Too many drastically overestimate their skill at discerning details of audio such as music. Listen to this basic A major guitar chord:
Can your ears “reach into” the chord and pick out all three notes? (Test yourself by singing or humming each one individually.) Or do you just hear the chord as a composite? It’s easier when someone plays the notes together and then separately, as above. If you want a real challenge, go mash down a bunch of random piano keys (a “tone cluster”); then, without releasing the keys, try to sing or hum each note separately.
Do you hear a few huge, blocky piano chords, or do you hear hundreds of individual notes also? Serious music students have a hard time distinguishing all the different notes, too, so much so that they sometimes refer to ear-training courses as “fear-training” or “ear-straining.”
My understanding — and this might be wrong — is that, with chords, the mind (on some level at least) hears both composite sounds and individual tones at once, always. So maybe in your subconscious you’re hearing it all. I’m still leaving out overtones and features such as vibrato.
This is my brain. Not joking; the MRI people copied me a DVD.
I’m also unsure of whether the conscious mind, hearing chordal music, rapidly switches its focus from one individual note to another (and the composite waveform) or if it’s truly capable of hearing multiple tracks at once. (If I had to guess, I don’t think the conscious mind attends to much of anything with perfect simultaneity, when you drill down to individual instants, simply due to latency limitations of the physical nervous system.) For whatever it’s worth, computers can only complete one task at a time — they just switch between them so quickly we imagine they’re “multi-tasking.”
Even when people don’t have good ears for music (by which I don’t mean they’re literally tone-deaf, just that they aren’t highly skilled at perceiving details of audio), we typically say they can identify for themselves whether a piece of music is “good” or not. Of course it’s really their subjective experience of the music that they’re labeling as good or bad.
We don’t extend the same leeway to people evaluating visual art, however. We don’t expect someone with bad vision (and no corrective lenses) to make astute judgments about a painting they can’t see well. (A good way to train the eyes, by the way, is field-guiding.)
Why the double standard? I think because most of us are more familiar with sight; most of us live our entire lives without wondering about our ability to discern pitches in the audio we take in.
Once, a long time ago, my friend Bryan told me he only heard heavy metal as a kind of static-y noise. He couldn’t identify its pitches; later, after repeated listening, he could hear them. Try it yourself: here’s an instrumental Metallica song, Orion, as originally recorded. Skip ahead to :56 if you want to cut to the chase and get past the quiet intro.
Do you hear the bass guitar and the multiple notes of the multiple guitars? Or is it just one moving block of sound with drums banging away? People do in fact hear it quite differently. Now try the same (well, practically the same) music played on piano (by the fantastic VikaYermolyeva). Generally people hear pianos more clearly than other instruments.
I think current research says babies are pretty much always born with perfect pitch, also known as absolute pitch — the ability to distinguish and name notes. To someone with perfect pitch (who has also learned the Western musical alphabet), a guitar string vibrating at 440 hertz produces an A, not just a sound. (Perfect pitch doesn’t mean singing in tune; it might help someone sing in tune, but perfect pitch is a perceptual skill, not a skill involving the voice box, diaphragm, tongue, etc.) Growing up, children aren’t taught to associate the notes they hear with a musical alphabet, and so their perfect pitch fades away. Some adults can indeed learn it, though.
Basic ear-training makes music more enjoyable even for non-musicians. Now, go smush down some piano keys.
Depression and a dislike of rules led Fernando Ochoa of Uruapan, Michoacan, México to drop out of school at age 16, but now at 22, photography lets him share his thoughts and perceptions with the world. “Although situations can leave scars,” he says in his self-taught English, “no matter what passes, the world is still beautiful.”
“In ‘Mix’ I did a zoom in-out. I guess it’s more like a gaze to things. Actual living goes too fast, I think we should pace out sometimes, look around nature and focus our minds. Sometimes it gets like a mass of thoughts, that most of the time are useless, and you just have to let them go.”
At age 18 Ochoa “was playing the photographer” and told his father “I want to take pictures.” His father, a hobbyist photographer himself, approved. He encouraged his son to join an online photo forum and upload the photographs he’d started taking. “None of them were good,” Ochoa recalls, “but everyone who commented said I had good aesthetics. That became a challenge for me to take better ones.”
"2 of October"
“When I was younger, I thought what’s the actual hype with this date, the Tlatelolco Massacre … ignorant me, it was about freedom, that government turned out extremely bad, people died. In English the wall says ‘Because the color of blood can’t be ever forgotten, 2 of October, never forgotten.’ We tend to think those days are gone, but they are not.”
From his father, Ochoa learned “the basics: aperture, speed, rule of thirds” so well he has become “kind of a purist.” (Of course, like any good artist, he makes sure to “break all rules.”)
It was due to his own intellectual curiosity, however, that Ochoa learned enough English for his current job as a programmer and sysadmin — and for promoting his photography online. After installing a hotkey program, he was able to translate the English he saw on Internet Relay Chat channels. That helped him learn the language by immersion, “without much knowledge of it,” night after night. “I’m an auto-didact,” he says. “Knowledge is always a good thing.”
“Ricardo’s a cousin, I enjoy hanging out with him, everytime he comes to this city I invite him over my house, or we go to different places. He lives far from this city, in Monterrey.”
In cyberspace he’s traveled the world, but Ochoa hopes to someday see more than México in meatspace, too. Life is “about seeking more and more,” he explains; it’s “about pushing the ‘you’ to accomplish things.” He already understands art and humanity are about “empathy, mainly,” whereas as individuals we sometimes become “immersed too much in ourselves.”
“Oh, she’s my sister, my name is Fernando, her name is Maria Fernanda, I enjoy talking to her a lot, she was always constant company to me during childhood and still.”
México doesn’t bore him, however. Ochoa says he also has “to learn more about roots.” Some give the credit for Uruapan’s founding to Franciscan friar Fray Juan de San Miguel; others point out that the P’urhépecha Indians predated him. Ochoa does not hesitate: “the P’urhépechas. The whole language is there, the traditions, the native people.”
“That’s a sign with power, I had to represent it with a good blue sky. I took it from a different angle, so it looked wide-angle.”
Asked about his photography equipment, Ochoa responds, “It’s in the eye most of the time, sometimes it’s not dependent on equipment — you can make good photos with a 3MP camera. I use mostly DSLR’s, like a Nikon D70 or Nikon D300, since I can manipulate all settings, and they’re digital. I rarely use tripod, just for landscapes. So it’s me with the camera mainly. I shoot all in color, then I convert them to black and white if needed, then I use mostly curves for how the black and white will be shown. Sometimes real manipulation is needed, but I’m a purist in the sense of leaving all in its place.”
“I took this photo around two years ago. I had to represent my feeling I guess, I get somewhat fed up at times.”
Ochoa gives photography “as much effort” as he can. While many “don’t tend to explore further what can they do, what they cannot,” he does, and he will. He says he’d “love to go to an art school or by some other way learn more and more about photography.”
“We are constantly struggling with feelings that aren’t supposed to be there, we feel rather overwhelmed if we say we have a mental illness, but people stare and respond, ‘Are you serious?'”
For Ochoa, observation is a way to “immerse himself” in the world instead of losing himself in mental rumination. With his photography he hopes to “open broad” the constant question — Who am I? — and evoke actual emotion and community.