When I was little, my dad, who knew everything, gave me a present.
I watched with curious anticipation one day as he tied a long length of thread taken from my mom’s sewing basket onto the closed ends of a thick wire coat hanger. He instructed me to place the loop of thread over the top of my head so that the upside down hanger dangled freely in front of me, somewhere around my belt.
“Now run the thread over your ears and press it in tight with your fingers so that you can’t hear anything.” he instructed me. “Then stand as still as you can and listen to everything.”
I wasn’t exactly sure how I was supposed to listen to everything with my fingers in my ears, but I did as he instructed. I could hear nothing at all, save for the phantom echoes that come when the mind struggles to hear what the ears cannot.
He smiled, and gently moved his hands down over my eyelids to close them so that it was dark too. Then he rapped the hanger sharply with a spoon.
A deep, resonant gong filled my entire body, as if emanating from an unearthly bell tower in my soul, rich and strong and vibrant. It shifted in intensity as interlocking tones swirled in and out creating a spiral of intriguing harmony that my mind could neither decipher or keep up with. I was washed in a singular tone from the inside out that ever so slowly decayed back to the emptiness from which it came.
I lingered over the last faint overtones before they left the world for good.
Being a kid, I immediately opened my eyes and ran around the house with my fingers in my ears swinging the coat hanger into furniture so I could relive the experience.
What my father had given me was not the first noise cancelling headphones. Nor was it an educational parlor trick, as he intended, to demonstrate the physics of sound. What he gave me was a singularly beautiful note that was mine and mine alone. Something created by that particular length of thread, that specific coat hanger, that precise metal tap of a spoon. Something resonant to be appreciated in the moment before it dissipated into silence.
An aural snowflake.
My older son’s long time girlfriend plays the standup acoustic bass. Several times a week she comes over and practices in our living room while I work quietly in my home office. The finely crafted instrument stands upright on the floor and she warms up with long tones, running the bow methodically over the heavy strings to hold a singular sustained note for as long as possible.
The fat, round tone emerging from her bass fills the room with radiating warmth that feels rooted and fundamental. The support post that drives to the floor transforms the basement below into a sound chamber, ultimately turning the entire house into one big speaker. The deep ethereal sound resonates throughout the house.
I hear the sound around me, but I also feel the sound deep within me. As if I could play it myself just by opening my mouth.
Incited strings need to be amplified by receptive materials that are tuned and shaped and assembled to be heard. When violin makers precisely arch their instruments they are guided by sand sprinkled liberally over the wooden plates. When made to vibrate as by a string, the sand shakes gently across the wood into beautifully distinctive arrays known as Chladni patterns, named after physicist Ernst Chladni, who I am guessing also listened to the ocean in shells when he wasn’t playing the fiddle at the beach.
The resonant frequency of the materials amplify the sound. And the sound, in turn, amplifies the resonant frequency of the material. Until we not only hear it, we feel it.
Unfortunately, at just the right pitch, the glass may shatter when the fat lady sings.
Because vibrations are not always good vibrations. Sometimes, when amplified, they can be dangerous. A cable suspension bridge torqued by wind shear into uncontrolled oscillation can topple to the ground. The periodic thrust of a rope swing, if maintained hard enough and long enough, can send the rider over the top.
And inciting the resonant agitation of large bodies, like a mob for example, can actually breach buildings.
Taut strings need to be coaxed into sympathetic vibration by practiced hands that understand the overtones they are creating.
But when acted upon just right, there is a truth and beauty to a vibrating string. After all, vibrating strings create music.
Maybe all we need to do to find that truth is to put our fingers in our ears and listen.
If just for a moment.