How We Hear When There is No Sound

Question from a recent poll on TubaNews: How do you hear the low register in your mind?

I hear the note in the register it is written 68.51% (248)
I hear it an octave higher that written 6.63% (24)
I hear it in a register that I can sing 13.26% (48)
I don't hear well at all in the low register 11.60% (42)

Total Votes: 362

I've always been fascinated and quite frankly a little embarrassed by the way I hear the low register of the tuba in my mind's ear; that is when there is no sound. I am one of the 13.26% from the TubaNews poll, “How do You Hear the Low register in Your Mind?” I can only truly hear a sound in my mind if my body can produce that sound. It's not just the tuba and the low register of music; it's the entire register of music from the lowest notes of the tuba to the highest notes of the piano and piccolo and even more, as the new world of electronics expands our musical references; we are now able to hear and discriminate pitch at a much wider register that ever before.

I remember as a boy playing a piano down to the lowest A and absolutely not being able to hear what that note was supposed to be, it was just something like a roar to me. Now, of course, my ears are trained to discriminate these low frequencies to the bottom of the piano, to the lowest pedal notes of the tuba and even a few octaves lower as a result of experimenting with synthesizer. Personally, However, all my references to these low frequencies come first within the register that I can sing and whistle, my corporal register; only after hearing the real sound can I experience the note in the sounding register.

I was very surprised by the results of the last poll “How do You Hear the Low register in Your Mind?” when I learned that a little more than two thirds of those who responded to the poll said they were able to hear these notes in the low register in the octave they were written. It was even more surprising to me because over the passed years when I would ask colleagues and students the same question the number of those who professed to be able to hear low notes, in the register they were written, was close to zero! I look forward to understanding this difference.

But the question opens up many more questions. For example, is the ability to hear a note in the extreme low register anything like having absolute pitch (perfect pitch)? I just read (with the help of Google) that only 3% of the world population has absolute pitch but most surprising, even shocking, is that in the very next paragraph I read that 70% of students in Japanese conservatories have absolute pitch. I also look forward to understanding that data!

And in this discourse I have to mention another personal difficulty, which is hearing rhythm without sound. I am forced again to use myself for an example; as I have never discussed this before with anyone, the only example I have to review is my own experience. I cannot focus on rhythm without hearing it; I cannot hear a beat until I hear a sound, then of course, it's instantly there. When I try to imagine, for example, the timpani part at the beginning of Brahms First Symphony or third movement of Mahler's First Symphony before the famous canon, which includes the tuba passage so often used in auditions, I hear only a vague “blur” of rhythm, unclear and unfocused. At the instant of the first real sound the rhythm becomes clear and energized.

Two other major parts of music, timbre and articulation, are quite different; most of us hear timbre and articulation very accurately before any real sound is audible, all of us have had abundant experience at this because of language; timbre and articulation recognition are almost parallel to hearing vowels and consonants, which we hear so naturally in our language, at least in our mother tongue.

Today is January 2, 2007. Two days ago I received a phone call from a student I hadn't heard from in seven years when my Lausanne Conservatory class was celebrating the new millennium in Amsterdam, Holland. Like the tone and articulation idiosyncrasies of musicians I've known, I was able to identify the student instantly.

I apologize for this vague and academically unsubstantiated article but please help me; any reaction positive or negative, any experience you can share and any argument that might help me better understand the way we hear in our mind's ear, would be deeply appreciated. Please feel free to respond in the TubaNews forums or directly at

January 2, 2007, Tokyo, Japan

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