October 21, 2013

Ear Laterality and Perception of Tone

The inequality between the right and left ear in regard to the active processing of sound was the subject of my last post. This post will focus on the perceptual difference between the ears as experienced by the singer and listener.

I use the word "active" in the paragraph above for a specific reason: there is a great difference between passive hearing and active listening. The singer, violinist and pianist, doesn't just sit back and judge their performance after it comes forth. No, something much more interesting and complex takes place.  For singers, this means listening to the tone before it comes out of the mouth. A young student recently said something which illustrates the  point.

"I realized something since my last lesson: I have to hear what I am doing before I do it!"

No kidding!

Had I told him to listen to the tone? Nope. That would have made him self-conscious. What did I have him do that resulted in this realization? Work on specific vowel exercises and scales. His listening ability became refined over time, just as the ear does when learning a foreign language. In the process, he awoke his inner teacher—a very good thing. When the student has this kind of realization, perceptual differences begin to be experienced.

"Dark," "light," "forward," "backward," "guttural," "nasal," Etc., Etc.

These are terms which the singer begins to understand in a visceral way. They are felt as well as heard, since listening is a vestibular-cochlear activity.

Singing that is regulated by the right ear feels very different than singing that is regulated by the left. Since the right ear processes higher frequencies faster than the left ear;  the more the right ear leads, and the more /i/ oriented the tone, the more the tone seems to  "surround" the body, be "out there" and have "high placement." The more the left ear leads, the more /u/ oriented the tone (absent the influence of /i/), the closer it seems to the body, and "placed" at the level of the mouth.

Broadcasters often use the left ear to regulate their voices, as do male operatic singers—some very famous. Use of the left ear gives the voice a muted quality, even though it can sound loud up close. Women do this too, of course. I've worked with one in particular who has a beautiful voice, though it also has a "from another room" quality about it. That's the thing really: singers who exhibit a left leading ear never sound as present as those who use the right ear.

Of course, it is useless to tell the student to "get the voice out there," or "put it forward!" There is no direct, mechanical way of making this perception come about. What does the student have to do instead?

The student has to work on their vowels, taking all of them from a very "forward" /i/ "placement."  

This is what the Old School taught. This is what awakens the right ear. 

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