A Question About Sound

If a tree falls and I’m not wearing my hearing aids, does it make a sound?

One morning last week I was sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee when I noticed something odd out the window. We have a large, old, beautiful and very decrepit barn. From where I was sitting, a tree trunk seemed to be leaning on it. It’s a woodsy overgrown area, so at first I thought I just hadn’t noticed it before.

Later I went out to look more closely and saw that the tree trunk had pierced the barn roof, leaving a hole about six by eight feet, now filled with tree trunk. Not only that, as the tree man told me later (see photo), the trunk had snapped off, hit the sloping ground, and then flipped back up, like an Olympic pole vaulter. I’m sorry I missed it!

Downed tree, left, leans into barn.

But I’m more concerned that I didn’t hear it. It must have made a loud noise as the trunk cracked and fell and an even louder noise as it sank into the roof. It was a windless night, and quiet.

I have a dog who barks at people coming to the door and at stray raccoons and other creatures who venture too close to the house. But the cracking tree doesn’t seem to have phased him. Maybe because it was one (or two) short sharp sounds. That may be why I didn’t hear it either. I have some residual hearing, though, and it dismays me that I could miss something so dramatic.

But back to the question. It’s a play on the old philosophy trope, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” An amusing essay in Medium by John Hydrisko attributes it (or the idea of it) to George Berkeley, an 18th century Irish philosopher whose belief was summed up in the phrase: esse est percipi (aut percipere); to be is to be perceived (or to perceive). For Berkeley, Hydrisko writes, if the tree is not perceived it doesn’t exist. “If you asked George Berkeley, ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it? — he would probably cut you off, “What tree?’” No one there to perceive it. Thus it doesn’t exist.

The Oxford English dictionary defines “sound” as “Vibrations that travel through the air or another medium and can be heard when they reach a person’s or animal’s ear.” But if they reach the ear and are not heard, are they still sound?

Scientific American, back in the 18thcentury (thank you again John Hydrisko), summed it up: “Sound is vibration, transmitted to our senses through the mechanism of the ear, and recognized as sound only at our nerve centers. The falling of the tree or any other disturbance will produce vibration of the air. If there be no ears to hear, there will be no sound.”

Of course there were ears to hear: all the little critters in the forest have some form of hearing, and in many cases it’s far more acute than ours. So, If a tree falls and I’m not wearing my hearing aids, does it make a sound? Ask the deer and the raccoons and mice. The answer is yes.

Katherine Bouton is the author of “Shouting: Won’t Help: Why I and 50 Million Other Americans Can’t Hear You” and “Smart Hearing: Strategies, Skills and Resources for Living Better With Hearing Loss.” Both are available in paperback or as an ebook through Amazon.com

17 thoughts on “A Question About Sound

  1. Katherine, you have been so much in my thoughts and I have so wished I could send a note in the mail to you. Could you let me know what address is best to use to reach you? In the fall of September 2018 a tree fell on the house in Sewickley,
    so I very much understand how it must have felt to view what happened to your barn! So glad you were safe in bed!

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  2. Trust the mice and the raccoons and the deer.

    That said, tracking sounds (or trying to, and failing) is one of the things that makes me craziest.

    Sounds that I used to hear more fully and recognize, but that are stripped down as my hearing declines and so sound different: I have to re-learn what they are. There is that loud (relatively — ha ha) rattle-y sound in the late evening. It was too close, and always unnerved me. I learned that it happened, on occasion, and that nothing bad happened, so I don’t need to get up and look around and try to decipher it. Just let it go. (Me? Ha ha) But….

    Well, eventually I did figure it out: It’s the rattle-y sound of garbage bins being wheeled to the street. But that was 3 months of weekly evening tension after my last hearing drop to figure that out. I could do without that. Those times when I want to ask someone, “What was that sound?” are about the only times I wish I didn’t live alone. Mostly I like it and find it less stressful than living with hearing people.

    Thanks for the column. And especially for the last paragraph’s corrective on all the Big Egos Past who thought that if they didn’t know something it didn’t exist. Cheers!

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    • Thanks Carol. I like that graph too.
      I have the same experience as you of trying to identify sounds. An speech language therapist I was working with told me to search out every new sound. It’s like adding it to you vocabulary.

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  3. Our English language does not seem to have two separate words to differentiate noise that is made by something and the sound that is perceived by a sensing organism, animal,or tree or other living thing with sound sensing ability or should we say sound sensing ability and the ability to interpret it in some way. By the way trees, falling usually make very little noise unless they crash on the roof you are standing ,sleeping ,or sitting under. The land hurricane destroyed 65%of the trees in our city August 10th and destroyed 36 of our 35 year old 40 trees. As I watched you could hear the wind but not the trees coming down till they landed on the porch roof and I had my aides in and on. Do other languages solve this philosophical question with another word for perceived sound?

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  4. Oh, come on. Leave the tree in the forest to the philosophers. What about the sounds emitted by all of our family members which we don’t hear, are you saying they are not making a sound because because we don’t hear them.

    And since I do not hear my neighbor’s noisy lawnmower, he must not be making a sound altho something is driving my wife nuts.

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  5. Reminds me why I’m arranging to have CO/fire/smoke detectors installed in or near our upstairs bedroom at the country house.

    This past summer a downstairs CO alarm went off shortly after dinner, necessitating a fire department visit. The problem was quickly resolved. But the experience led me to ask the homeowners association to test the alarm system to see if I would be alerted while asleep. Sure enough, when I’m bed without my hearing devices – awake or asleep – I heard no warning.

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    • I thought you had to have them near any bedrooms? We have smoke and co detectors all over the place. Alas, when one goes off — from burned toast, for instance, they all go off. But better to be annoyed than dead!

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  6. “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” I remember my young philosophy prof at UCONN raising the question more than a half century ago. The answer of course depends on whether or not you credit beings that pre-date humans with high level neuro-emotive capacities. We have come a long way forward on that, even if your four legged animal was unreactive, which of course does not tell us whether he heard a noise.
    Robert

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