Big Ears

by Baker Lee
in FOH at Large
Illustration by Andy Au
Illustration by Andy Au

There are various videos floating around the internet of a young boy named Dylan Beato demonstrating his uncanny ability to identify piano notes and chords while his back is turned toward the piano. Dylan’s father, Rick, sits at the piano and plays each note, interval, chord and cluster while Dylan listens and identifies each played note, which is then verified by his father.

Impressing us even further after identifying a particularly complicated chord, Rick asks Dylan to sing a specific note and Dylan does as requested without missing a beat. Rick then goes on to play various poly-chords and clusters, which are also easily identified by Dylan as he sings back each note of the different chords played. Just to be sure that the viewer has not underestimated the genius of the nine year old Dylan, the Beatos up the ante by having Dylan stand at a whiteboard writing each note on a music clef as he identifies and sings the individual notes he hears in each chord.

The father-and-son display shows that Dylan has “Big Ears” and, just in case we don’t mistake the videos of Dylan’s musical ability for a parlor trick, there are also other videos of him at age nine playing piano and demonstrating that his perfect pitch translates into real music. As it turns out, all of these videos become an advertisement for a phone App that Rick Beato developed called Nuryl, which is a brain-training program for pre- and post-natal musical teaching. Apparently, the program works, and Dylan is the living proof of its success, but Dylan isn’t the only one with “Big Ears,” and videos can be found online of other prodigies demonstrating their own innate talent for absolute pitch.

‡‡         Perfect Pitch

Having perfect pitch is not necessarily a prerequisite to being a successful professional musician, as there is more that goes into making a musical career than being able to identify one note from the next. Some people are able to play a piece of music upon hearing it just once, although a person claiming to have perfect pitch does not automatically have the ability to recreate an accurate version of a piece of music upon first listen. That kind of talent requires a perfect memory as well as absolute pitch. Perfect pitch is a form of photographic memory and — while there are many musicians with both absolute pitch and perfect memory — there are those who are successful with only relative pitch and a good memory. Some people with absolute pitch also claim to have a neurological condition called synesthesia, which is the involuntary crossing of sensory input; in this example, it would involve a sound triggering a visual such as a color.

It’s not any more surprising to find a “Big Ears” type of person in the music world as it is finding a tall basketball player in the NBA. While being tall in the NBA is a common denominator among teammates, height alone does not by design determine the player’s position or skill. The same applies to having “Big Ears” in the music field. Although a musical profession seems to be a natural launch for someone with “Big Ears,” where they can be determined by a variety of factors. Some of the “Big Ears” with whom I have worked include players, writers, singers, producers, piano tuners and engineers, to name a few. Some of the great talents can do it all; there are those who can fill some of the positions while others specialize at one endeavor. Regardless, they all share the common experience of having “Big Ears.”

Just to be clear: Having “Big Ears” is more about being able to hear what others cannot hear — with perfect or relative pitch being just one part of the equation. Regardless of whether the ability to identify a note or chord is an innate or learned aptitude, it is still just a tool to aid in a process, whereas being able to manifest this auditory talent takes real “vision.” As an engineer, our notes and chords are the different frequencies with which we work and — in the same way that a musician can learn relative pitch — an engineer can learn to identify different frequencies. Where the musician uses different notes and tones, coupled with rhythm, to create a song or a melody, the engineer uses frequencies, dynamics and effects to shape the sound into a cohesive mix. Achieving the proper mix requires an engineer to have a firm understanding of the tools they are using, but in the same way that a musician with perfect pitch can identify a note just by hearing it, the engineer with “Big Ears” has an idea of how a particular mix should sound before turning on the sound system.

‡‡         The Live Application

Most great producers have their own vision of how a recording should sound and, from Phil Spector, Rick Rubin and Dr. Dre to George Martin, Quincy Jones and Nile Rodgers, there is a good possibility that each of them would have an image of the sonic picture they wanted to convey before they even began recording. The final product might differ a bit from the original idea, but these producers are listening with “Big Ears” to an inner sound as they use the tools at hand to bring their sonic vision to the rest of the world. The concept of “Big Ears” applies to the field of live sound as well as the recording world, and I would venture to say that great engineers such as Dave Natale, Big Mick and Robert Scovill utilize their “Big Ears” and well-honed skills to bring to life the particular sounds that they alone are hearing.

One of the challenges with engineering live music is to give the mix a feel and bring it to life in spaces that vary in shape, size and reflection. This task requires a mastery of the available tools we use to amplify and shape the physical waveforms received into our consoles and sent to the speakers for the audience to hear. If a mix should fall short, it may not necessarily ruin a show, but it doesn’t enhance performance either. With so much effort and money riding on each show, it’s imperative that the quality doesn’t fall below a certain level and that the engineers “Big Ears” are as big, if not bigger, than the musicians they are mixing.