SOUND CONNECTS US
“If I had to boil it down to one thing; sound connects us.”
Dr. Nina Kraus is a scientist and inventor, Professor of Neurobiology at Northwestern University, and Director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, also known as BrainVolts. Join me on this premiere exploration of sound and listening!
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Read or follow along with the transcript
Timothy Myers 0:02
My guest today is Dr. Nina Kraus. Dr. Kraus is a scientist and inventor professor of neurobiology at Northwestern University and director of the auditory neuroscience laboratory called BrainVolts. Dr. Kraus recently published a fascinating book Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World. Nina, I’m really really glad you’re here today.
Nina Kraus 1:12
Thank you. I’m glad to be here, too.
Timothy Myers 1:14
Your book Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World is a really fascinating read. And one of the things I love about it is that it starts with really the basics of how sound is created, what the elements are the ingredients and then it goes all the way you know how it travels, how it enters our ears, how the brain is shaped, and then importantly, then how the brain shapes how we hear and how meaning is created. So I want to be sure to get to that. But before we dig in on the book, I would love to know what your first influential memory of sound was as a child.
Nina Kraus 1:52
I don’t remember a particular sound. But I grew up in a household where more than one language was spoken. And my mom was a pianist, and I love playing underneath the piano I bring all my little things there and it sounded so good and felt so good to be there. So whereas I can’t really come up with a string of early memories, but I will do my homework because I really liked this assignment. I can tell you that my life has always been mercifully very rich with sound.
Timothy Myers 2:32
Yeah, what a gift. You know, I have a very distinctive memory of first musical memory and Native American Indian powwow. And I grew up in central Kansas and most of my family was from Kansas and Oklahoma and there was some Native American blood and my maternal grandmother’s side, but I remember going and it was at night and, you know, arriving and seeing all this happening and, you know, sort of in addition to the sound of the drumming and everything, but also the site, the dancing and the energy that the sound provided in the space and it’s just something I’ve never ever forgotten. I don’t remember crazy specifics about it. But I just there was that environmental impact of that memory for me.
Nina Kraus 3:17
Yeah and I think that it speaks to probably the there are a number of themes in my book, but one of the biggest ones is that the hearing brain is vast and in the same way as you know, you were experiencing this scene through sound. We do know, biologically is that our sound, our hearing brain engages how we feel, how we move…
Timothy Myers 3:48
Nina Kraus 3:49
What we know, what we remember, what we pay attention to, and how we combine our information from other senses. The hearing brain, you know, the hearing brain is vast. And the formal way of saying this is that the hearing brain engages our cognitive (how we think), sensory (our other senses), motor (how we move), and reward (how we feel) systems: our cognitive, sensory, motor, reward networks. And we know this, you know, we can measure responses from auditory neurons. That are clearly a composite of information that is combined from all of these different neural happenings. And I think that one of the really key features of listening is that we are all listening with a different sound mind.
Timothy Myers 4:52
Right, which you refer to in the book as a sonic fingerprint. At one point, which I love. I love that term. And there is something about one of the categories that you explore on BrainVolts I want to come back to but before we get there, I wonder if we could just go back a little further into your interview for an article in 2018, in which you said that sound processing is one of the hardest jobs we ask our brain to do, because it involves processing on the order of microseconds. So I would love to just have a little chat about what exactly from a scientific perspective, what happens when we hear sound?
Nina Kraus 5:31
Let’s start with sound itself. So sound consists of ingredients. And you know, first of all, we really need to acknowledge that one of the reasons that sound is so under-recognized and underappreciated is because it’s invisible. And if you take the visual object, you know, I’m holding this pen, and it’s got a shape, size, color, texture, and it has these ingredients, obviously. Sound also has ingredients and of course, you know that they can they are pitch and timing, timbre, harmonics, phase, loudness – all of these ingredients are, they’re part of sound and we can measure sound is really the movement of air and we can measure that movement of air and we can think of it in terms of you know, what is the fundamental frequency, what are the harmonics, what is the phase what is your what are the ingredients? What are the different ingredients in the sound? Wave, so you have a sound wave, that then the brain has to make sense of, and the sound waves are happening across a broad timescale. So they’re happening on the one hand with microsecond precision really, really fast and so it puts all kinds of demands. On our brain that for example, you know, with vision, you know, vision is is much slower. And you know, sound just inherently really, you know, the differences between a D and a T and a B, they do this happens very, this is in milliseconds. microseconds. And the brain has to, you know, simultaneously make sense of all of these ingredients. So you have the ingredients of sound, and the brain then, the metaphor that I like to use, is I think of the ingredients of sound dumped into the brain. So you have this mixing bowl of ingredients, and then you have my metaphor for the brain is a mixing board.
