“Are you settled comfortably? Then we’ll begin”.
For countless generations of British children, this was the key phrase that signalled the start of weekly wireless programmes. An order by which they knew to sit up and listen.
From day one, we are literally wired in to our first, and it could be argued, most informative station: our mothers. The initial sounds we come in contact with as humans is the heartbeat that reaches to us through the womb, coming from no one other than the woman carrying us to term, just as her voice will be the first one we come to recognise after we are delivered.
Babies in the womb have shown increased brain activity when exposed to music, which is one of the reasons the Beethoven hypothesis began to receive attention. Will embryonic exposure to the virtuoso notes cause your child to become a genius, a general, or at least a pop singer?! Not necessarily. The science, it turns out, is iffy. A popular fad in the 1990s, it still prevails today amongst die-hard music-loving mothers-to-be. And although there may be no proof of producing the next Albert Einstein, but it certainly can’t be doing any harm.
The mother’s voice will have a calming effect on her offspring, promoting a steady heart rate even while it’s still in the womb. If this is practiced, the foetuses will have a better chance of maintaining a healthy pulse even if it senses its mother is exposed to a stressful situation. The official advice, for mothers out there ready to pop is to read aloud to her bump; it’ll make her voice naturally recognisable to the sproglet once it’s born.
The developmental process is especially intense while we are infants, meaning the hearing ability of a child under two years old is pinprick sharp, as proven by researchers from the University of Portsmouth. Their findings showed that playing children responded acutely to minuscule shifts in noise. Sadly, this handy evolutionary quirk lasts just a few months before fading.
Once we enter this world, the instinct of reaction kicks in. The first words we learn and the accent we develop are a result of our surroundings and the habits of those we come into contact with. If you are raised in France and your parents speak French, you will speak French simply because you are listening to their language. When you become capable of reciting their language, it is essentially a form of mockery. The idea of language as mimicry aligns with anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s theories of ‘thick description’. Geertz shows the movements and copied movements we perform via human gesture often start as “practising a burlesque” or a “conspiracy”; in other words, until we fully understand something, we parody it.
After the sounds which are pushed upon us in infancy, there are the others we learn to choose ourselves. For instance, why do we find certain voices sexy and others grating? The answer does not necessarily lie in personal preference. Often it is still a reaction to how we’ve been taught to interpret our environment. If we’re used to falling asleep to the police sirens, drunken shouting, building work – the Londoner’s Lullaby, the silence of countryside will seem eerie. If your awful aunt was an opera singer, you might never learn to appreciate that particular art form. Like everything, good and bad sounds are developed not of free will, but through conditioning of the body.
Although we cannot entirely manufacture and curate our soundscapes, we can still develop our tastes through trial and error. Certain music does have the power to impact us emotionally. There’s a reason separating couples are so picky of their CDs, why couples who make it have ‘their song’, why some music makes us cry, or laugh, or even transport us back to a lost moment in our lives. As science has shown us many a time, music has the ability to trigger the release of endorphins and serotonin. Yes. You can get high on music. Of course, sound is not always universally pleasant. Experimental music genres seek to blend dissonant elements that may be enjoyable to some and less so for others. With its plethoras of high pitches and teeth-gratingly intolerable notes, musicians like Alva Noto and Ryuchi Sakamoto delve into uncommercial combinations, challenging the listeners endurance and eliciting unexpected emotional reactions.
Today, we have the option to be in our own private concert, 24/7. Instead of absorbing and learning from the hum and clamour of the world around us, we hermetically seal ourselves off by plugging in to our own personal soundtrack. We may see the world around us, but we don’t hear it. It’s worth remembering that the ability to hear grants us the gift of being open-minded, even if we choose not to exercise it. Hearing music you’ve never heard before might acquaint you with new genres, just as eavesdropping on a conversation might offer insights to unknown topics, or learning foreign words might provide clues into the foundations of that culture.
So how about this – make a point to listen with friends. Have a gathering for which everyone brings their favourite album to help understand each other better. Or perhaps a certain language or instrument is your undiscovered forte? All these sounds help interpret the world around you; after which it’s your personal choices that help you fine tune your hearing. Other than that, listen to the birds, the lap of the Thames, the raucous chatter drifting from porches. Shoot the breeze with your best friend, let your ears pick up on the little details. Everyone likes a good listener.