The Unesco Sound Week from 15 to 28 January 2024part 1

Hello Christian Hugonnet, you are the founding President of the Unesco Sound Week.

As you know, the 5 senses for kids Foundation supports any educational, cultural, social or scientific initiative that contributes to the development of children by promoting multi-sensoriality as a fundamental basis for their development and their openness to the world. So we’re delighted to be interviewing you today.

To give you a better understanding of the “Unesco Sound Week” event, could you remind our readers when and how this week was created and what its objectives are?

Sound triggers images

I launched “Sound Week” 21 years ago. At the time, I thought it would be a good idea to get everyone thinking about the meaning of sound, and to put sound back where it belongs: as an element that allows us to trigger images. Sound triggers images: I hear first to see the world better, not the other way round. “It’s not the image that leads the world” said Jacques Attali, who sponsored “The UNESCO Sound Week” a few years ago. It’s the sound that triggers the image, but nobody is really aware of that. That’s why losing that sense is so important, because it actually hinders development in our societies. So I said to myself: “What can we put in this ‘sound’ so that we can be understood?” and to be understandable, we had to find 5 themes that seemed obvious to me and that would allow us to be heard.

Recording and sound production

The 2nd important point was sound recording and production. We need to know how to reproduce, record and replay sounds, because these sounds have replaced natural sounds. All young people are now beginning to hear a clarinet, a piano or any other instrument through an earpiece. We’ve been demonstrating for several years that sounds aren’t what they used to be, and our evaluation criteria and benchmarks have gone completely astray: we don’t even know what a good sound is. As natural sounds disappear, we need to be able to appreciate sounds that aren’t natural. Universal and I are working on this to develop a sound quality label.

Hearing health and compression

The 3rd important point is hearing health. Our ears need to be under control, and in any case not constantly assaulted. This is absolutely an essential point, given that young people today are losing their ears as a result of prolonged listening to over-compressed dynamic sounds that are completely blocked upwards all the time. On this subject, I think we need to say two things about dynamic compression. Compression came along in the 60s when Anglo-Saxon bands arrived, and at that time we had to mix a guitar with drums, and we didn’t know how. If you turned up the guitar level, you saturated the recording because there’s a whole part of a guitar signal that you can’t hear. So we had to crush and transform the guitar and raise it in relation to the drums. Today there isn’t a single recording that doesn’t use compression. There are many voices that would never have existed without compression. And from then on, advertisers in the 2000s started compressing everything, turning everything up so that they could be above everyone else all the time. That’s how the adverts were heard at very loud levels compared to the rest of the programme. Then everyone started compressing to be above everyone else. In fact, we’re experiencing a war of levels, which is a terrible war where everyone wants to be above everyone else. This ends up suffocating the hearing neurons. We carried out experiments last year with Professor Paul Avan in which the hearing neurons were put to a severe test, because the energy is constant, all the time. There is no micro-silence, and as a result the neuronal protections fall away, and ultimately what we call the stapedial reflex is no longer operational. This stapedial reflex allows the ear to be reduced when very loud sounds are coming through, and if we lose this ability we get tinnitus and hearing problems. So you can see how compression is an essential point.

Health obviously depends on everything we’ve just said: the sound environment, recordings, etc. Out of 2 billion people in the world today, one in 4 has hearing problems. So it’s extremely serious. We are working on hearing health problems with the WHO.

The relationship between image and sound

The 4th point, which is also important, is the relationship between image and sound. We believe that sound triggers images, and not the other way round. To hear is to see the world better. We’re working with Costa Gavras and Thierry Frémaux on this at Cannes: we’ve launched a prize for the best sound design, and in this way we’re trying to highlight the importance of sound in a film. We’ve also launched a competition called “When sound creates image”. This year we asked Thomas Dutronc to write a 1 minute 40 minute piece of music, and then we asked everyone to make a film by adding images to the same 1’40 soundtrack. The results are absolutely incredible, with films arriving from all over the world using the same sound source. In other words, sound creates images.

