Is the Essential (In)Audible? An ode to the sense of hearing

Read more Last updated: August 2020
In collection Hearing
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There is a passage in the book “The Little Prince” that is quoted again and again: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” This is the secret the fox tells his friend, the little prince. The idea that what is meaningful can only be experienced deep within one’s heart has fascinated generations of readers of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s world bestseller. The question is: Is the essential not only invisible but also inaudible?

The way to the heart

It is not known whether and to what extent Saint-Exupéry was inspired by the Baroque writer Madeleine de Scudéry. However, it is interesting that the famous French writer of the 17th century is still on everyone’s lips with a quote quite different from her male colleague’s one of the 20th century: “The ear is the way to the heart.” This enchanting everyday wisdom focuses on the sense of hearing instead of the visual sense to get to the center of humankind. One could understand de Saint-Exupéry’s and de Scudéry’s quotes as different literary standpoints, or wordplays – literature lives off using the meaning of words in unusual ways. Yet the difference between those two quotes does not stem from a gimmick nor different aspects of one and the same entity. Whether we focus on the ear or the eye is an expression of a cultural, philosophical, and spiritual imprint which many of us are not particularly aware of today. These imprints, in turn, couldn’t be more different and have severe consequences for our listening skills – and our societies.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and The Little Prince
© Getty Images

Unheard of! Hearing loss in Western philosophy

The perception of – and thus the importance attributed to – hearing in Western philosophy is quite remarkable. According to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus (ca. 535 - 475 BC), what orders the cosmos and gives it form and meaning is logos, which translates to word, reason, plan. A part of a fragment ascribed to Heraclitus reads: “The Law [of the universe] is as here explained; but men are always incapable of understanding it, both before they hear it, and when they have heard it for the first time.” Hearing seems to be the fundamental way to perceive logos – a notion also conveyed by Eastern belief systems and picked up later by the monotheist religions.

Nevertheless, Greek philosophical aesthetics throughout the centuries were by all accounts theories of the visual. Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), for example, prefers seeing to all other senses and attributes it with the highest significance, as he states in his famous work “Metaphysics”. There were undoubtedly Western philosophers over time who took a different aesthetic approach, e. g. Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Theodor W. Adorno, and Jean-Luc Nancy. Yet Western philosophy principally remained faithful to its ancient Greek roots. The German 20th-century-philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer defined “ocularity” as a crucial characteristic of Greek philosophy, which is so deeply ingrained in Western culture that we still might think: To know is to see.

The importance of sound in Eastern philosophy

Eastern philosophy marches to a different drum. One poignant example is certainly Yoga, a method related to Samkhya, one of the six orthodox systems of ancient India. The theory of Samkhya describes a dualism of the pure spirit (Purusha) and the material world (Prakriti), whereas Yoga is the practice leading to self-realization and healing. It traditionally consists of “eight limbs”, including meditation, breath control, and concentration. In the Western world, however, Yoga has become an object of cultural appropriation, as Indian-American Yoga teacher Rina Deshpande explains in an article for Yoga Journal. Yoga in the West is often a mere lifestyle trend, a kind of gymnastics supposed to tone your body and benefit your well-being – nothing more. There are actual courses and books advertised as “Om-free”, i. e. free of any spirituality, bells, Sanskrit words, and chanting.

Yet in traditional Yoga, speech (the expression of thought) is inextricably linked to Prana (the life energy, carried on the breath). By using our breath, our life energy, we are speaking – and by speaking, we are naming our reality. One might consider speech the materialization of Prana. The sixth limb of Yoga, concentration (Dharana), offers many methods to help the mind achieve single-focused attention and thus to connect with the Divine. One of them is the repetition of mantras, such as OM. This Sanskrit syllable represents the primal sound of the Universe; saying and hearing it not only connects us to the Divine, but it is also the vibration of the Divine.

The world’s religions are vibrating with sound

As Yoga is rooted in Hindu scripture, it is self-explanatory that speech and sound are crucial elements in the theory and practice of Hinduism. Repetitive prayer is an integral part of worship, and there are uncountable mantras for chanting. Hindus are chanting, or singing, instead of just praying because they not only contemplate the sense of the words but also dwell on their sound and vibration to receive the spiritual meaning. The same applies to Buddhism: The chanting of mantras is believed to help the praying person transform their consciousness, remove negative karma, and attain liberation. One well-known Buddhist mantra is “Om mani padme hum”, with which practitioners are focusing on compassion for all sentient beings.

