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Women's Listening

01-01-2023 | By Editors at Positive Feedback | Issue 125

Part 1: About the Brain

From the Editor

In her first column for High Fidelity, Malwina Prus-Zielinska talks about how our brain works and what sounds have to do with it.

Women's Listening is a series of essays written by Malwina Prus-Zielinska, an occupational therapist by profession, a music fan by choice, and an audiophile's girlfriend by choice. It shows the audio world from a different side than what we are used to.

With an article a About the brain we begin a series inspired by the e-mail that Mrs. Malwina sent to the editorial office. As she wrote: "I am an audiophile's girlfriend and therefore I have become an audiophile myself. Unintentionally but with openness, I entered the world of the sound of Music, which is conscious of the quality." Accustomed to the sound of music from the phone or via a Bluetooth speaker, she suddenly discovered a world of wealth, a world of real sounds.

There is no exception in this epiphany, we are all of it, so to speak. Each of us experienced a moment of delight with sound which gave our life the right direction. And it does not matter in this case gender, race, or sexual or political orientation. Music is the most universal of the arts and has the greatest impact on us.

Audiophilism on the other hand is something else. It is a special state of mind that the love of high-end sound combines with a hobby. And the hobby is mostly male. So the more interesting it will be to look at us from the outside, from the point of view of reason. In this case, it is also important that it will be a warm gaze of a person who shares our passion. To know what we are talking about, let's add that Mrs. Malwina is currently with her partner at the cable testing stage—as she says: "all".

How has it happened that the quality of the sound turned out to be so important to me that I decided to write for High Fidelity? I am still surprised at this. After all, I'm a woman, and men have the most to say about audio equipment. Basically, mostly men, because your perception is perfectly technical. And yet we stay with you in a feminine way. We go with you to auditions, set up the equipment, make the necessary rearrangements and listen and look... in order to finally hear the right sound, in which everything is in its place. This spacious sound that brings with it wide breath and peace.

In my daily work I am an occupational therapist and I help, or at least try to help, those who need it, and I teach those who will offer this help in the future. At the same time, for over 10 years I have been playing Tibetan bowls, also called sound bowls. These instruments, known for many thousands of years, are made by hand in the foothills of the Himalayas. When set in motion, they produce clean, long, harmonious tones, calming and calming the human nervous system.

Their sound is similar in nature to the sounds of Nature, and the wavelength of the sound they produce when hitting them with a stick causes a relaxation effect in our brain. During the day, the human brain emits Beta waves, while the sound of bowls is able to reprogram it into the Alpha state (relaxation, relief), and even Theta (half asleep, meditative states). This property is especially valuable in the modern, ever-moving world where we are exposed to stressors and sources of sound, straining our nervous systems to the limit.

Each of us has had at least a few moments in our lives when we thought that nothing would surprise us anymore. And then new, unknown situations appear that require cognitive effort from us and it turns out that humility and awareness are good, faithful friends directing our lives to new waters and wider horizons. That's what happened with me and that's how my adventure with pure sound began.

In the last few years, I have either been listening to my favorite music from the phone using a Bluetooth speaker or playing bowls. As I pay great attention not only to the melody of the piece, but to the words contained in it, I carefully chose what I was listening to. However, I could only listen to a few songs in one set. After them I had to take a longer break and only after that I returned to music again. I didn't even suspect that this behavior was related to the sound quality. I just couldn't keep listening and that's it.

I also didn't think about the reason for my behavior. So it was and that's it. Today I know that I had not yet awakened awareness of sound quality. Which, all in all, seems a bit strange, because for me the best instruments and first teacher of sound and silence were forest and nature. The sound of the wind dancing in the poplar leaves is a prototype of listening to percussion brushes, and the singing of birds, especially the nightingale and the blackbird, is my first reference to the saxophone. My childhood spent by the lake in the countryside among the trees and sounds of nature perfectly taught me to listen.

