Dr Hans-Joachim Maempel, a musicologist from the Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung in Berlin, studies fundamental questions related to hearing. For him it is not enough simply to measure sounds using technical apparatus. He wants to know how we hear – and how our hearing experience is influenced by what we see. To this end, he teamed up with colleagues from Technische Universität Berlin to measure the optical and acoustic properties of six concert halls – among them the Romanesque Eberbach Abbey and the Gewandhaus in Leipzig – and reproduce them in a 3D simulation. His test subjects experience this virtual concert hall on a panoramic screen measuring more than 20 square metres; they listen to the music through special headphones which, unlike conventional headphones, ensure that the acoustic environment does not rotate when test subjects move their head.
“The most important finding of the experiments is that hearing and seeing influence one another hardly at all”, says Maempel. We appear to be able to make a clear distinction between acoustic stimuli that influence our auditory perception and optical stimuli that affect our visual perception. There is just one exception to this: if our visual perception is impaired, for example because our sight is poor, people rely more on their ears for orientation. And this is equally true the other way around.
Depending on the particular situation, having a good sense of hearing can be an advantage – when it comes to understanding others, for example – or a disadvantage, like when we find noise intrusive or disturbing. In any case, research currently being carried out gives us good reason to hope that auditory perception can be adapted to the wishes of the listener in future.