The UNESCO Week of Sound from 15 to 28 January 2024 – part II

We are pleased to continue our interview with Christian Hugonnet, President and Founder of UNESCO Sound Week.

Do you have any advice for parents, educators and professionals working with young children on their relationship with the world of sound, their fundamental learning and their integration into the family and social environment?

You have to teach them nuance. That’s the first thing you have to do. In other words, first parents need to talk to their children. That’s fundamental. Children need to have the notion of a benchmark: an “organic” benchmark, a benchmark of real, not recorded, language. Parents have to talk to their children, they have to sing to their children too. From the outset, there has to be a very direct relationship through sound between the parents and the child. That’s really an essential point. And then you have to play, have them play. You have to get a child to listen to natural sounds, to music that is heard acoustically, naturally. These are fundamental things.

The other important point is to avoid, for example, those children’s games above the cots where there is no bass, no treble, where there are only mids. What’s more, the sounds are hyper-compressed, and a child who hears this all day long builds up references that are not good. So for these 2 reasons at least, I think it’s important to avoid these sources that have no musical value. Once again, let’s remember the importance of language: knowing how to speak, talk, or sing to your child means taking them to sources of natural sound quality, if I may say acoustically natural, and that’s fundamental.

You briefly mentioned that children, even small ones, are becoming increasingly interested in audiovisual and multimedia activities. Could you expand on the idea that sound is a determining factor in visual perception?

To realise this, we can see just how well the podcast works because, in fact, when we hear a sound, we build up an image and that image is our own, it’s personal. It’s an indisputable freedom that we don’t have with visuals that are imposed on us, if I can put it that way. That’s an extremely important point. Hearing is the natural way of life: I hear first, and then I look at what I’ve just heard. When I cross a street, I hear before I look. It’s also important to remember that the ear has a 360° perception, whereas the eye has only 30°. The ear has always been an extremely important warning system, but it has ‘shrunk’ over time because there are fewer bears and wolves around. But it’s true that today there are accidents because people wear earphones on their ears when crossing the road. Sound is an element in the construction of the visual.

Sound takes time

Another point is that sound takes time. These days, images scroll by at dizzying speed, and this is true of many children’s films. Children are used to seeing images go by very quickly. But sound needs time: we need time to understand. Sound remains an element that fixes time, and we need to have this fixed time more than ever today. Nobody listens to themselves any more because we no longer have the time to fix anything. And sound is the instrument par excellence that fixes time, that forces us to be here and not somewhere else, it’s not yesterday or tomorrow: it’s now. You see, if we no longer have the time to talk to each other, we run the risk of no longer even existing. So we’re on extremely important ground here.

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

Concentration

We must be careful not to fall into the crazy caricature that the environment has no influence on our thinking. No, the environment has an effect on our thinking, on our ability to think. Some people tell you that noise doesn’t cause them any problems, but of course it does! There are also young people who tell you that they need music to think. But in fact, no, it’s the peace and quiet, not to say the silence – because silence scares a lot of people – that enables them to concentrate.

The sound environment has a decisive role to play in providing the right kind of calm at the right time, quite simply.

Now the excitement of a place is also necessary. There also need to be places where children can shout. as they need to express themselves. But we can also treat the premises acoustically. That’s what we were talking about at the Lycée La Bruyère. The playground is often a place with poor acoustics, and once you leave it, it’s difficult to get the children back into the classroom and allow them to concentrate. So concentration is linked to the environment, there’s no denying that.

Environmental perception of distance

Another point that comes to mind, which I think is essential, and which we don’t talk about very much, is the environmental perception of distance. In the city, in an urban situation, children don’t hear sound coming from any further away than the pavement opposite. The notion of depth is not acquired. You have to take children to the countryside, for example, so that they can hear a sound that comes from very far away. That’s what education is all about.

Playing with sound

There are also some interesting games where you close your eyes and listen to the sound of footsteps, for example, saying “Who’s that footstep? Is this person a man? Is this person a woman? What kind of shoes are they? Where is this person coming from? Where is this person going? What is the nature of the ground? And so on. … And this is where we make children aware that their environment will affect their perception and the way they behave. Did you know that there are 24 signifiers in a single step? When I hear someone walking, I have 24 pieces of information about that person. All this deserves to be said, and the environment also plays a role in behaviour.

Noise and violence

It’s clear that noise generates violence, i.e. slightly disorganised movements. We were talking about this the other day with the headmaster of a secondary school where there is a passageway between 2 corridors with a ceiling that has been very well treated acoustically. In this school, there’s also a passageway with a lot of reverberation: where you go up the stairs there are no acoustics. When the pupils go up these stairs, the children jostle each other, and it’s there that they are the most brutal, and where the most pupils get hurt.

A masking effect

So behind the sound environment, there’s a masking effect that’s very important. A masking effect which means that, ultimately, noise masks the individual character of each person: if you have noise, “you no longer exist”, so to speak. It’s as if you were dressed in grey. And when you arrive in silence, or in calm, you exist fully, and at that moment you regain your colours. And that also means that calm is not always easy to master, nor is it always easy to live in, because when you’re calm you’re much more likely to be pointed at than when you’re noisy. What you say becomes more important in quiet than in noise. Obviously, because you’re heard! So sometimes there are people who prefer noise so as not to be heard, and preferring silence means existing a little more, and that’s important. So if we want to get young children to really exist, it might be a good idea to give them a bit of a quiet time.

That’s why we wanted to have an evening on these subjects, to prevent hearing damage from a very early age, and also to consider music as an extremely beneficial element in our development. Once again, let’s stop building things up and talking about music as a cultural element, but rather as a health and social element, if I can put it that way. 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 recorded in the earliest part of childhood plays an extremely important role.

Thank you Christian Hugonnet, and once again I invite our readers to discover the programme and sign up for these free events in Paris and the regions.

And be aware that these events are also taking place in Belgium, Canada, Lebanon, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Spain, the UK, Brazil and Tunisia.

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