Art of Listening: The Third Ear

"What's your growth edge?" I had just met a woman for the first time at a party, and after we exchanged names and vocations, this was her first question to me. I don't know what I told her, or if what I told her actually was my "growth edge," but if I met her now, this is what I'd tell her:

"My third ear."

This is what I call my capacity for hearing sounds I've generated with my mind, but without the assistance of sound waves. I guess you could call them imag-inary sounds, but they're not images - they're sounds. To keep things in per-spec-tive, our experience of sound is a translation of sound waves - which are tangibly felt - into a species-wide agreed-upon aural halucination. This means our experience of sound is always "imag-inary."

Due to the English language's reliance on sight-oriented terminology, describing sonic experiences is like practicing ballet on quicksand. Onwards, though, with the plies and releve's.

The third ear is one tool improvisors and composers use to play and design new music. A series of sounds are generated in the mind, and then either translated directly through an instrument into audible sounds or indirectly through notation of specific sound directions that can then be realized by musicians. This use of the third ear involves melody, harmony, rhythm, and dynamics as well as a broader sense of what the music is conveying and how it is developing as a whole. These are the macro applications of the third ear.

Then there's the micro capacity of the third ear, which has to do with intonation. If you imag-ine one tone while singing or playing another tone, your natural tendency will be to shift the intonation of the tone you are actively sounding so that it moves into a deeper resonance with the tone you're imag-ining. This is how we get nuance of tone, which can dramatically shift the emotive expression of music.

And now for the quicksand pirouette:

Since we have a vision-oriented language, here is a visual metaphor to clarify this sonic experience. Take, for example, the color red. Red is actually an infinity of specific hues. There are warmer reds and cooler reds, brighter reds and duller reds. Some reds evoke joy, while others evoke horror or anger or silliness. Musical tones and intervals are the same way. The notes C and E together form what is generally considered a rather happy sound known as a major third. But depending on how that E is tuned, we can get a simple happy sound, or a happy sound with some complex brooding or angst underlying it. Imag-ining various reference tones helps one find these other shades of meaning.

And there you have it, as I take my quicksand bow - my humble growth edge: the third ear, imag-ined sound, and nuance of tone.

So what's yours?

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