Posted by: Calmseas (Mike) | December 23, 2007

Sound Reasoning

Fallen Tree“If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This, of course, is the classic philosophical question that is familiar to most of us.

I have taught courses in music appreciation for non-music majors at the college level, and this was always the first question that I posed to my new students to kick off the course each semester. I was not trying to be philosophical so much as trying to get students to think about what sound is all about as a first step toward beginning to look closely at music.

There are certainly two ways to look at this question. On the scientific level, sound is simply nothing more than air pressure variations. So as long as we have fluctuations in air pressure at a given location, we have sound (scientifically speaking).

Now in order to have these air pressure variations, we need some kind of source that creates the variations—without a sound source, there is no sound. So, scientifically, if we have a source and the source creates air pressure variations, then we have sound, even without a sound receptor.

Philosophically, however, the answer is a bit more expansive. In order for air pressure variations to be sound, they must make some sort of sense as sound. In other words, a receptor is needed to receive and experience the sound; otherwise, there is no sound. So for sound to have meaning, in a philosophical sense, we need three components: a source; the source acting to change air pressure; and a receptor (your ears) to convert the air pressure changes into mechanical energy (in the middle ear), and then into electrical energy that has some sort of meaning for us in our brains.

In some ways, none of this really answers the question: “If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” But the discussion sure does get us starting to think about the nature of sound, from which we can then move forward to a discussion of the nature of music.

Then, of course, there is the other classic philosophical question: “If a woman yells at a man and no one hears, is he still wrong?”

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