Extending Our Senses

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

As one who deals in a primal form of expression -- classical singing -- my gut response is one of anti-technology, since the sheer wonder of classical singing is in creating a sound that will be heard in very large spaces without any technological enhancement. But as I watched Neil Harbisson I soon thought about people whose traditional senses are either not totally functioning or functioning in a different way.

The deaf "hear" music in the form of vibrations; the dyslexic are able to heighten their sense of hearing in order to compensate for the confused signals that are sent to their brains through their eyes. The latter is especially difficult when it comes to reading music and quite often the notation is easier to read when symbolized by a particular color for each pitch. It seems one need only to outwit a brain to compensate, which in a sense (no pun intended) is what Mr. Harbisson has achieved.

As a singer and a teacher of singing I know that sometimes what seems logical is illogical when producing a sound. We are not out of breath at the end of a phrase. We just need to convince our brains of this and find other ways to access the air. Our brains can tell us what pitch to sing in a millisecond, and if we just trust this, and not try to "find" pitches once we know them, it makes the production of sound all the more easy and free. Singers born with perfect pitch sometimes need to ignore what they are hearing inside because once the sound leaves their body the airwaves may adjust the result. Never underestimate the mysterious power of the human brain.

Interestingly we throw semantics right and left, including the term "vocal color."

Last week a student asked me this stumper, "Explain vocal color." The more I thought about it I realized that we use a visual term to explain what we hear. More often than not a vocal color is related to an emotion, and is a conscious choice for a singer accomplished by adjusting resonance cavities. Singers also each have a biological/genetic signature, if you will, for their voice and that is often considered their "color."

What is quite interesting about Mr. Harbisson's presentation is that he has basically retrained his brain to recognize color in a non-visual form, which singers often do organically but without the common labels of blue, green, etc.

Never underestimate the mysterious power of the human brain. --Susanne Mentzer

Color is assigned to emotions in everyday English speech: "Green with envy", "Suffering from the blues", "I was so mad I was seeing red" and so on.

Our senses seem to evolve to cross over the common lines of definition.

Here is another great mixed sense metaphor -- a musical feast.

Sound and color both deal with intensity, which can apply to waves -- sound waves, light waves and vibrations. I am not a scientific type of person but it seems to me that anything that moves on earth makes a sort of wave -- and this includes the movement of light and sound, which happen invisibly to most of us. So it is a natural deduction that sound could replace light (color).

One thing I do have to take issue with is the set painting or color choices for a piece of music or any sound for that matter. Mr. Harbisson used a "Queen of the Night" aria from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte as an example but the aria is constantly changing both in pitch and dynamics and could also vary depending on the singer's vocal signature, and the tuning of middle C from 440 to 442 Hz, the choice of which depends on the historical period or country. In other words, the colors in his works of visual art would continually be subtly changing.

Neil Harbisson's idea that there are more senses is food for thought... the sense of taste is added into the mix! To me this is a sort of evolutionary chapter in the brains of men. He created a cyborg way to recognize or reformat a sense that he lacked. Why not? As long as the original primal senses are not discarded in this evolution, I am interested to see what might develop. As he says, "Knowledge comes from our senses and if we extend our senses then we will consequently extend our knowledge."

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