Timothy Myers 7:36
Nina Kraus 7:36
So if you think of a mixing board with the different faders and each fader is reflecting how good a job your brain is doing at processing each ingredient. So the ingredients can be you know, the second harmonics, the third harmonics, the onset, the various aspects of timing over microseconds over seconds. It pitch timing timbre, that’s kind of the quick way, of talking about these ingredients and the brain. It, you know, I hope that what comes across is my tremendous all for what is going on in the brain and how each one of these ingredients is processed in its own way. And also, individually and together, how it’s affected by our experience our life, and sound. And so that the first part of my book is called how sound works. And that really is, Tim, just what you’re saying the you know, what are the sound waves? What are the brainwaves? And then how do we learn? What do we know biologically about how the signals outside the head, the sound waves combined with the signals inside the head, which are the brainwaves, and then we learn to make sense of the world. So that’s starting out with some knowledge of biology. This is a story that I have told. I have heard I have read time and time again. I’m like a little kid who wants to hear the same story again, you know, tell me about sound. Tell me about the brain. Just makes any sense out of it. Don’t tell me about it. And so that first third of the book is about that and then most of the book, two-thirds of it is about our Sonic selves, which is about how our life and sound makes us who we And then finally, the last chapter is a call to action, which is really to get all of us to think about how can we create the best Sonic World for our brains or our children, for our society for medical therapies? How can we construct you know, it’s not only how our brain constructs a meaningful Sonic World, but we have a responsibility to construct our own Sonic worlds. And that’s a really big deal. And you know, your project is a and a way of creating a sonic world that is specific to, you know, to honoring sound and listening.
Timothy Myers 10:39
Yeah, it’s, that reminds me of the BrainVolts website. There’s a section that’s listening in noise and so explores, you know, what you call auditory scene analysis, which is something that we all do all the time, right is pulling the relevant sounds out of the irrelevant, but in this exploration that we’ve been doing, it’s really been incredible to see. To see or to hear how unintentional we are about sound most of the time, right, so we’re not–of course in a rehearsal I’m, that’s really what I’m most intentional about is the sound and comparing it to, okay, does that match my vision for what I want the sound in this moment to be? What you know, what are the various ingredients of the sound like you’re talking about pitch timbre timing, all of those things are those things happening the way that they need to happen for this to, you know, be true to the composer’s vision, but then as soon as I leave the concert hall, then all of a sudden there’s just this cacophonous world that is doing a lot more damage to us than we realized, I think.
Nina Kraus 11:46
Yeah, that’s a whole topic. You know, on noise, and we should probably talk about that, but I have a whole chapter about that. But just getting back to listening in a complex soundscape. It turns out we know biologically that conductors are, are the best conductors are so good at picking out the relevant sounds in a complex soundscape because you know a lot of people think that it has to do just with localization of just knowing where the sounds coming from. That’s just a part of it. The you know, the big part of it is just as you said, it’s an auditory scene analysis. So you are analyzing the whole scene and you have a sense of how the individual parts are coming together. And this is what we are asked to do when we’re talking to each other in a noisy restaurant classroom. In that if we’re riding in a truck or anytime there’s noise which is almost always.
