the musical expression, because any unnecessary physical tension detracts from the ability to experience sensory stimulae.
The more relaxed the body is, the more perceptively one is able to hear and the more intense the inner sensations, i.e., the emotional experience, can be (the same is true of all sensory perceptions, whether it be the tasting of wine, or the experience of intense sexual sensations). The muscles around the eyes are extremely critical tension-centers for the whole body.8 Their various states of tension and relaxation affect many other parts of the body. It is also well-known that we are most sensitively aware when the eyes are centered in their sockets, without any tension in the muscles that move them to one side or the other of their sockets (this is the main reason for the practice of meditating with the eyes closed and centered in their sockets. The muscles of the eyes are then most relaxed).
The tensions caused by moving the eyes and even the neck-muscles to read subtitles, creates a tension and distraction that must have an effect on the experience of the music. The question is whether that is worse than the effects of being ignorant of the story. From long experience with this problem, we at The Anstendig Institute are convinced that visual distractions of any kind, including subtitles, should be avoided, or so organized that a minimum of tension (activity of the eye muscles) is necessary to read them. That means that the placement of the subtitles is of crucial importance and that they should not be placed far from the action itself. While such subtitles can easily be placed next to the action on a TV screen and the small size of the TV screen makes possible viewing them without moving one’s eyes, a large opera stage and even a large movie-screen presents great problems. There is the very real risk that the tensions caused by the muscles moving the eyes will cause further tensions that will ruin the intensity of the collective artistic-emotional audience experience, in which everyone settles down and seems to hear and experience as one.
As the human being experiences it, the world we live in is a space, of which time is merely an adjunct. The world is, therefore, a continuum, a progress, a continuing development of space in our consciousnesses, the measure of which is time. Because hearing is the dominant, most powerfully affecting of the senses and only space, not time, possesses qualities, an awareness of space and, along with it, an awareness of sound should have priority over time and sight. In reality, society did first develop an orientation towards an awareness of space and sound. It follows that the development of mankind’s awareness and orientation towards time-visual phenomena should have been an addition to its already developed awareness of space-sound phenomena as a further enrichment of life, and not, as has happened, at the expense of society’s awareness and appreciation of the sound experience and those special phenomena intrinsic to sound. The world has already been immensely impoverished by the present imbalance towards visual orientation. The situation should be comprehended and the imbalance in sensory perception corrected if mankind is to achieve a meaningful quality of life in the modern world.
1 Our paper, “Hearing; The Informational and The Experiential” lists the classic polarities as they relate to time and space and the vertical and horizontal axes of the cross.
2 It is possible that some readers might feel that quantum mechanics and certain modern scientific theories conflict with some of the ideas set forth in these arguments. But this paper deals solely with how the human being experiences time and space. For example, science tells us that the apparently simultaneous movement of the opposite ends of a seemingly rigid see-saw is not really simultaneous; that the end opposite the leverage actually moves a little bit later than the end where the leverage is applied. But that scientifically ascertained fact does not in any way alter the human being’s perception that the two sides of the see-saw move simultaneously.
3 0ur paper, “Hearing; The Informational and The Experiential”, explains the different types of sonic content.
4 For detailed information on the problems of accurate sound reproduction we refer the reader to The Anstendig Institute’s papers on sound reproduction, sound equalization and digital recording.
5 The Anstendig Institute papers on digital recordings explain why current digital recording is flawed and cannot be perfected until the whole industry adapts a new norm with a vastly higher sampling rate.
6 Our paper, “Hearing; Our Conditioned Responses to Music”, discusses how we can become conditioned to hear music in set ways.
7 Our paper, “Hearing; The Informational and The Experiential”, explains the different, experiential and informational aspects of hearing and relates them to the classic polarities.
8 The clinically well-documented Auto-genic training of Dr. Johannes Schulz, shows that the muscles that control the eyes are major tension centers in that relaxing them causes a sympathetic reaction in numerous other muscles of the body, which relax down in sympathy with the relaxation of tension in the eye muscles.
The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit, tax-exempt, research institute that was founded to investigate stress-producing vibrational influences in our lives and to pursue research in the fields of sight and sound; to provide material designed to help the public become aware of and understand stressful vibrational influences; to instruct the public in how to improve the quality of vibrational influences in their lives; and to provide research and explanations for a practical understanding of the psychology of seeing and hearing.