Years ago I taught audio engineering courses at the local community college. For those unfamiliar with audio engineering, we basically taught students the fundamentals for recording sound, specifically music.
We would teach the technical specs of a microphone but also talk about the characteristics of that microphone and how it colored the sound. We would talk about adding a fake room sound to make things sound natural (reverb) and we would explain why it is much more difficult to get a good sound than sticking a random microphone in front the instrument and pressing record.
When I was a student in that program I had an instructor who was a very successful engineer. He was a multi-platinum award winning music producer and had worked with major artists. He told us that the number one reason for success in the industry was due to the engineer’s ears.
He said that an engineer had to be able to hear things better than others and then use that information to make critical decisions to the equipment, settings, placement, effects etc.
This is great advice and most of us knew what he meant. But what may sound like a physical ability to hear was actually a subconscious ability to distinguish sounds. The best range of our hearing ability is actually at birth and degrades over time. As we hear loud sounds we slowly lose the frequency range of our hearing.
So the key isn’t that our physical ability to hear has to be better but actually our ability to hear and understand is what is important.
To help train our students “hearing” we would do many different exercises. One involved listening to music and drawing the various instruments that we heard on paper. We used a standard technique where we would draw circles with the instrument name. The size of the circle represented the volume and we would place it left or right to designate which side was louder(panning). We would place higher frequency instruments above lower frequency instruments. This gave us a visual representation of the piece of music from the recording standpoint.
Initially students always struggled with this. They couldn’t distinguish between various guitars and usually everything just seemed blended together. But over time students started to be able to clearly hear things that they originally couldn’t hear. They could tell that the snare drum had a gated reverb (type of room sound artificially added to a recording) or that the kick drum was recording with an Audix D6 microphone.
When I was a student it was amazing to experience my ear “opening up” over time. When I first learned that an instrument could be placed on the left, right or anywhere in between I was floored. I started listening to music over headphones that I listened to hundreds of times in the car. It seemed like a completely different song. Today we are all so used to listening to our iPhones with headphones that this step is probably not too exciting.
But then I started to be able to hear intricacies in the bass guitar I never knew existed or the fact that the vocals were pitch corrected. I could hear processing on vocals that made it sound smoother (compressors) and a reverb (room sound) that helped it sound bigger. I could hear multiple vocals recorded over top of each other to give it a more polished sound.
With each “layer” I was brought into a new world. I could listen to the same song as someone else but tell that they played to a click track or that the singer didn’t understand how to move away from the microphone during loud passages and the engineer needed to correct it with equipment like a compressor.
Yet most of us listen to music. We all have opinions on artists and have heard many of the same songs. But these various underlying layers added a complexity that is astounding.
In psychology, distinction is made between our “aware” mind and our “unaware” mind. Sometimes it is called our conscious thoughts and subconscious thoughts. Sometimes it is called System 1 and System 2. One system is apparent when we can immediately sense an emotion when we see an angry face while the other system is used when we have to think about a complex math equation.
One thing that I think is strange is that we tend to reference these two layers when looking for problems but not when trying to improve. Yet to improve, we have to be able to improve the subconscious decisions that we make. We have to be able to make automatic choices and behave consistently whether or not we have full attention of our actions.
The excitement I felt when opening up my ear is the same excitement that I get when I learn more and more about systems and habits. Thinking systematically and working to improve habits, I find that more and more of what I took for granted is actually what is important for growth. The subconscious mind is powerful and the best way that I have found to improve is by focusing on the systems and habits in our lives that are largely driven by (and influencing) this unaware mind.