The pictures in our head

June 29, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

When we critically listen to music on our high-end systems we are constantly comparing the sound we hear with the pictures in our head.

We all have a very well defined “picture” (model) of how the human voice sounds. When we hear a recorded version of that voice we mentally compare notes to figure out if it is accurate.

The pictures in my head are unique.

Developed over a lifetime.

I am certain most of you can figure out where this is going.

If each of us has a slightly different picture of what’s real and what’s not then, when it comes to judging the recorded audio qualities of music, we will all have a slightly different opinion.

Which is exactly what I find to be true. Yes, we can all agree on the big picture of a particular work, but when it comes down to the details we’re mostly in disarray.

And that’s the way it must be.

To each of us we’re right.

The pictures in our head tell the story.

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13 comments on “The pictures in our head”

  1. Hearing as well as viewing is always a mental process of detecting and comparing learned and stored patterns and our brain is most skilled and busy making permanently some kind of forecast. The basic problem with listening to a stereo (2-sound sources for reproducing a single instrument or voice, in the case of multi-driver loudspeakers even more than just two sound sources) system is the fact that this is an aural illusion. And everybody knows from his experience with optical illusions how they can fool our perception and how brain activity is increased to get a stable image, sometimes these images are permanently flipping. The other point addressed here is the so-called quality-problem meaning that perception is always individual and subjective. It’s a multi-modal process including also emotional effects!

  2. I’m sorry but I don’t find listening to music in the least bit visual in my mind’s eye, maybe back in the day when I used to drop acid tabs but not these days.
    Maybe it’s all part of why I’m also not really that concerned about what my home-audio rig looks like.
    For me a truly aural experience is totally devoid of anything visual, external or internal, as I find that they interfere with each other…they are separate senses & separate entities.

    Cassidy Hutchinson…my hero! 😉

    1. That’s probably true when listening at home but surely not when at a live gig.
      Otherwise I’d have to sit there with my eyes closed. 😉

  3. Those statements are somehow too optional for my taste. Sure everyone can and should evaluate for himself what he thinks sounds real or not in his mind and perception. This means, there’s theoretically a customer for every hardware’s interpretation of the truth, good or bad.

    A picture in the head without having heard live music frequently, doesn’t help much for a meaningful evaluation.

    Even hearing live music in a large concert atmosphere doesn’t help much, as it usually sounds very different (and worse) than how instruments or voices sound if one plays himself or listens to others playing directly. IMO this and the conductor’s perspective is what most of our recordings should be compared with, as they usually are much closer mic’ed than the live concert listeners perspective.

    If a listener wants his Hi-Fi to sound as “bad” as a live concert from the middle of the hall, that’s an easy and cheap task to achieve for the most part (slightly exaggerated and provocative 😉 )

  4. So individually we’re all correct. That means the problems start when someone agrees with us, because that then makes us more correct than the third guy, which doesn’t seem logical.
    In other words it’s better when we all disagree. 😉
    At the same time, I see what you’re getting at.

  5. Eyes closed during critical listening is essential for me.
    Cutting off irrelevant external inputs can only help. Very powerful very useful, in critical listening. If you haven’t, do try it.

    1. Me too. When I deconstruct tricky parts of music (so I can learn to reconstruct it note by note) I close my eyes to get better mental focus.

  6. Yes! This is one of the (many) problems with the concept of “the absolute sound” of live music in an acoustical space. We all have our own idea — our picture — of what the instruments and the space should be.

    About 10 years ago at our audio society meeting I was demonstrating that ripped files could sound better than playing tracks directly off the host’s CD player. We used a high-quality external DAC (the CD player had a digital output) when doing the comparison, so we were comparing like with like. I played a track from a live album from the CD and from the ripped file, back and forth a few times. Everyone expressed a preference for the file-based playback except our host.

    Here was his reason. He got the impression when listening to the file that he was looking up at a life-size singer from a seat near the stage, but that’s not how he likes live music. When he’s at a concert, he’s looking down at small musicians from farther away. He thought the CD sounded better because the singer and the band sounded smaller and more distant.

    1. That’s another interesting general topic (not talking about CD vs. streaming now). The preference of many, to have a soundstage as far back and distant as possible.

      I understand the fascinating part of it and the part which makes this more similar to an audience perspective and let’s the speakers disappear more when sitting in further distance from them. But imo those components or systems mostly fail to deliver the full front/back dimension (the soundstage not rarely just starts from the front wall further back), therefore have less separation and air front/back and are often less lively sounding. I also had this kind of preference while on more limited entry level high end. As soon as I heard a quality/soundstage/setting, on demand reaching from slightly in front of the speakers (90 degree to the sides in case of certain special effects) to quite far behind the front wall, the previous preference turned out to be a limitation, just advantageous as long as the equipment can’t achieve a complete front/back stage or speakers can’t be pulled far enough from the front wall.

  7. I still remember the first time I heard a high quality system that was properly setup so that I realized what it meant to hear and acoustic image of the performance. I found that when I first realized it I closed my eyes to do so. That was more than 30 years ago. Today I just see it with my eyes open.

    I suspect everyone’s system here is god enough to produce an acoustic image. The adjustment to do so is probably very small and wel worth the effort.

  8. Having categorized my life by whatever music I was absorbing at the time, listening often conjures up different people and different times from my past. We all made a bazillion mixes over the years did we not? Mix tapes got re-mastered as burnt CD’s which again got converted to playlists… As a music geek, music is also how I tend to calculate life’s timeline of past event recollection. When did ‘that’ happen, or when did you buy that motorcycle or when were you dating so & so..? Well, this song came out, that album was released, so that would have been 1988. It’s like being in a pub or restaurant and someone asks what time is it? It’s about 12:55. It’s actually 12:57 – how did you know? Well we got here at noon, and then I list off the songs that played in the background, so it must be around 12:55. Must be a subconscious habit picked up from years of DJ’ing – knowing a crepload of songs and their length. And BPM… OK, more likely a savant-adjacent thing – but heavy on the idiot part. 😉

    If not that, as someone who dabbled in several instruments (but clearly mastered none) I often visualize the fingers playing strings or keys and I can see the drums being hit. Unless it’s a harp, trombone or a nyckelharpa. No frikkin idea how they achieve musical note manipulations on those. That sh1t is obviously done with mirrors and camera angles. I’m not entirely convinced those are even real instruments.

    OR, just PUT images in your head – concert videos in the soundroom. The most enjoyable experience. Just revisited Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live (1994). Outstanding.
    Simple Minds’ See The Lights – Live In Verona is also a favorite. Out of print now. I lent my copy out to ??? years back and never did get it back. But fear not, alas there is a copy on – for FIVE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FOUR FREAKIN DOLLARS!!! It is probably MY copy. That SOB.

    Tip d’wisdom (that’s French y’know) – when you lend ANYTHING to someone, take a cell phone photo of them HOLDING the item!!
    Unless it’s your wife.
    That’s a whole other category.
    Probably gonna want to utilize the video setting for that.

    I digress.

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