Timothy Myers 12:53
Nina Kraus 12:53
We have to make sense of sound and noise and that turns out to be really difficult and it challenges the nerve of the hearing brain. You know the hearing brain of pretty much anyone is pretty good at making sense of some sound in unchallenging listening environments like in quiet. But the minute you start making it more complicated, which you have multiple people in a room and they’re talking and now you start thinking about the acoustics of the room, and all of that, then really challenges the brain that we need to, you know, really make sense out of,
Timothy Myers 13:39
I want to direct that at some point a little towards the meaning side of it and the individual part of it right that you talked about in the book of everyone. Having a unique I think I said Sonic fingerprints the first time around, but I think in the book, you say biological fingerprint, but I want to step back to something real quick and this is really early on in the book. You say the sound of speech and music has privileged access to the brain’s reward or emotional network, speech and music might not have evolved, if not for the deep emotional feelings of connections with other humans that arise during these communal activities. And I just read that quote back and I just got goosebumps thinking that you did too. Good. But you know what? What caught my interest here is the distinction of communal activities, and how there’s an interdependence here between the listening brain, our individual biological, sonic fingerprints, the context, but as a conductor, I feel like one of the greatest things I can contribute is providing these communal experiences where that sort of emotional jungle gym is available for people to swing on into feel things that they might not normally feel and I think during COVID One of the things I miss the most about not doing live performance was that lack of community and connection not just between myself and the musicians, but you know, the audience in a hall is contributing greatly to the sonic landscape of a performance and the energy for you though, what? That’s why related to that comment about the communal element, Why is the communal element important to you in these studies?
Nina Kraus 15:21
Well, it’s important to me and I think it should be important to everyone, but we’re just not aware often about how important it is. Because if I had to say boil my book down of sound mind into three words, it would be sound connects us. Beautiful. So think about, I mean, think about what you and I are doing right now. You don’t have a script
Timothy Myers 15:48
Nina Kraus 15:51
So you know, we are I’m listening to you. You’re listening to me. We’re going back and forth. It’s what Ian McGilchrist calls betweenness,
Timothy Myers 16:00
I love that. right?
Nina Kraus 16:00
So you know this is between you and I and so reverberation and what I say depends on how you react, and how you react depends on what I say. And sound. Sound is sound is alive. Sound is alive. It’s very different. You know, we can communicate through sound the way we’re doing right now, or we can write each other text that is not alive. I can just sing harmony. And I don’t know how I do it. Just as I don’t know how I speak Italian. But you know, I just do, and singing harmony is one of the best examples of this, between this back and forth. You know, if you and I are singing harmony,
Timothy Myers 17:17
Nina Kraus 17:17
I am listening to you, and you’re listening to me, and we’re adjusting our motor movements and our feelings and what we know we’re just going back and forth, and you know, we are connected. Sound connects us and in this world, which is increasingly visually biased and noisy so that you know we can’t even there’s so much racket we can’t even understand what’s being said, you know, our ability to use sound is diminishing,
Timothy Myers 17:49
Nina Kraus 17:50
And in the world where we are more and more divisive in terms of, oh yeah, I think this and you know, these other guys are the bad guys. And you know, and there’s so little nuance where sound, you know, sound connects us in a way that we desperately need and it connects us it sound. So depends on context.
Timothy Myers 18:15
Nina Kraus 18:16
And so there isn’t, you know, oh, yeah, this is absolutely the way things are. It’s a back and forth. It’s a back and forth. It’s beautiful.
Timothy Myers 18:27
It is beautiful. I love that sound connects us and I was just thinking while you were speaking, the sound and listening requires trust requires a level of vulnerability, right? Because in a conversation for you to say something I mean, you’re using your voice which can you know, is also a can be a delicate thing and everyone’s is different. It’s a unique talk about a unique, you know, fingerprint but then you know, also the way that the person is listening and like just like if we were singing harmony together, right, how that’s there’s a level of vulnerability required to do that successfully, that we completely miss out on when we take things only into the written world. Because then it’s really up to the other person a lot and a lot of ways to create context,
Nina Kraus 19:15
I think important point because you’re bringing up the written world. Humans have been communicating or living things have been communicating with each other through sound for hundreds of 1000s of years. writing is maybe 5000 years old. So if you think of our biological selves,
Timothy Myers 19:40
Nina Kraus 19:43
evolved as creatures. We have evolved to be deeply, deeply rooted in sound, and we’re losing that.
Timothy Myers 19:54
Wow, that made me a little emotional to think about, actually. Yeah, thank you. You know, we’ve talked about a lot of great things about sound and how we process it and the ingredients I would like to move to talking about meaning. And I know that that could be defined a couple of different ways, probably, but, you know, for you, where does meaning come into the picture? After the sound is processed or the brain has received it? How are we creating that you mentioned earlier? Of course, you can train it right. So you train a certain response like the animal hears a certain sound and they know they might get, you know, a treat or something like that. But it seems as though we’re all creating meaning from sound all of the time. And it’s even different between different people. Like you were talking about, oh, you know, we all this tension we have among different groups of people that probably have a whole lot in common. You actually listened, where does meaning come into sound scientifically? And then beyond science?