When I moved to Poznań for over two years, I ran away to the countryside with every free moment. I did it not to go crazy. Trams, buses, planes and people... The sounds almost attacked me from everywhere. With time, however, I got used to it. Did the city got quiet? Absolutely not. It was my brain that started cutting out the sounds I was hearing from my consciousness. I was less and less aware of them. And even less so, I was unaware of the process going on within me. This was the phase of adaptation of my nervous system to the stress caused by difficult sounds around me.

It lasted for years. And it was effective. I spent every free moment among the trees, but already in the Poznań forest. And I was still not aware of the possibilities and greatness of the sound recorded on music carriers. Until the first time I sat in the listening room and heard the sound of the ProAc DR20 floor-standing speakers with the Rotel RA-1592 amplifier. I only went in there for a moment, because my partner had an appointment... and I was only half an hour, having no idea what awaited me next.

From the very beginning it turned out that I can't listen to music on my phone anymore, really! At first I thought that I had "spoiled" my hearing, but after a while I came to the obvious conclusion that it was not true. With a few successive listening sessions, during which we compared the sound of individual speakers, my awareness of the sound quality grew.

The first parameter was the feeling that something is wrong in what I hear. I did not know yet that one and the same CD can present the sound of individual instruments in a completely different way, and it all depends on what we play it on, how and with what we send the signal to the speakers. Imperceptibly, the parameter of sound perception, i.e. whether I feel good and pleasant with it or not, was joined by attention in listening to a large amount of details.

I was able to read the differences in the sound of individual speakers efficiently, as well as such nuances as, more or less, the metal sound of drum brushes or the breathing volume of a saxophone player. I intend to use the term "conscious quality of music" here, because that is what it should be—CONSCIOUS, that is attentive and noticeable in the multitude of its details. From this awareness, over time, an answer emerged why I can no longer listen to music from the phone. All because of the sound quality!

Formatting a song to an mp3 file is lossy, i.e. by compressing the soundtrack of a given song to the appropriate size, some sounds are lost, and some converted and sound different, become harsh, unpleasant. Hence, listening to music in this format is similar to listening to the sounds of a noisy, busy street and "strains" the human nervous system putting it in a state of emergency. The brain gets tired, the heart speeds up, blood circulation increases. I observed it on myself and my nervous system. The same music played in CD quality and presented in a clean and harmonious sound of good audio equipment did not cause such a state, did not introduce nervousness and tension.

What is the conclusion of this? A human being is one big receiver, and music, especially the one that is supposed to relax us, played in mp3 format, does not relax us, let alone our nervous system. Can such music harm us? It is worth considering this question. The relaxation area is very extensive on the Internet. There you can find, for example, breathing meditations illustrated with relaxing music aimed at calming emotional tension, i.e. calming the nervous system. What if, instead of relaxing and calming down, we ultimately make us even more nervous?

I didn't know about it before, and yet my nervous system knew because—as I mentioned—I could only listen to a few songs. I felt it. Does this mean that even if we are not aware of the sound quality, it may still have a detrimental effect on us? Yes, indisputably. Even if we do not associate symptoms, such as nervousness or tension, with poor quality music, it can have such an effect without our knowledge.

To conclude, I have a question for you: when an audiophile who is looking for the best quality sound and pays attention to how the cables sound, what are their lengths and whether they cross or not, does he take into account that his entire body is a receiver, and his own nervous system also plays a part in making decisions? Have you ever realized that the peace of your nervous system is the parameter that communicates to you that music "does not irritate"? I, a woman, even though I did not realize it, felt it. And that's what we do. Maybe without technical knowledge, but with our intuitive feeling. As I found out, it is worth relying on.

About the Author

I am an occupational therapist and I teach at school for future occupational therapists how to conduct therapy. I generally sensitize Man to Man. I also work with the sound of Tibetan bowls and broadly understand music therapy.

I have published several books for children, including one released on CD as a radio play in collaboration with my daughter's school. Currently, a book is being prepared in the publishing process, which we are preparing together with my partner. A literary and artistic project for two voices. My text and his photos.

text Malwina Prus-Zielinska

photos Maciej Kielan

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