October 18, 2011

Practice Makes Permanent

Stirrup of the inner ear 

I sometimes tell students this, and now there is evidence to back it up. It seems that Canadian researchers have found that musicians who have practiced for more than six years "retain the ability to distinguish speech in noisy environments far longer than non-musicians." How is this possible? The researchers posit that it may have something to do with "cognitive reserve". This perspective is one of the brain at work, and while it is perfectly reasonable, I can think of another, more compelling, idea. Yes. The brain is certainly at work. But what about the muscles of the ear? Isn't that what comes first? And what do these muscles do?

If you've been reading this blog, you know my interest and participation in the work of Dr. Alfred Tomatis who discovered and proved that the larynx can only emit those frequencies which the ear can actively process. The word active is key. Too often, the perspective- and one that seems to be shared by the researchers in the link above- is that hearing is a passive phenomena. Tomatis' perspective is, of course, very different. He observed that hearing and listening are two distinct skills. He also theorized that active listening has everything with how the two muscles inside the ear interact with each other. One muscle is behind the ear drum and connected with the hammer (the three bones of the ear are the hammer, anvil and stirrup) while the other is connected to the stirrup. This latter muscle, called the Stapedius, is especially suited for high frequencies and has a neurological connection to the face.

Excellent listening is most likely when accompanied by exceedingly functional hearing. Fitness of muscles of the inner ear makes possible the optimal use of the inner ear. This requires an ongoing coordination between the muscles of the hammer and the stirrup. Under optimal conditions, these muscles act synergistically rather than antagonistically. Their reciprocal actions induce an optimal tone resulting from a balance between the flexor muscles and the extensor muscles.  
The muscle of the stirrup is an extensor; the muscle of the hammer is a flexor. The muscle of the stirrup regulates the inner ear. It is the last of the extensors to have developed and controls a set of synergies and controls a set of synergies that will be described in the chapter about posture.  
The regulatory system controlled by the ear impacts the whole body and prepares it for singing. In fact, to "prick up one's ears" is to open them. Moreover, it also opens the entire body by acting on all the extensors.  
The physiology of the auditory system allows for the possibility of harmonious interplay between the muscles of the hammer and the stirrup. It balances the tensions between both muscles, reaching a point of equalibrium. When one muscle dominates, it can be seen immediately in the listening test. If the two muscles act in concert, and each has the same divided tension, the test shows an "idea profile."  
A dislocated curve is observed as soon as one of the muscles prevails. For example, a functional disharmony appears when the muscle of the stirrup, the extensor, takes over. The regulation in the internal chamber of the inner ear is no longer optimal, resulting in too great an absorption of the endolymph fluid and causing a muting of the high frequencies. Thus high frequencies are not perceived and the hammer-stirrup block moves backwards and outward, further decreasing acute perception of high frequencies while increasing the receipt of low frequencies.  
The action of the extensor becomes greatly exaggerated in this case. This hyperextension spreads throughout the body, impacting all the extensor muscles, precluding good vocal emission. There is also disharmony in the interplay of the antagonistic flexor-extensor pairs because of the exaggerated tension of the extensor muscles. The posture us therefore somewhat overcorrected. This looks as though there is a sort of hyper-opening in the general posture which, in the extreme, seems to override the role of the flexors. The result is a stiff "military" posture. 
The opposite can also be true. Excessive tension in the muscle of the hammer also precludes an excellent posture for singing. This type of perceptual disturbance reduces auditory control necessary for singing by eliminating too many low frequencies. A series of simultaneous signs manifests as difficulty integrating one's body image. In psychological jargon, it means the person is cut off from the perception of his body as an instrument. He is like a musician who no longer knows his instrument. He will seem under-energized and clumsy.  
The right muscular balance is important. This is true for the ear as well as for the whole body. Each one reveals the other. Having understood this, one becomes aware that singing requires the naturally existing tensions between the flexor muscles and the extensor muscles to balance each other. Any breach of balance appreciably modifies vocal emission, in a way that is apparent to the well-trained ear. -from the Ear and the Voice by Dr. Alfred Tomatis, translated by Roberta Prada and Pierre Sollier, 2005 

What does this mean for the singer and the singing teacher, especially the aging singer and voice teacher? Posture matters. Posture of the spine as well as the posture of the mouth/face opening. It is this posture, one that is mirrored in the actions of the muscles of the inner ear, that maintains auditory discrimination, the kind of which researchers in Canada found to be intact in older adults who made their practice permanent. 

Since the activation of the Stapedius is reflected in the openness of the face (see my previous post for further details), attention should be given to how this opening is affected. The area of the upper lip, especially, should be given much attention. The opening of the jaw, which is neurologically connected to the muscle behind the eardrum, also needs careful consideration. Too little or too much opening will rob the ability of the Stapedius to do it's job. As well, great harm can be inflicted by the teacher on insisting that the jaw be totally passive. Why? The facial expression becomes passive as well, thus robbing the singer of audio-vocal control. How to stay open but not stiff and tense? That's the trick.

Here is my observation: the opening of the face and the opening of the jaw are dynamically interrelated. The more enervated the muscles of the face, the greater the enervation of the muscles of the jaw. This is seen, of course, in the highest notes where intensity of expression is at its peak and the jaw opening is greatest. The Old School, however, taught that this opening should not exceed the opening of one's best [a] in the middle voice. Is it any wonder that they also taught their students to consolidate the voice in just this area before venturing to vocal extremities? (Tomatis might say that this was where the muscles of the ear are also in balanced activity.) Mastery of [a] was, according to the Old School teachers, one of the essential elements of bel canto singing. And what happens during a chiaroscuro [a]? The opening of the face and jaw is in perfect balance.