Nina Kraus 20:57
Beautiful question and I think we might be thinking of it backwards to be thinking that you know, sound is coming into the brain and then we’re creating meaning. And really, what I think has happened is that the brain is an organ of prediction. And you know, you know, you know, a lot about sound. And even before baby’s born, baby’s been listening ever since at least three months gestation, baby can hear, you know, so we learn to make meaning. You know, the baby already knows that there is this, this the Sonic World, and that certain things happen, having to do with the sounds that they’re hearing, you know, when they’re born, they right away, you know, we learn the sounds of mother’s voice that we’ve already heard in the womb, and the songs that we’d heard through the womb we already we can remember we have those memories. So we have, we are our Sonic memories. So, you predict certain things and then when you know that also our sound mind is very, very good at picking up deviations from what we predict. And you know, again, imagine from an evolutionary standpoint, you’ve got some critter who is listening to the wind, and the leaves and the branches are making a certain noise, certain sounds. And then there is this other sound that is kind of different, and that could signal something that’s going to eat you or something that you might want to eat or meet with,
Timothy Myers 23:27
Nina Kraus 23:27
it’s essential for our survival that we be in tune.
Timothy Myers 23:33
Nina Kraus 23:34
We already have a sound mind that is in tune to the world up until this point, and then you know, now I want I can be in tune with what you’re bringing on in terms of the music that you’re creating, and then I get to listen to
Timothy Myers 23:55
Yeah, it’s interesting to me to think about something like art, like music departs from the scientific elements, right, that there’s a point of departure there. And we’ve talked about the ingredients of sound and so what it actually is and if we took, you know, you know, an orchestra playing a chord exactly what it would look like and it can break down all those elements, but that there’s something sometimes it was the communal element that you have talked about, but there’s something magical that happens beyond that, right. This sum is definitely greater than the parts when it comes to an experience like music and music of all kinds. You know, I think I’m not genre restricted when I say that, right. And that there’s something that can really magically happen, even when you know what’s going to happen. Right or you know, on the page what’s going to happen, but that there’s something that’s being created anew every time.
Nina Kraus 24:56
And the context again, is really important of the other context. You got a B flat. Whatever context you put that in brief, let’s just B flat, right?,
Timothy Myers 25:07
But it’s different than A sharp. (laughing)
Nina Kraus 25:10
Depending on the context you put it in, that’s important.
Timothy Myers 25:14
Nina Kraus 25:14
You know, what you bring to – you could have the same score, but you know, today, you’re feeling a certain way or, you know, you’re playing it a certain way, you’re hearing some new parts that you hadn’t recognized before. You know, and again, the hearing brain has vast cognitive, sensory, motor, reward networks, and what my piano teacher says, if it feels good, it sounds good.
Timothy Myers 25:41
I love that.
Nina Kraus 25:42
So you know, if you’re playing and now it’s feeling good, the sound that one can measure is going to be different from when you’re not having that, that feeling, but I think that at the root of your question is a deep, deep, deep point, which is about science and art and about the limitations of science. And I think that science is even more grand and wonderful. If we acknowledge the limitations. And we acknowledge, you know, for example, science depends a lot on the things that we can measure.
Timothy Myers 26:21
Nina Kraus 26:22
Well, you know, try measuring wisdom
Timothy Myers 26:25
Nina Kraus 26:26
There are so many things. And also, you know, science has this, this, I think, bad reputation of thinking that it would provide all the answers. And often or even an answer. I mean, for most things, I mean, even the B flat, right? The answer is, it depends.
