Just listen: what is the sound that you can identify as being physically furthest away from where you are? Is it traffic, a jet engine, a computer fan, air conditioning, birds, animals, the weather, the TV?
What is the sound closest to you that you can identify? Can you hear your heart beat, your blood flow? And what is that high-pitched sound that seems to be ever present?
The intensity and the consistent presence of sonic textures such as machine noise, distorted high-frequency sounds, mid-range drones, sub-sonic hums and the like have significantly shaped the contexts of our hearing.
Radio has had a huge impact on the ways we hear and listen to the human voice, exploiting the use of vocal qualities and manipulating the sound through the use of effects such as reverberation, echo and compression. The disembodied voice - the voice we hear without seeing the person who owns the voice - is a powerful communicator.
It uses affect utterances (emotional sounds such as sighs and screams) along with words to provoke thoughts and ideas, advice, wisdom, propaganda and comment, delivered to audiences in radio land.
Throughout the 20th century, developments in media technologies and the “Worldwide Hum” continued to affect the way we hear and register what it is that we hear. The mediated voice has become increasingly processed, its tonal qualities and structures codified in particular frequency and dynamic ranges through the use of formats and codecs such as MP3 and MP4.
Listening to the sound of the voice, we employ a range of methods for focusing our attention, using modes of hearing, blocking or selectively focusing on a voice within a group of voices, identifying a voice, listening for the concealed, listening for character, for the emotive implications of a vocal sound and for voice qualities.
We have highly sophisticated interpretative “ears” with the ability to understand what we hear, what we sense as being the emotional implication associated with a voice, intuitively or through analytical reasoning.
The sophistication of this developed hearing explains complexity contained within a “mixed modal communicative experience”. A mixed mode communication is one where there is confirmation of meaning by a second sense, such when a sound works together with sight to confirm what is being communicated. We hear an emotive sound and we look to confirm its quality.
Was that a scream of joy or pain? Through sight we can confirm the difference.
The mixed modal communicative experience is taken for granted in any audio-visual communication. Film, video and screen-based media have been prominent in shaping this communicative language where the voice with a moving image is used as a part of a total emotive experience.
Advertising is full of this: the exaggerated smile of pleasure in a product you know is incapable of producing such a reaction, but the sighs and confirming sounds are accompanied by the smiles and the body language of delight.
Has our ability to listen to a mediated voice been constrained by a world that is more visually aware, more visio-centric? After all, our ears are always open whereas our eyes are continually being directed to a point of view. Are we not more likely to refocus our listening while still hearing, than to shut our eyes and not see at all?
Can you hear the sound of this image? Here is one way of listening to it when it moves.
We live in a time when both speaker and listener are confused about the many implied meanings that can be embedded within a vocal expression. The modes and qualities of hearing and listening now cover the spectrum from high fidelity through full dynamic range along with the hyper-compressed sounds of the digital delivery.
Our ears now perform the act of hearing everything from jet-engine-loud to intimate whispered softness, through earphones, TV and car stereos, radios, cinema sound, public address systems and computers. The varied clarity of such listening now seems to blur the qualities and detailed attributes of a sonic experience.
How has the “loudness war and hypercompression” altered our appreciation of what it is we hear, or what we are given to listen to and indeed see as well?
Entangled in complexities, the process of emotive signalling and reception is being reformatted, and our intuitions and our ability to cope has turned us into selective listeners who often choose to limit the extent of our own forms and modes of emotive vocal expressiveness.
Selectively we listen to what we want to hear, we listen for what is familiar or easy, sometimes manipulating our emotive language so as not to say too much about how we actually feel, tempering our emotive utterances to fit within the context or physical space.
It is not appropriate to scream on a bus and it is useless to whisper to a large gathering if you want to be heard. No shouting at anyone if you are in a small space.
If you need to shout at someone make sure you are across the road from them and that the road that divides you is busy with traffic, then shout as loudly as you like because no one will hear it as shouting, and few might hear it at all against the noisy ambience.
Breathe deep, suck as much fresh air into your lungs as possible, listen to the gasps of ingressive sounds as the airstream flows inward through the mouth and listen to the sadness and the breathlessness of our collective voice looking for a place in the expressive soundscape of our time, silenced in the hubbub of the codecs designed to filter the fullness of what we no longer hear and what we can only partially see.
Frank Millward does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Authors: The Conversation