Music to your ears

Feature article by Rod Taylor

Portrait of Kristen Sutcliffe holding a bassoon
Audiologist and CSO bassoonist Kristen Sutcliffe is part of the team producing "Music to Your Ears" as part of Uncharted Territory festival (Image: Martin Ollman)

In July 2023, the Canberra Symphony Orchestra launches Music to Your Ears, as part of the ACT’s inaugural Uncharted Territory festival.

Nicknamed the ‘Big Ear Project’, this interactive experience explores the science of hearing from a classical music perspective.

Music to Your Ears will take audiences through the functions of the ear, breaking down
the science with large-scale props and musical examples. Co-presented by audiologist / bassoonist Kristen Sutcliffe and science presenter Rod Taylor, Music to Your Ears will also provide practical guidance to help people living with hearing loss to maximise their experience of music.

In this article, Taylor shares his experience of hearing loss and the significance of the ‘Big Ear’.

A friend of the great physicist Richard Feynman once suggested that science diminished his appreciation of beauty. ‘You…take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,’ they said.

But no, Feynman replied, ‘I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there…which also have a beauty… the colours in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate… science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower…I don’t understand how it subtracts.’

As an advocate for science, I agree, but there’s something science can never do. I could give you detailed technical explanation of how sound resonates off a cello string, of the compression waves rippling outwards, then funneled by your outer ear into the hearing mechanism, and into your brain.

While that is a wondrous, fascinating thing, it is inadequate. Science cannot explain what it’s like to experience the deep, resonant harmonies of a Bach cello suite. It’s inadequate because, somehow, music infiltrates the emotional circuits of our brains. 

Even though we might decompose the perception of music into the realm of evolutionary biology, music is well beyond that.

[blockquote author=”Richard Feynman, physicist”]

…science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower…


All this came to me in a very personal way over ten years ago when my sense of hearing collided with nature, leaving it severely damaged.

If you’re not familiar with hearing loss, you might think it was equivalent to just turning the volume down. Sadly, however, that barely describes it. Everybody’s hearing loss is different and depends on the causes. It doesn’t occur uniformly across the range of pitches, although it’s most common in the higher registers. For me, it’s chunks of the highs, mids and the lows, to the point that I am only a few decibels short of a cochlear implant.

In cases like mine, the perception of pitch and loudness are pretty much shot. I feel the need to apologise to musicians for all their years of training, because the nuances of intonation and dynamics are mostly lost on me. While I have a fine collection of music, I rarely listen to it.

One does not need to be a musician or a scientist to know what Tchaikovsky was thinking when he wrote his sixth symphony. A hundred years before Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described the stages of grieving, he ranges across the emotions from despair, to anger, defiance and beyond.

In the final notes, Tchaikovsky is contemplating death. It leaves us sad and exhausted, but somehow relieved. It is perhaps the most poignant statement I know that encapsulates how we think about our inevitable demise. The genius of his music is that it takes us on a journey far deeper than any words or science could ever convey.

My own experience with hearing loss is also a kind of grieving. Sometimes it makes me sad or cranky, though I’ve mostly progressed to the ‘acceptance’ stage. In the scheme of things, I know other people endure far worse.

In any case, normal is overrated. I tried it once, didn’t like it. And if I had normal hearing, I wouldn’t here, be doing what I am now.

Rowan Phemister playing the harp
CSO harpist Rowan Phemister is part of the CSO 'Big Ear' team (Image: Martin Ollman)

The path to the Big Ear Project began some years ago, when I was invited by Sue Daw OAM to visit the support group Better Hearing Australia. Sue was president of the local branch and is a living treasure.

Through Sue, I met another gem: Kristen Sutcliffe, audiologist and CSO bassoonist. For years, Kristen has been the driving force behind the CSO’s Rediscovering Music, a concert series / forum designed for people with hearing loss (which Sue helped to establish). The title aptly describes the musical joy still available to those of us who’ve lost our hearing.

In 2017, we teamed up with classical guitarist Steve Allen to present an interactive show that takes the audience on a journey through the hearing system.

We coaxed volunteers out the front to act the various parts including the outer, middle and inner ear. To our delight, they started dancing during Steve’s finale.

Now, with funding from the ACT Government for the Uncharted Territory festival, we’re building a new experience: Music to Your Ears. It will be bigger and better, with the combined energy and creativity of Kristen, CSO Artistic Operations Manager Donna Parkes, CSO percussionist John Dewhurst (also an audiologist), and CSO harpist Rowan Phemister.

We’re looking forward to seeing the audience dancing.

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