Timothy Myers 26:52
Nina Kraus 26:53
The context matters. context matters hugely. And my students always, they want to know what is the answer? There is no the answer. Mostly it’s it depends. And even if you look at it as a multiple choice question, you know, if you really think about it, you can think oh, well, if I interpreted this way, if it’s interpreted this other way, then whatever. So I think there are very few answers. And there are so many questions. But you know, we have, we certainly know some things, you know, we know a lot of biology, and I think that it’s really important to take what we know and to put it into the context of whatever it is that we are trying to think about acknowledging all the time acknowledging that there are so many limitations in science and there is this is also this magical spiritual part of you know of science that we cannot lose sight of. And I know one of the reasons so my book has as ad illustrations that were done in partnership with an artist and you know, it was just kind of to hit the reader over the head of, you know, look at the art and science there’s so much art inherent in science. And so I think it’s important to be thinking about science from a more holistic perspective of, you know, especially if you’re a biologist, you’re studying biological systems that are changing all the time. as I saw firsthand with my single neuron in the bunny,
Timothy Myers 28:34
Nina Kraus 28:35
So we need to embrace those limitations and have them make what we’re doing bigger and better and acknowledge what we don’t know. And all of the things that we cannot measure that still makes music, music and you know, are listening to it. What it is.
Timothy Myers 28:59
Yeah, I had written down in my notes here another quote from the book that I really liked. Where you say, science is a deeply human endeavor. It is a humble attempt to cast a little light into the vast darkness of our ignorance. I think that’s a beautiful way to say it. But what you were just talking about also, it made me think about, I know sometimes when I’m looking at someone, I know people are always listening to me with a certain context. But before reading your book, I had always assumed that that was a learned context from their background, maybe personally, psychologically, and our interactions together on that level, but it’s a much deeper thing than that. You know, this, this fingerprint, you know, from which someone is listening to you is way, way deeper than just some learned behavior from an experience in life or something. Absolutely.
Nina Kraus 29:55
Yeah. It’s a combination of or a combination of many different things, and it continues to change. You know, one of the things that really bothers me even from a musical standpoint, there’s this this myth that if you don’t start early, forget it. As a musician. You know, obviously we change, and the way we learn changes throughout our lives. But anyone can learn to play to make music at any age. And again, we know this is the case from so many things. But you know, one of the reasons that I love biology is it grounds us into knowing that you can take an animal, no matter how old and inexperienced, and you can see that biological changes will occur when the animal makes sound, too, meaning connections that never goes away. And you know, as you’re older, you’re a different person. You have a different sound mind and you bring that wisdom to you as you learn to play an instrument for the first time.
Timothy Myers 31:06
I love that as a scientist, you still highlight the importance of learning to pay more attention to your gut. Feelings, which I always sort of relate to is listening to oneself. You know, you can listen to everything around you and makes it but are you really listening to yourself? And I’ve heard it recently referred to somebody was talking about when you’re making a decision. Is it a full body? Yes. Meaning is every part of your body in accordance with that decision. So it makes me wonder, I mean, is the gut feeling actually scientific at some level?
Nina Kraus 31:39
Definitely. And also, I think that the distinction, you know, we’ve always tried to do, and I think it was humans and scientists and philosophers, you know, we try to put things into categories that you know, mind and body and brain and, you know, I mean, I think actually, you know, when I think about when I say talk about what I do, you know, I study sound in the brain, but I’m not thinking of the brain as distinct from the body, the body, or gut. There’s, there’s so much input and output there. I mean, you know, again, our body is connected to our brain in a deep biological manner.
Timothy Myers 32:20
Nina Kraus 32:21
And, and again, it has to do with our experience. If I’m going to invest in a stock, I can, you know, look at how stock A and stock B have done. And then I can say, well, if they’ve done pretty much exactly the same, you know, I’m just gonna you know, I’m going to decide that I know nothing about stocks. Or I can go to a stockbroker and say, you know, I’m thinking that these two stocks a and b, and of course, he can’t read the future. He doesn’t know. But what’s your – what’s your gut feeling? I would so much rather trust the decision he makes, then, you know, and similarly, if I have a musical idea, and I bring it to you, or your husband and I say, Well, you know, I, I’m so much in enriched by someone who has had oceans of experience, who can listen to an idea that I might have and there are no answers, but I would much rather know what you or my husband thinks, you know, somebody who hasn’t really thought much about music.
Timothy Myers 33:41
Yeah, that makes complete sense. I wondering if there’s a practice that you would invite the listeners to try to deepen the way they listen and think about sound.