Interestingly enough, all five so-called world religions rely on the word as sound and means of communication between humanity and the Divine. The Book of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament, starts with the famous sentence: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” To perceive the Word, however, you must hear the Word; you must listen. The Hebrew word shema sheds light on what it truly means to listen to God: It translates to hear, listen, obey – therefore, hearing God demands listening to God, and listening to God is obeying God. In both Judaism and Christianity, God has called the world into existence, and there is a comparable concept in Islam. The sura 41.11 of the Koran reads: “Then He directed Himself to the heaven while it was smoke and said to it and to the earth, ‘Come [into being], willingly or by compulsion.’ They said, ‘We have come willingly.’” And again, there is a connection between speaking, listening, and obeying.

The perfect pitch – a surprising ability

Hearing remains but a peripheral topic in our Western visual culture. It only then becomes a subject on a societal level when it is related to an impairment – or the other extreme, perfect hearing. Mozart, Bach, Jimi Hendrix, the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter: All of them are said to have the ability to correctly classify every note in a tonal system without the need for a reference tone. There are now many international studies that want to unravel the secret of the absolute pitch. According to the music psychologist Diana Deutsch from the University of San Diego in California, everyone can have perfect pitch. You just have to learn a tonal language such as Mandarin, Thai, or a West African language such as Ibibio or Haussa early enough. Other researchers believe that perfect pitch, like body size, is hereditary.

It all begins with the concert pitch A

In 2001, scientists discovered that apparently every baby is born with perfect pitch. The ear is developed before the eye. Therefore, the child hears the mother’s heart beating in the womb; it already makes contact with the mother and the outside world as it grows – through the ears, through hearing. Like the visual sense, the sense of hearing needs external stimuli to develop. The unborn child can perceive acoustic signals as early as the 20th week of pregnancy, which is one reason why the newborn is familiar with the voice of its mother from the very beginning. From the middle of the pregnancy, the baby also reacts physically to hearing stimuli; loud noises make it cringe. When it is finally born, the child screams – in the concert pitch A. This is the reference tone for tuning musical instruments.


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Listening despite a hearing impairment

The fact that intact hearing is a prerequisite for healthy language development does not need any further explanation. That, too, is taken for granted by society. Perhaps that is why hearing, unlike seeing, is often not tested during routine medical check-ups, not even with a bad cold or infection. A well-known example is that of the Scottish musician Evelyn Glennie (* 1965), who is considered the most famous drummer in the world. Before enrolling in high school, a medical officer discovered by chance that Evelyn was profoundly hard of hearing. Her condition was the result of gradual damage to the auditory nerve, probably triggered by a spread of inflammation. Evelyn Glennie, who is musically highly gifted and taught herself to hear with parts of her body other than her ears, has made her way despite her impairment. She listened to her heart and concentrated on something essential to her, setting an example for what people with hearing impairments can achieve.

Evelyn Glennie
Evelyn Glennie
© Philipp Rathmer

Comprehensive listening

Let’s come back to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous quote: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” You, therefore, may want to look upon things with your heart to perceive them holistically, without judgment, and in the light of love. Madame Scudéry’s words, however, let us believe that the essential might be audible when she says, “The ear is the way to the heart.” Is it by listening that we understand who we are as human beings?

In contrast to the eyes, we cannot close our ears. They are always open, even when we sleep. Of our five senses, the sense of hearing is the only one that lets us perceive everything around us. With our eyes, for example, we can only see what is inside our field of vision. Our ears let us hear what’s happening behind, in an adjoining room, outside our window, on the streets. We cannot see it, we cannot smell it, we cannot feel it – but we can hear it. The sense of hearing is, therefore, the comprehensive sense. It is our ears that set an example and encourage us to be open at all times, open-minded towards ourselves and our fellow creatures. The auditory canal is the road of longing, the way that leads us to our inner and the outer world. The ear is the gateway to what is essential. We would do well to honor and hone our sense of hearing by listening carefully to everything life has to offer.

German original by Sandra Goetz.


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