The richness of sound

Listening gets a bad rap. A famous statistic about listening is that people remember 30 percent of what they hear, 50 percent of what they see and hear, and 80 percent of what they do. This statistic may be unsupported or based on apocryphal sources, but the gist is consistent with the wisdom of Confucius: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

Actually, the world of sound provides richer information than sight in many ways. Auditory guru Seth Horowitz outlines the comparative advantage of sound in his entertaining book The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind. As Horowitz writes, what we take in from sight is certainly a rich vein of information: “Vision is a relatively fast-acting sense that works slightly faster than our conscious recognition of what we see.” But sound outshines visual input in crucial ways:

By contrast, animals and humans can detect and respond to changes in sound that occur in less than a millionth of a second . . . It is this faster-than-thought auditory speed, with a wide range of tones and timbres that visual color cannot hope to match and greater flexibility than the chemical sensitivities of taste and smell, that lets sound underlie and drive a fantastic range of subconscious elements in the living organism.

The particular value of sound for lawyers may not seem apparent at first. Lawyers aren’t hunter-gatherers trying to sense the first rustle of an approaching predator. But the speed and richness of auditory input can help lawyers in many, many ways. Listening to a judge’s questions at oral argument, an advocate may develop a very quick sense of whether the question is friendly or hostile—indeed before the judge has even finished enough of the sentence to reveal its substantive content. In discussing a settlement offer with a client, the “wide range of tones and timbres” in the client’s voice can very quickly tell a lawyer if the client is excited or skeptical. And sounds that aren’t exactly words—humming and hawing and swallowing and nervous tapping—are auditory input that adds to the richness of a lawyer’s perception in any situation.

Understanding how quickly sound works on the brain should help lawyers better understand and manage reactions, both their own and others’. The richness of sound adds yet another argument in favor of sometimes foregoing the e-mail for a phone call. And when on that phone call, don’t give in to the temptation to tap out a quick e-mail. They will hear that tapping and start to form an impression—in less than a millionth of a second.

 

Thanks to Seth Horowitz for feedback on this post.

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