The music

Last but not least is music. In France, less than 1% of people play music. So we don’t know what an instrument is, what a decibel, a level or a timbre is. In the United States, England, Germany and other northern countries, the figure is closer to 30%.

We know that playing a musical instrument is not a cultural problem, a cultural advantage, but a societal advantage because when you play a musical instrument, you play with others. You are in direct contact with others. You can’t play without others, and that’s an extremely important point.

The Charter and 39C/Resolution 59

For all these reasons, “The Sound Week” is structured around 5 themes that are part of a charter, and this charter was presented to UNESCO in 2017. It was validated by 195 countries to become a resolution – resolution 39C/59 – which states the importance of sound in today’s world and the importance of promoting good practice. Then, in 2019, we were called “The UNESCO Sound Week”.

It is mentioned on your website, which I read carefully, that on Wednesday 17 January from 7pm to 9pm at the Laroque amphitheatre in Paris, an overview will be given of the multitude of impacts that sound can have on the brain. What can you tell us about this impact on the brains of the very young?

That’s a good question. Sound has a direct impact on the brain. The area dedicated to sound is one of the most important areas of the brain compared with images. We want to emphasise the relationship between music and the brain, and how music is a very important element in relaxation for adults, and for children in particular, provided that it is mastered, that the quality of the sound is up to scratch above all, that there is no over-compression of sound, that we are not on a sound that never goes out of tune and that ends up damaging hearing. That’s why we’re going to talk again about this famous label designed for children, to maintain optimum listening quality – even when music is listened to for extended periods, which is quite often the case these days. What’s more, guess what happens when you watch and listen to video games for a very long time with earphones, games that are often based on sounds and music that are also extremely compressed? You have to be very careful about this.

That’s why we wanted to have an evening on these subjects, to prevent damage to our hearing from an early age, and also to consider music as an extremely beneficial element in our development. Once again, let’s stop building things up, stop talking about music as an element of culture but rather as an element of health, if I can put it that way, and of society. With Alzheimer’s, we know all too well the extent to which elderly people are reborn when they listen to sounds that are supposed to take them back to very ancient times. And it’s true that we bring them back with sound, with music. And it all makes sense. So everything that is recorded in the very early part of childhood plays an extremely important role.

Could you please tell us more about how sound is a gateway to the world?

Sound is the relationship with others

Sound is life. It’s the relationship with others. There is no more direct way of relating to others than through sound. The 5 senses are obviously involved in this relationship with the world, along with sight and touch. But sound is really the relationship with the other in essence: knowing how to listen to the other, knowing how to talk to the other, knowing how to understand different positions is the ABC of the relationship with the world. Unfortunately, we don’t talk about that much any more, and we’re a bit worried about this situation. We don’t touch much any more, and we touch our screens believing that the screen allows us to be in touch with the world, whereas when we’re in the street, we’re not even capable of shaking hands with anyone. In a way, today we can’t see each other, we can’t touch, we can’t taste and we can’t hear. So that’s also what we’re talking about today, in relation to the 5 senses, which are generally being ‘crushed’, if I can put it that way. Sound is one of the most evocative aspects of this reduction of this elementary sense, which in a way is being taken away from us. This dimension is being taken away from us.

Sound is the relationship with others

So let’s learn to listen to quality sound: let’s also learn to recognise a sound that is crushed, that no longer breathes, that no longer has micro-silences, that no longer has a low level, that only has high levels. Let’s try to rediscover what quality sound is. What is a place where we can reflect and hear others with distinction and intelligence? How can we control our ability to buy the right product in a supermarket where we are inundated with music? Where I want to buy a toothbrush, I come out with a bar of soap: what has happened? It’s vital that we get to grips with sound for ourselves, for our young children and for our young people to come, and that we feel the extent to which sound is a factor in our relationship with others and with the world.

Look out for the second part of Christian Hugonnet’s interview: click here.

I invite you to discover the programme and register for these free events in Paris and the regions.

These events are also taking place in Belgium, Canada, Lebanon, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Spain, the UK, Brazil and Tunisia.

To find out more about Unesco Sound Week from 15 to 28 January 2024, and to discover the interview with André Manoukian, patron of this event. Click here