In the documentary Beach Boys: The Making of Pet Sounds, Al Jardine said Brian Wilson “sees things I don’t think the rest of us see and hears things, certainly, that we don’t hear. He has a special receiver going on in there, in his brain.”
What is that special, indefinable “it” about Brian Wilson? Is it really related to seeing, hearing, and receiving? And, if it is, what’s different about how he sees, hears, and receives? What of the rest of us? Why aren’t we all walking around composing “God Only Knows” or any other Wilson and Tony Asher masterpiece?
What Are You Hearing?
In his book The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, Dr. Norman Doidge shared the work of Dr. Alfred Tomatis, whose groundbreaking work identified “the ear as a battery to the brain.”
From the chapter “A Bridge of Sound” in The Brain’s Way of Healing:
In the late 1940s Tomatis continued to attack the conventional wisdom that the larynx is the key organ for singing. He showed that contrary to conventional wisdom, singers with bass voices did not have larger larynxes than those with higher voices. Human beings aren’t constructed like pipe organs, in which larger tubes produce lower sounds. Powerful tenors sing at frequencies from 800Hz up to 4,000 Hz but so do baritones and basses; the only difference is that the baritones and basses can add lower notes, because they can hear lower notes. He summed it up by saying provocatively “One sings with one’s ear,” a statement that caused much laughter.
But when scientists at the Sorbonne presented their studies of his work to the National Academy of Medicine and the French Academy of Sciences, they concluded that “the voice can only contain the frequencies that the ear can hear.” The idea came to be called “the Tomatis effect.”
Tomatis didn’t stop there. He invented a device called the “Electronic Ear” to help struggling singers. The device blocked out different frequencies, which trained the singers’ ears to hear the frequencies with which they’d been struggling/missing. By exercising their ears, they strengthened their voices, just as they might engage in exercise to strengthen other parts of their bodies.
Among us non-singers, Tomatis found, too, that the frequencies we hear can be influenced by our countries of origin. For example, he found that the French “hear in two ranges, 100 to 300 Hz and 1,000 to 2,000 Hz. Speakers of British English hear in one higher range, from 2,000 to 12,000 Hz, which makes it hard for French people to learn English in England. But North American English involves frequencies from 800 to 3,000, a range closer to the French ear, making it easier for the French to learn.”
More from Doidge:
Arguably [Tomatis’] most important discovery was that the ear is not a passive organ but has the equivalent of a zoom lens that allows it to focus on particular noise and filter others out. He called it the auditory zoom. When people first walk into a party, they hear a jumble of noises, until they zoom in on particular conversations, each occurring at slightly different sound frequencies.
Jardine’s comment that Brian Wilson hears what others don’t hear, might be right. It’s possible that Wilson tunes into frequencies and zooms into sounds/rhythms/conversations that the rest of us aren’t accessing. Even more remarkable is that Wilson is deaf in his right ear, which is the dominant ear for the majority of us. By accessing sound through his left ear, he’s automatically processing sounds outside the norm.
What are You Seeing and Receiving?
In the same Beach Boys documentary, Wilson mentioned that he “copied The Four Freshman singer, the high singer,” when he wrote “Surfer Girl.” He tapped into a musical influence and merged it with interests of his peers. While he didn’t surf himself, he understood—he saw—the appeal of the surfing culture, just as he did the car culture, just as he did the raw fact that the lives of most of his peers revolved around school and dating.
There’s a difference in this sort of seeing, just as there is in hearing as researched by Tomatis. There were millions of other guys Wilson’s age seeing the same thing. Even Wilson’s own bandmates saw the cars and girls and surfing culture, but . . . They didn’t do what Wilson did.
In the documentary Becoming Warren Buffett, Buffett was asked the following question:
“What are the key indicators you look for in companies before making an investment?”
He replied by talking about Berkshire’s investment See’s Candies:
“If you give a box of See’s chocolates to your girlfriend on a first date and she kisses you . . . We own you. . . We could raise the price of the boxes tomorrow and you’ll buy the same box. You aren’t going to fool around with success. The key here is the response.”
Buffett is right. My godmother introduced me to See’s Candies’ boxes of chocolates over forty years ago. I loved them then—and now she’s gifting them to my kids today. That’s loyalty.
But why does Buffett think like that? Why did he see that potential in See’s Candies? Just like Brian Wilson’s peers could see the response to songs about surfing, cars, relationships, and school, Buffet’s peers could see the response to the gift of a box of chocolates. What’s the difference between Buffett, Wilson, and their peers?
Why do they find creative configurations for random puzzle pieces, when all anyone else sees are mismatched puzzle pieces?
Exposure and Experience
Wilson had to be exposed to The Four Freshman and Buffett to See’s Candies—and to what was going on in the world around them—in order to connect songs and products to cultures. In order to do this, they needed experiences that would allow them to connect the dots. This comes from constant exposure and experimentation—paying attention to what does/doesn’t work in the surrounding world, and learning from it.
This is reading everything you can read, listening, painting, practicing whatever it is you love over and over and over again.
For Buffett and Wilson every song composed and deal made can be filed under practice, which brings more experience.
To do all the things mentioned above, there has to be an engine, a drive to capture it all.
In a TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert told a story about how poet Ruth Stone described poems coming to her, on a “thunderous train of air”:
It would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet.
She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page.
And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.”
And then there were these times—this is the piece I never forgot—she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she’s running to the house and she’s looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it’s going through her, and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand it and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first.”
I love this story. It’s like capturing a dream. You have to write it down the second you wake or you risk it floating off to Never Happened Land.
What powers an engine like Stone’s or Buffett’s or Wilson’s?
I think it’s curiosity.
Have you watched the new National Geographic series, Genius? In the first episode, a young Albert Einstein is driven by a need to know. Curiosity is at the helm, pushing him for answers.
Why Does Any of this Matter to You?
Within the first few minutes of the Beach Boys documentary, David Marks said, “People think ah, I can do that, but they can’t. It’s only something Brian could do.”
Wilson, Buffet, Williams, and Stone had/have a gift for connecting the dots. Their ability to bring together all the information coming their way—whether in dreams, Muse-driven trains, or cocktails parties—is extraordinary.
Do I think we can all do what they do/did? No.
Do I think we can tap into what I’m guessing to be qualities existing within their creative process? Yes.
We talk about hard work on this blog all the time.
What we don’t talk about as much is what we see and hear. Sometime you have to lift your head from your work and process what’s going on around you. What do you really hear and see? And of what you’re receiving, is it the full experience or are you missing out on an entire cocktail party?
The other part of lifting your head is this:
Big ideas aren’t necessarily a sign of genius, but of someone with the capacity to make connections between all the dots swirling around them.
How often do you hear about those ideas happening after an all-nighter of working?
They arrive during a hot shower and in the seconds before you go to sleep. They float in on a song, or a well-crafted sentence—and come along just when we least expect them—sending us flying like Ruth Stone to capture them.
We can do all the work and practice in the world, but minus the mental gifts Wilson, Buffett, Einstein, and Stone were born with, I think the thing we need most is to really see and hear the world around us and within us. Just as Tomatis helped improve the voices of singers, I think his same methods of tapping into different frequencies can help guide our creative endeavors. And when I say frequencies, I’m not necessarily talking just about traditional “sound.” Remember, Beethoven composed even after losing most of his “hearing.” (Maybe he did this by relying on “bone conduction?” *Read Doidge’s book.)
Are you tuned into all the frequencies possible?