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NATIVE AMERICAN FLUTE FORUM
Vol. I, No. 3
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How to Select the Best Flute for You
Part III. The Psycho-Biology of Tone.
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by Dennis Sizemore
 
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     Introduction
     The Psycho-Biology of Tone
     The Physiology of Hearing
     Summary
     Conclusion
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     Hello to all of our friends in the world of the Native American Flute!
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     For those who are reading the Flute Forum for the first time, this is the educational area of the web page, where we share ideas that will improve your experience with the flute. As always, the Flute Forum is here to serve your needs. If you have questions related to flutes, or about this column, please write. If you have suggestions about how we might better address your specific needs, or the needs of flute players in general, please contact us atwebmaster@loomisflute.com.
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     In this issue of the Flute Forum, we continue to examine various aspects of tone, with the goal in mind being to assist you in understanding your flutes in greater depth which, in turn, will give you more confidence in making a flute selection. Last issue, we began the subject of Tone with The Acoustics of the Flute. We discovered many of the variables that produce such a broad array of sounds in our instruments. In this issue, we follow the path of sound as it enters the human body, examining how the anatomy of hearing influences our relationship to tone. This topic is part of a broader area which I call collectively the Psycho-Biology of Tone. The first part, the Physiology of Hearing, is the topic of this Flute Forum. The second part, the Psychology of Sound, will be continued in the next Flute Forum. As with the previous article, there is a lot of technical information that may or may not be to your liking. If you would rather read just the most important points, please skip to the Summary.
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     The Psycho-Biology of Tone
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     The Physiology of Hearing
     As sound leaves the flute, it exists as compression waves in the molecules of air between the flute and our ears. The anatomy of the ear is specifically adapted to channel these 'sound waves' to the area of the body where the sound information can be most effectively transmitted to the brain. Initially, the sound waves strike that part of the ear which is most visible. This is called the outer ear, or pinna. The pinna assists a gathering and channeling process whereby the sound waves are guided, with very little disruption, into the tunnel of the middle ear.
     At the end of the tunnel is a flap of skin called the eardrum, or tympanic membrane. The eardrum vibrates sympathetically when struck by the incoming sound waves. On the other side of the eardurm, hidden from our view in the inner ear, are the three smallest bones in the human body. Attached immediately to the backside of the eardrum is the hammer, which is attached to the anvil, which, in turn is attached to the stirrup (stapes). As you might guess, each of these bones is shaped much like their namesakes. Each bone transmits the vibration of the eardrum into the deeper mechanical parts of the ear. The last bone in the chain, the stirrup, is attached to a second fleshy membrane, the oval window, which covers the opening of the vestibule of the cochlea. The oval window behaves in a manner similar to the eardrum. It receives information in the form of vibration and then relays the information through a different medium. The cochlea is a snail-shell shaped construct filled with cochlear fluid. This fluid is set into vibration by the movement of the oval window, which has been set in motion by the vibrations of the stirrup.
     Within the cochlea is a long ribbon of hearing cells, called the Organ of Corti, which is covered with between fifteen thousand and twenty thousand cilia. A cilia is a small hair that is anchored in the body of an individual hearing cell. As the oval window vibrates, it sets the cochlear fluid in motion. The fluid undulates in waves and presses on the cilia much like ocean waves pushing against grasses at the sea shore. The motion of each vibrating cilia activates an electro-chemical signal in the hearing cell in which it is imbedded. This triggers an electrical impulse in the auditory nerve, which then is sent to the area of the brain where the signal is deciphered. Perhaps the most important piece of information regarding tone is this: Each cilia has a specialization with regard to its sensitivity to vibration. In general, the longer the cilia, the more that it reacts to slower vibrations, which correspond to lower pitches. The shorter the cilia, the more naturally it reacts to faster vibrations, or higher pitches. No two humans have exactly the same proportion of long and short cilia, therefore two identical sounds entering any two ears are translated by totally unique hearing structures. This results in totally unique information being sent to the brain of all individuals hearing the same sound.
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     Summary
     Did anybody else find that hard to follow? I did and I wrote it! Here are the most important concepts to understand about the hearing process:
     1) Hearing is a translation of forms of energy. It starts with:
          A) Particle motion (the vibrating air between you and the flute) that we describe as sound waves, which becomes
          B) Vibrations in the Eardrum, then the Hammer, then the Anvil, then the Stirrup, and then the Oval Window, which becomes
          C) Wave motion in the Cochlear Fluid, which becomes
          D) Mechanical motion in the Cilia of the Cochlea, which is translated into
          E) Electro-chemical signals in the hearing cells of the Organ of Corti, that is transmitted as
          F) Electrical impulses in the Auditory Nerve, which are sent to the Brain.
     2) The hearing process involves over fifteen thousand individual mechanical parts, and many millions more individual cells, extending from the outer ear to the auditory nerve, all of which work in concert to let us hear and respond to a single sound.
     3) From person to person, mechanical parts of human ears seem similar in construction to a great degree, but truly exist in unique subtle variations of structures and functionalities.
     4) No two ears transmit identical information to the brain when hearing identical information. (Ever play the telephone game? We were doomed from the beginning!)
     5) Many parts of the hearing process are still not understood. (Such as, How do the hearing cells translate the mechanical energy into electro-chemical and then electrical impulses?)
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     Conclusion, as it relates to flute tone:
     From understanding the anatomy of the hearing process, we know that we all hear the tone of a given flute in a totally unique and personal way, in part controlled by the tremendous variation in construction of the parts of the inner ear. The darkness of tone of a particular flute, or the shrillness of another, is heard in a similar fashion by all people, especially when the tone is representative of sounds at the extreme range of our hearing sensitivity. But, when hearing flutes that are more in the midrange of tones, the unique and subtle differences of each of our hearing structures becomes more obvious. Have you ever noticed the greatly different vocabulary that we each use to describe the tone of one flute? Have you ever noticed that there is some subtle quality in the sound of a flute that you seem to hear, but others don't? Have you ever tried to point out a particular tonal characteristic of flute to a friend, but the friend 'just doesn't hear it'? ( Or, vice versa. How frustrating!) This is all partial evidence of the variations of structures of our hearing physiology. This means that no one can tell you if a flute 'has a good tone'. You have to decide for yourself if the tone is something that you find beautiful, or rich, or dark, or sweet, or riveting, or entrancing, or tender, or whatever the quality is that you need to express.
     I hope that our journey through the ear has helped you to feel more comfortable in uniqueness of your response to each flute. Best wishes in your flute playing!

If you use these hints, you"re on your way to selecting a great flute! Good Hunting!!!
Copyright 1998 by Dennis Sizemore
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     Do you have questions about caring for or playing your Native American flute? We"d love to hear from you. Email: webmaster@loomisflute.com
 
 
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