A beautifully rounded tone can change your life. Why?  Because it opens your ears. No wonder those who sing for many years retain this ability.

Addendum: A reader made a comment after this post was written asking if there was any scientific research being done on Tomatis' work. My answer was that a study is currently being done at at center in Belgium. And then I remembered an article I had read in the NYTimes earlier this summer titled "Study Sheds Light on Auditory Role in Dyslexia." This study, while not directly addressing Tomatis' method of Listening Training, speaks to his work, specifically addressing the role of one's listening fitness in regards to language and learning, which is what Tomatis was positing over 40 years ago with regard to dyslexia. It would seem that science is starting to catch up with the father of Psychoacoustics. A deeper treatment of dyslexia and Tomatis can be found in Paul Madaule's book When Listening Comes Alive. 


  1. Thank you for introducing me to Dr. Tomatis' work. I read _The Ear and the Voice_ in its English translation, and found his hypotheses intriguing and provocative. They do not, however, seem to be widely known or supported in the English-speaking otolaryngology community. This is due in part to the lack of published, peer-reviewed research -- considered the gold standard in medical science. Do you know if any such studies are either extant (unknown to me) or underway?

  2. Thanks for your comment DavidJ. You are correct: the English speaking world is not very familiar with the work of Tomatis, and in some quarters adversarial towards it. I have been told that there is research underway in Europe, specifically in Belgium.

  3. Daniel, your comments on the Harwhaw FB page about the open ear brought me here. I know I'm a bit late to the party, but thought I'd comment anyway. This info is indeed very intriguing. I am aware that when I listen to students or actively listen to music, I find myself instinctively in this open ear posture. It is in many ways a lot like singing without actually singing! Except that more of the face is used in the listening than I would use in actually singing. But I do have two comments that I'd would be interested in having your take on. 1.) There is a mechanism that I read about in an article about tinnitus (ringing in the ears), that causes the muscles in the inner ear to mute our own voice when we speak. Hence the feeling that we all have when we hear ourselves on a recording and think it doesn't sound like us. The article was not about singing and did not address that, but I would venture to guess that if it happens during speaking, it probably happens in singing too. And 2.) Margaret Harshaw (and many teachers) always said that you cannot learn to sing by listening to yourself, but you have to learn by the physical feeling and the sensation. These two points would seem to be related and if so, then does it matter to the singer if the ear is open? For the teacher it is clearly important and for any involved listener, too, but does the singer need this? I would love to hear your thoughts.

    1. Hi Michael,

      Active listening doesn't just involve silently listening to music. It also involves making music, in this case, singing.

      I know the feeling you are talking about when listening to music. You will note that your mouth is closed when this activity is taking place for the most part. I mention this because Dr. Tomatis observed that there are two integrated muscular systems involved in listening and speaking/singing (see The Ear and the Voice for a more complete explanation). One of these systems is neurologically connected to the face via the inner ear (Stapedius), while the second is connected to the jaw via the eardrum. Tomatis posited that the first system regulates the extensor muscles of the body, while the second system regulates the flexors. When the two systems work together efficiently the system as a whole experiences EASE. My point is this: just because you don't have quite the same feeling you have when your mouth is open as you do when it is closed is not an indication that the ear is no longer open. Tomatis would observe that a high level of singing demands an open ear which gives the voice ring and depth. To put matters simply as one Old School teacher did: "You can't sing a bright tone with a dull face!"

      Making a face is often what singers do in a misguided with well-meant attempt to open the ear. But the hard to learn truth is that strain never opens the ear. On this point, empirical observation tells us that the more noble to posture (extensors are involved!), the more noble the tone. Twisting, torquing and all manner of distortion is counterproductive. Neither does mere 'relaxation' since this approach more often than not robs the singer of vitality- ie extension.

      Singing involves a dynamic interplay between the ear and the body, with the ear coming first. This aspect is not really understood by most people. The ear of the body is as much psychological as it is physiologically based. This is why Old School teachers talked about inspiration as being more than air coming into the lungs. To be inspired is to be in a state where the ear is - more often that not - open. To be depressed and anxiety stricken is to have the ear close (what voice teacher has not experienced a singer in distress who's audio-vocal control has flown out the window?). Of course, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to observe that the face closes as well. This is 'natural' observation, empiricism, wisdom that is right before one's eyes.

      We listen to sound - to ourselves - in two ways, via bone conduction and air conduction. If we listen only via air conduction, then yes- that is a mistake. Listening only to air conduction is like chasing your own tail. You go nowhere fast. Bone conduction is the FEELING of the sound which singers need more awareness of. It is not, however, like listening to yourself all stopped up inside your head. That is an equal folly because the vowels are not clear. What does this sound like to the singer? G.B. Lamperti noted that - to some - it sounds like phlegm- a crackling, scraping, edgy vibration. (Stand in the shower, stop up your ears and listen to the water hit your head.) This is coupled with the clear vowel.

      Now to your first question: the mechanism you are referring to is the Acoustic Reflex. It was thought, at one time, that it this reflex only was exhibited when a very loud sound was heard. However, it is now known that the Reflex is involved every time we make a sound. It dampens the energy going to the brain by 15-30 decibels and protects the cochlea from being damaged. It also protects the singer's ears from his/her own voice.


I welcome your comments.