Practice Listening with Your Body

A Deaf Composer on How to Hear the Piano

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There’s another way to listen to music with your body, and that’s literally listening through the vibrations. When you took your musical walk, each step created a unique sound wave. These “waves” aren’t like waves in the ocean. I see them more like mini explosions or fireworks. They spread out spherically in all directions, arriving not just into your ear, but hitting your entire body.

Probably you’ve felt loud sounds punching your gut, like when a semi rolls by or the beat thumps at a club. The same experience can happen at the piano. If you pound out a thunderous chord, you can feel it hit you. In time, you can increase your sensitivity and feel quieter notes in your gut, your chest, even on the hairs of your arms.

But sound doesn’t only travel through the air, it travels through mass too, via conduction. Singers experience this often, because their voices vibrate the bones in their head and chest. Some people with hearing loss wear bone conduction hearing aids, which transfer vibrations through the skull instead of through the external auditory canal. On your walk, you might notice the vibrations of each step radiating up your leg.

Beethoven famously chopped the legs off of his piano in order to better feel the vibrations. By placing the piano directly on the floor, the entire floor would have become a soundboard—transferring the vibrations from strings, to the piano soundboard, to piano body, to floor, and through the floor to Beethoven’s body. Perhaps he sat directly on the floor to increase the surface area of his body that received the vibrations.

The piano produces sound waves that simultaneously fly into your skin, muscles, face, while transmitting vibrations directly into your fingers.

You can experience this in a small way by pressing deeper into the keys when you play, and keeping your fingers down during held notes. The vibrations of the piano will transfer to the keys and into the bones of your fingers. Place your feet on the floor (without shoes) and you may often feel the vibrations radiating up your legs.

Very quickly you’ll begin to detect loud vibrations from quiet vibrations, and since higher pitches vibrate faster than low pitches, it is certainly possible—though difficult—to sense pitch too. The deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie trained herself to distinguish between different vibration types and pitches.

The point here, though, is to deepen your experience with music. You don’t need to become an expert in vibrations. Just pay attention to your body and use it fully.

Remember, “for every action there is a reaction.” You contract muscles, then let arms fall and fingers dance across the keys. In reaction, the piano produces sound waves that simultaneously fly into your skin, muscles, face, while transmitting vibrations directly into your fingers. Through awareness of this circular experience, you can become one with the music—in an instant, both generating and receiving sound.

So get practicing and walking. And in the next installment, we’ll explore an even more radical way to practice listening… listening with your eyes.

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Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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