What does it mean to have a musician’s ear? Listening to musicians
University of Surrey
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Professional classical musicians train intensively so they can perform consistently at the highest level. They usually begin their training in childhood and spend decades building a technique, reputation and industry contacts, and amassing a depth and breadth of repertoire knowledge. The expectation is that they will have long careers. Crucial to this longevity are the musician’s hearing and listening. Two major risk factors for acquired hearing loss are ageing and long-term exposure to high levels of sound (noise). Yet many musicians continue working despite this: hearing-test results are not linked to ability to earn a living in music. Beethoven, in 1802, discusses his despair, social isolation, frustration with doctors, but also his determination to keep going. Even today, ‘science’ does not fully explain how musicians manage, though neuroscience and cognitive science provide better clues: Oliver Sacks, who wrote about music and hearing impairment, has been called a practitioner of la médecine romantique – a storyteller.Walter Benjamin, in his 1936 essay ‘The Storyteller’, calls storytelling an ‘artisan form of communication’. Performing musicians are a specialised and collaborative vocational group who seem to be instinctive storytellers. I intend, through in-depth semi-structured interviews, to collect stories from today’s musicians about their hearing, their noise exposure, and how they process musical, verbal and other sensory information in less-than-ideal acoustic or auditory situations.This project builds on work at the BBC where I collected the largest dataset of musicians’ ‘workplace’ noise but did not find a satisfactory answer to the often-asked question: ‘What do we know about musicians’ hearing?’. Hence the work is of great interest to musicians and those who work with them. I will reflect on the collected stories, and on storytelling as a potential tool for sharing information, for reinforcing or breaking taboos and for creating a sense of community and continuity.