Have you seen this viral video? This kid is amazing! Play a note? He can name it. Play a chord? He can name every note in it. Even if you play two conflicting chords at once, he can tell you what both are! He has trained his ear to clearly hear what is deep inside, while most of us skim along the surface, sensing vaguely that there must be something interesting below.
I’m training my ear in a different but similar way. As a sound engineer, I take sonic ingredients and try to bake them into a pleasing cake each week. A solid foundation of kick drum and bass guitar. A meaty electric guitar and piano in the middle. Sparkling acoustic guitar and cymbals on top. A dash of violin and pad to glue it all together.
The more I learn about audio, the more I learn there is to learn. I hear new things. I sense things deep under the surface. On Coldplay’s new album (which I rate 1,000,000,000 stars), I note how the kick and bass trade places on various songs, one slightly above the other. And I hear not just the primary bass frequency but all the harmonics that make it up.
Harmonics are fascinating! Harmonics are the overtones you hear in music. They accompany the fundamental tone at a fixed interval, and they’re what make a piano sound like a piano and a guitar sound like a guitar. If not for harmonics, a piano’s middle C would sound like an acoustic guitar’s C, which would sound like a violin’s C. (There are other factors, but for the sake of argument, hear me out.) What gives an instrument its timbre and character is its harmonics! Music is more than a sine wave, you know. My OCD would try to squeeze everything into mathematical precision, but thank God I’m not in charge of the laws of physics. If I were music would be very boring. OK, confused yet? Just look at this:
Check out this frequency spectrum. This is me playing one note on my piano (a middle C, by the way). There is not just one hump as if it were a “perfect” sine wave at 261.6 Hz. No, there are all sorts of odd and even harmonics that come off that one string. Beyond that, there is also “sympathetic resonance,” which happens when other strings begin vibrating when I play middle C. Picking apart all of this is “deep” hearing, and I love it! Try it for yourself. Spend $.99 on the FrequenSee app, and carry it with you. You won’t believe what you’ll find!!!
I have begun to notice that there are harmonics all around if you just stop to notice them. In a ceiling fan, there’s the fundamental tone, but there are 4-5 others you can pick out if you listen, and that is in addition to the low hum of the motor and the sound of the blades creaking as they wobble. Going deep like this is a way I calm my busy mind and. Listening is meditation for me. Deep listening forces you to be present.
I wonder sometimes what it would be like if I could live all of life like this. One morning, I was in the shower, and I noticed a different type of “harmonic.” It wasn’t in sound, though. It was in touch. Impatient for the water to warm up, I jumped in the cold shower, and what surprised me was that there were a few hot “harmonic” sensations — maybe the equivalent of static noise in my nervous system. If I focused on these microseconds of warmth, I could enjoy the cold shower much more. Where else are harmonics?
Are there harmonics even in our life experiences? Tragedy in our lives are always be in a minor key. But what if we “listened deep”? What would we could sense what is beneath the surface? I have a good idea that there are harmonics of not just ambivalence but of joy and even bliss hidden in pain and suffering. The same God who caused my piano to sound like it does did not leave tragedy just with its fundamental tone. Sadness is not a sine wave. And that gives me hope.
In 2016, I want more than just my hearing to be deeper. I want my whole life to be deeper. I want to be fully present in whatever I’m doing. The heart of creating art is in fully experiencing life, and I’m afraid I’ve been a surface dweller too long. I’m let my OCD turn everything into mathematically perfect sine waves. I want 2016 to be the year of harmonics.