Your Ears Don’t Blink

Seeing the above clip the other day off of typographer Erik Spiekermann‘s Twitter feed reminded me of a talk I saw many years ago at the MIT Media Lab by a sound designer from Bungie Studios (the creators of Halo). I wish I could remember the person’s name but it doesn’t come to me immediately — I had posted on this point many years ago but my blog at MIT was deleted after I left there. Let me try to reconstruct …

This particular designer was making a case for the importance of sound design as a discipline unto itself — at the time (the early 2000s) computer graphics was elevated to the highest status on everyone’s radar, so I could sympathize with this particular guru of sound. Reading the recent obituary for the late Marvin Hamlisch, I drew a similarity to something that was said about Hamlisch’s work:

Despite the acclaim he often said he thought his background scores were underappreciated. He said he would love for an audience to “see a movie without the music” to appreciate how the experience changed.

What is underappreciated, according to this particular sound designer from Bungie, was the immense craft involved in making sounds that differs from that of making visuals. As he put it, the language of cinema enables enormous license for the visual designer to splice and edit in a variety of scenes — often discontinuous (like the above). He said that visuals, like those above, are completely okay for our brain to process — even though they are jumbled and erratic — because our eyes blink all the time. The fact that we can blink at a scene, or move while we’re blinking, means that we don’t go crazy if the scene changes *suddenly*. Try that for a moment. Close your eyes. Turn your head. Open your eyes. It’s all okay to you, isn’t it?

He then said, “Now think about your ears more closely. You know … your ears don’t blink. Your ears don’t blink, so when sound suddenly changes, you freak out. If you listened to a jumble of completely unrelated sounds, you’d be extremely uncomfortable. Because your ears don’t normally blink – so discontinuous sounds are quite out of the ordinary.”

I’ve held onto this thought for over a decade now. It has applicability somewhere else, I am certain. And so, one more time, I try to leave it on the Web for someone else to figure out how to use the thought. Or at least to let your mind blink once more today, like mine. -JM