Ear Fatigue and How to Fight It

If you’ve ever created music – or indeed, ever created – may I ask if you’ve ever found yourself… lacking perspective? As though you could no longer hear the music in the music. Its moods and emotions – its flow. If so, I’d say you’re under the sway of Ear Fatigue.

defining ear fatigue

First it’s important to distinguish ear fatigue from listening fatigue, which is also known as listener fatigue, or indeed… ear fatigue. For this article, listening fatigue is physical fatigue induced by auditory stimuli, while this is mostly mental. And it really is.

To illustrate, I’ll start with what may be a far-too-familiar scenario: you have been working on a piece of music for some time, perhaps hours, and feeling satisfied with it, you leave the piece for a while. Upon return… it’s suddenly awful. Or for the lucky ones: suddenly brilliant! But, most definitely different! So what happened?

Ear fatigue is the name most often given to the phenomenon of exhaustion, or depletion of novelty in a piece of music being composed. I’ve seen or heard it described as becoming hyper-familiar, hyper-accustomed or over-saturated to the music. But why – my rhetorical prop is asking – does music turn so stale to us?

What an excellent question! Another illustration may be useful. I want you to think of a tragic, or terrifying scene from a movie or show you’ve seen. Have it in your mind? Now, imagine you’re the director in the editing room. Imagine rewinding that scene over, and over, and over, as you edit and search for the perfect cut… you see where I’m going with this? It’ll quickly lose its tragic or terrifying impact – you’ll just get used to it.

some spurious ‘science’, and some senses

Ultimately, I suspect – in nothing more than my unhinged opinion as an amateur music producer – that ear fatigue is just a manifestation of sensory adaptation, also known as neural adaptation, or stimulus familiarization. This is the process by which the brain gradually desensitizes to sensory stimuli, and this process happens on a fundamentally neurological level. You can’t just force it to stop. In fact, all sensory systems are constantly detecting changes in the environment and responding accordingly – that’s just helpful for survival.

Here’s an example: sensory adaptation’s most familiar form is probably dark adaptation. Dark adaptation is just what happens when your eyes adjust – and your brain adapts – to a dark room you step into.

An infamous example which you likely know – if not by name – is semantic satiation. I’ll repeat that: semantic satiation. Ah, semantic satiation. Semantic satiation’s Wikipedia article is here, simply as semantic satiation. What is semantic satiation? You may see semantic satiation right now, if “semantic satiation” is seeming more a series of sounds than a cogent phrase. That’s sensory adaptation at work.

If the underlying mechanism of ear fatigue is sensory adaptation, it obviously isn’t limited to ears. And if so… why would it be limited to a single art? The limited experience I have with visual art and graphic design is consistent with this, dramatically so. In fact, this very article has fatigued me more than once.

So bear in mind that ear fatigue is not merely in your ears, but in your mind.

patience and palate cleansers

First, I should clarify that my recommendations – and indeed the problem it’s based on – are likely more relevant to the digital music production crowd: the immediate gratification of instant playback is a powerful factor here. So factor what I say accordingly.

I think the title of this article is perhaps a titch misleading – the best way to fight ear fatigue isn’t really to fight it at all. It’s to live with it. How so? The most obvious method is with time – time away from the music. Allow yourself to return closer to a mental baseline with that music, just as a new listener would have. You want to hear it as they would.

The amount of time spent away from the music, naturally enough, should be proportional to the amount spent with the music. And further: the length and complexity of the music. A small motif might need only a few moments or minutes; an orchestral symphony hours or days.

However, I think another sound suggestion is to scramble the sounds. It’s like eggs. Try playing music in the same genre as (or an altogether alien one from) your music’s genre. I’ll even micro-scramble a motif or tune I’m banging out on keyboard by playing a smattering of random notes – just for a quick reset.

Lastly, I might recommend you ration your listening: if time is a precious resource, perhaps you should treat your listening time the same way. Resist the temptation to get the full picture with every tweak or addition – but do it when you truly should.

Listening to other compositions can elevate and inspire your own music. Take a journey into the lives & music of great 20th-century composers.

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