Nina Kraus 33:53
I think we should all make it a point to make some music every day. And I do say that it’s making music the same way as you know, we’re not going to get physically fit watching sports. We actually need to do and if it is just a matter of singing, yes. When I wake up in the morning, it’s not my most hopeful time.
Timothy Myers 34:19
(Laughing) That’s artfully said.
Nina Kraus 34:24
But I noticed just a number of years ago that if I sit down with the piano and I just play for, can be as little as five minutes, you know, just whatever is on my mind. Or if there’s a score there. I can just sightread. It just doesn’t matter, but you’re making these notes, you’re making the sound, you’re making this music, and suddenly, I find that if I just do this, it’s certainly not a big time commitment, but it completely transforms my day. And so if you’re actively engaged in making music every day for as little as five minutes, and as long as you can manage to do it, that’s my recipe for developing a good sound. And I do know, typically that if you’re going to change – fundamentally change your sonic fingerprint, and who you are sonically, you need to make the music.
Timothy Myers 35:30
That’s beautiful. I hear music being made in your background right now. I love it. My next question and you sort of went there a little bit and also, you have written a couple beautiful articles about the importance of music education, and, you know, really, even pleas for it and how it’s so essential in our society, but what would our world look like with more understanding of sound and listening?
Nina Kraus 35:55
If every child had a really good musical education. You know, this is, to my view, just from a biological standpoint, that from my view, every child should have a musical education. You know, if you think that your education should involve something like learning to read and write, it should also involve music, learning to make some music, it helps us again, connect it. So on the one hand, it teaches us it changes our sound mind in a way that affects language. So there’s a tremendous overlap between the ingredients that are strengthened by making music and the ingredients that are necessary for understanding language, including reading, and making music really strengthens your brain’s ability to process the harmonics in sound, which of course musically, the harmonics is what distinguish two different instruments playing the same note, but you can distinguish those different instruments because of the harmonics, but the harmonics in speech distinguish a G from a D, so you know, it is happening on a faster timescale, but you know, it’s harmonics. And so that’s really important music from a social standpoint. First of all, for an individual, it gives an individual some confidence to learn or to know that, boy, I can do this, I can make these sounds
Timothy Myers 37:32
Nina Kraus 37:32
And then I can connect. I can be a part of an orchestra or band. And I may not otherwise hang out with that type of person. You know, but you find yourself in a chorus, or you find yourself in a orchestra, right? And there are all kinds of people you wouldn’t otherwise choose to be with. And, you know, suddenly, you’re making music together and you realize, oh, man, we have such common ground.
Timothy Myers 38:03
Yeah, it’s amazing. That reminds me: I was for three years the principal guest conductor of Opera Africa and based in Johannesburg, and I will never forget the first time I went, and I was conducting a production at Puccini’s La bohème. So of course, there’s a very large chorus. There’s also a children’s chorus. And there’s a rich choral tradition in South Africa. And I still, to this day, will never forget hearing that sound of that group of people. And then during the break, you would hear not two or three languages, but four or five, six languages being spoken over the break. And it was just a great example of what you’re talking about, about how that’s a way for humanity to come together to create a miracle. I think that leads perfectly into the last question that I have for you today, after this really inspiring conversation. If you could broadcast a simple message about sound or listening that would be translated into every language, what would it be?
Nina Kraus 39:10
Take every opportunity you have to make music with yourself, with other people. Musicianship is often thought of in a very lofty and unattainable level, which I think, to truly be an accomplished musician is that, but all of us are deeply musical. If you look at a whole population of people, everyone has basic musical skills and ability. There are maybe less than 1% of the Mozarts on one side, and then there’s maybe less than 1% of people who really are not at all inclined to music, but everyone else is musical. And so my message would be to take every opportunity to sing: you sing with your daughter, sing with your kids, you know, make music, make music with your family, make music with your friends.
Timothy Myers 40:16
Well, Nina, this has been an incredible conversation. I’m really grateful for it and for you being so generous with your time, and I want to encourage all of our listeners to check out your book. It’s Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World. Dr. Nina Kraus, thanks so much for being with me today and for your generosity of spirit and ideas, and every other way. Thank you so much.
Nina Kraus 40:43
Well, thank you for the fun we got to have together.