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Seeing Is Not Hearing

During a practice session with a twenty-seven-year-old filling in for his father as tennis coach, I heard him use the verb see instead of the traditional hear to refer to his attendance at a classical music concert (“I saw [rather than heard] Garrick Ohlsson at Carnegie Hall.”) It should be noted that this was uttered by a classical musician with a master’s degree in music theory studying for a second one in conducting. Given that the utterance’s reference (to a concert performance and venue) excluded merely listening to a recording, it is significant that a member of the younger generation chose to elevate seeing over hearing.

This example of rehierarchization of the two senses involved in the speech of  younger speakers could be multiplied manyfold. It testifies yet again (see earlier posts) to the inroads of popular culture (specifically, rock and jazz) into the sphere of classical music, audiences for which are, alas, graying apace. Moreover, as a cultural datum evidenced by language use, it tends to support the widespread valorization of seeing over hearing whatever the domain, in a culture that has long prized exhibitionism.


3 Responses to “Seeing Is Not Hearing”

  • Jeffrey Goodman says:

    This post has stayed in my mind over the last week.  Regarding the use of “seeing” and concerts, I have always used a version of that expression in reference to concerts attended (“I saw the concert at the Hollywood bowl”). Is it not accurate to observe that this usage is often appropriate in a variety of contexts that do not necessarily include or exclude physical sensory experiences?  As in “I see your point.”  

    If I say “We saw Hillary Hahn at Disney Hall” it is most probably a shorthand for “We went to Disney Hall and listened and watched Hillary Hahn play the Brahms concerto.”

    Another more subtle aspect of seeing and hearing is that, regarding scores, a trained musician “sees” the score, but “hears” the music via the score’s written visual notation.  A person not trained can “see” the notes, but since they do not have the affiliated inner hearing, will actually play written notation mistakes, whereas a musician automatically and usually unconsciously will correct minor errors (such as correctly playing a missing sharp or flat)….

    • Michael Shapiro says:

      Yes, of course, “seeing” is appropriate in a number of ways but is not the traditional way of referring to attendance at concerts, influenced perhaps by opera, which is more visual than auditory.

      Incidentally, the verb “see” in the Indo-European languages, incl. English, has always been the the main sensory equivalent of “know.” Your example “I see your point” is a good one in this respect.

  • Hiernonymous says:

    To ‘see’ carries the connotation of physical presence; to ‘hear’ carries the connotation of having experienced the event from a distance or even secondhand. I ‘saw’ X places one in X’s presence; I ‘heard’ X places one around the corner or lingering outside the door. This seems to be related, but not identical, to your point about the elevation of seeing over hearing.

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