The Unconservatory  

Valuable and Destructive Listening Experiences

(article by Kirk Whipple)

Here, on a very biased scale of 1 to 100 (with negative points shown for destructive acoustic experiences), is my extremely arbitrary short list of environments, acoustic experiences (musical and otherwise) and their relative value. All of these examples, while prejudiced with my own tastes, reflect real situations that might enhance or compromise your ability to enjoy the acoustic arts. Whether you agree or disagree, wholly or in part, with my rants and lists please feel free to write me with your own suggestions. Explore and enjoy your ears. They are yours for a lifetime.

a short list of valuable listening experiences

A piano recital in a large living room in the country. The home has no electricity currently running. The seats are soft. The noise from animals outside is rare, unobtrusive and quite pleasant. The piano, a 9 foot concert grand was tuned twenty minutes before the performance. The pianist is well prepared. The audience is quiet and relaxed. 100 points

The beach. The deep woods. A cave. The middle of a still lake. Your own back yard. You remain silent for hours. 100 points

A large concert hall with thick walls that completely cuts out the traffic noise. You can't even feel the subway rumbling because we are not in New York. We are transfixed by over two hundred vocalists and instrumentalists performing (what else?) Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. We are not in the first row. We are in the middle of the auditorium and slightly off center (my favorite spot!). The audience is excited and very still. 100 points

Performing music for yourself after you have spent some time learning to sing or play an instrument. Good instruments or a good vocal day: 100 points Not so good instruments (or maybe you haven't sung in a while): 10 to 100 points (Many times it doesn't matter that your instrument is less than perfect. You decide.)

Recital in the living room studio of The Unconservatory. It is Sunday at three p.m. A car passes by every five minutes or so. Not too distracting, but about every twenty minutes or so you can hear bits of conversation coming from the sidewalk. People sit on the couch, in a chair (hard or soft), or on the carpet. The piano, a 7 foot 6 inch conservatory grand was tuned last Friday. The pianist is well prepared. 60 points With fire engine siren passing by once or twice: 40 points

For the first time you hear the new compulsory piece performed at a piano competition. It is challenging, but interesting. You are intrigued. 60 points

A very intimate night club, 100 seats. An acoustic jazz group in great form. The waiters are very quiet and try to get orders during applause. The person who set up the sound system for the vocalist still has his hearing because he decided to be the sound man for Bobby McFerrin - not Ted Nugent. The audience is jovial, celebrating the hot solos and respecting the quiet passages. 60 points With smokers: 25 points With a lot of smokers and increasing numbers of drunks -25 points

You hear the tenth performance of the compulsory piece performed at a piano competition. You have a very good grasp of an exciting new work. 40 points

Learning to play an instrument or sing. 20 points

Children laughing out of pure joy. 15 points

The Town Square. A lovely recording of Mozart's "Symphony #40" is wafting through the air, but don't kid yourself. So is the traffic, the crossing signals, the sound of the fountain and every pedestrian within earshot. 15 points

You hear the twentieth performance of the compulsory piece performed at a piano competition. You are ready for the next piece. 15 points

Children laughing out of pure amazement that you went for the Sunday paper before you really woke up. 10 points (Hey, it's still a beautiful sound even if you forgot your bathrobe!)

A large concert hall with thick walls that completely cuts out the traffic noise. You might feel the subway rumbling but it does not matter. We are at the premier of "The Ghost of the Dance Hall," the latest musical by British sensation Arthur Lane Weeber. The costumes are extravagant. The lighting is superb. The stage is breathtaking! Five minutes after you feel the rush of the wind from the pirate ship that swings down from the rafters the curtain closes as you race out to the lobby to buy the C.D. 10 points (You were so distracted by the visuals that the only thing you remember from the experience was the melody that was reprised forty times and the lack of available parking!)

Two months later you pop "The Ghost of the Dance Hall" into your C.D. player. You wish you had paid half as much to hear YoYo Ma play down the street. 5 points


one view of the middle

The sound of fingernails on a chalk board. Painfully ugly, but not unevocative and not necessarily uninstructional. 0 points


a short list of destructive listening experiences

Your computer room. You play one of those video games that have repetitious electronic themes. As your eyes become hypnotized your ears become desensitized to their environment. -5 points

1:00 a.m....2:00 a.m....3:00 a.m....The neighbor's dog. -10 points

You hear the fiftieth performance of the compulsory piece performed at a piano competition. You can not wait for the next round of competition. -15 points

Your office. Your boss has the same tape playing every day in the break room. -20 points

You hear the same compulsory piece performed at a music competition by the one hundred twentieth player. You never ever want to hear that piece performed again. -25 points

(among the most destructive of listening experiences)

The Concord Pavilion. Any concert that has an attendance of over 50,000. You are in the tenth row for the concert. You remembered to bring earplugs. Too bad the sound was cranking at about 110 decibels. Your ears ring for a day and a half. Your hearing is "slightly" damaged. -35 points

The runway at San Francisco International Airport. You listen to the obscure work by John Rage entitled "Take Off and Land, Take Off and Land." The original score calls for the audience to do this without hearing protection. -50 points

The Concord Pavilion. Any concert that has an attendance of over 50,000. You are in the tenth row for the concert. You forgot to bring earplugs. Too bad. The sound was cranking at about 110 decibels. Three days later you are in the doctors office asking if "that darn ringing in my ears will ever go away." -75 points

A volcanic explosion. You die. -99 points

The front row of a "Marilyn Manson" concert - in front of the main speaker tower. You look at your watch and realize that, fifteen minutes into the two hour show, your eardrum exploded and you are going deaf. You wish you were dead. -100 points

For further reading on the subject of listening we highly recommend The Listening Book by W.A. Mathieu, Shambhala Publishers. It is available at Copperfield's and other fine bookstores.

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Updated: January 25, 2001 (KB)

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