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The Campus Beat: Stop and Hear the Roses

What’s your favorite sound? No, not the sizzle of bacon; not something associated with another sense or experience. The sound you like most in the world, purely for its aesthetic appeal.

It’s not a question asked very frequently. We have favorite colors, probably a favorite flavor, but not very often is there a sound that causes you to stop and just listen. The sonic sense is cultivated in our society in such a way that most people pay little attention to the finer details. I’d like to suggest a little more opening of the ears.

You probably had a favorite song in mind, and I’m not suggesting we neglect our brain’s microphones. In the same way we enjoy a meal or a landscape painting, when several elements of a sense are assembled together, they make a pleasing product. But do you have a particular tempo or pitch you prefer above others? And how often do you take the time, between classes, homework and activities, to really listen to the world around you?

Technology has given us amazing control over the sound we listen to. Audio recording has developed to a point where digital encoding provides us with microscopic resolution and massive storage capacity. With entire music libraries in our pockets, we are no longer restricted to a concert hall for a world-class performance of a Beethoven symphony. Nor must we sit in our living room with a turntable piping tunes through cabinet-sized speakers. But when we take music out of those quiet environments, the noisy world intrudes upon the fidelity of the sound.

For example, when you’re in a car, listening to an iPod or the radio, the highway noise masks all subtleties. That’s why pop and rock are always mixed to be forte, because you would never hear the soft bits. It’s the same on a plane or commuting on a metro—we wear headphones in an attempt to drown out the hum of the vehicle (and the tedium). Campus life has its examples too: speakers cranked up over voices at loud parties, wearing earbuds as you go to class, etc.

In these kinds of settings, not only are the dynamics of music for naught, but so is the spectral variety. Certain frequencies get lost, like when the car engine’s low rumble dominates a bass line. We still sing along at the top of our lungs to a song at a party, but if that’s the main way we listen, we lose a depth of complexity in the sonic experience.

Even if we listened in quiet areas, the quality of our recordings hasn’t been optimal recently. Algorithms compress sound files into MP3s so that they take up less space, but the compression reduces the resolution. It sounds “good enough,” but do you forego HD video just because of storage constraints? Luckily, as computer capacity expands, we’ll be more able to have quantity and quality.

Interestingly, we aren’t trained to manipulate recorded sound the same way we are with other media. Text editing is second nature, simple cropping and toying with photos is easy, and even middle school kids can pull out a video camera and make silly cops-and-robbers home videos. But it’s usually only musicians that start fiddling around with Garage Band. I suppose we don’t edit sound very often because it’s not our main form of storing and communicating information. It takes time to listen to a speech when you could more quickly read it. So we usually couple the sound with a video, or we multitask and listen while we work.

But when we treat sound as a supplement to our other senses, we don’t devote our entire attention to it. Unless you’re a musician or an audiophile, it’s easy to neglect a whole universe of experience. Taking time to pick out the clarinet countermelody in a piece, appreciating the particular “chnk!” of a car door closing, or marveling at the rasp of a radio host’s voice are just more delicious reasons to be alive.

On campus, there is a contingent of people who obsess over sound. We’re finally getting a concert hall with good acoustics, and any music class (especially at CCRMA) will focus your ears more than before, not to mention the kid down the hall with expensive speakers and headphones. But for people in general, if you’ve ever savored a bite of your favorite food or gazed for minutes at an impressive sunset, then I recommend tuning into your ears’ acuity. Take a breath from the Stanford schedule for a moment and listen to the Farm. It’ll make the music better.

Listen to the sound of typing, for example, if you want to email Lucas at lucaswj@stanford.edu.

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