There’s been a strange synchronicity between my reading, work and social lives this week. Last night, my badminton partner – a sound engineer – dropped the racket cases on the floor at the side of the court just before we went on.
“Ah, flutter echo!” he said.
“Flutter echo. Listen”
He dropped the cases again. I listened. The slap of the vinyl cases hitting the floor reverberated back and forth from wall to wall like a computerised tap delay. It was mesmerizing.
“You can measure the size of a room with flutter echo.”
And with that we got on with the game, but for the next hour, every time there was a loud enough sound (like when one of the staff burst a balloon left over from a children’s party that had been in the sports hall that afternoon), all I could hear was flutter echo. I’ve been in that court many times, yet this was the first time I’ve ever noticed the echo, or been able to give it a name.
The story has a strange resonance (excuse the deliberate pun) with the book I’m reading at the moment, The Audible Past by Jonathan Sterne. Subtitled ‘cultural origins of sound reproduction’, it’s a fascinating exploration of the history of listening, and in particular, the development of medical techniques of listening (through the stethoscope) as a means of diagnosis. Through such techniques, hearing – not just sight – became means for us of measuring and analysing the spatial.
All of which underlines the blindingly obvious, which is that you hear what you’ve learned to hear, and what you later hear or listen to changes the world that you attend to. My perception of the leisure centre where I play badminton is forever changed by flutter echo. I am more alert to its dimensions, its geometry, and to the hardness of its surfaces.
Translate this into the world of music (or indeed, any kind of aesthetic appreciation), and the notion of ‘innate musicality’ begins to sound slightly absurd. We’d be worried if children grew up as ‘innate wine-tasters’. I’m not disputing that some people might be disposed for one reason or another to be particularly good at or enthused by music, but if you can teach me to hear flutter echo at my age in a split second, then think what you could teach children.