Principles of Audio-Psycho-Phonology

Over decades of research activity, the ENT specialist Alfred Tomatis demonstrated the primordial role of our auditory organ in human development and the effect of the ability to hear on the way people feel.

What is the Tomatis Effect?

Tomatis began his studies and experiments with human hearing towards the end of the 1940s. At that time his father was a well-known opera singer and, through him, many singers with voice problems and occupationally-induced hearing loss came to him for treatment. Tomatis  carried out frequency analyses of the voice and hearing and made a surprising discovery: poorly heard frequencies were less present in the voice than other frequencies.

This finding led to the first TOMATIS law:

The voice contains, as overtones, only frequencies the ear hears.

In order to be able to help his patients with their voice and hearing problems, Tomatis developed a hearing simulator with which hearing and hence the voice can be corrected using various filters and amplifiers. By amplifying the poorly heard frequencies and allowing the singers to sing into the microphone while simultaneously listening to their corrected voice through headphones, the loss of frequency of the voice was immediately corrected.

The scientist formulated the results of these experiments in the second TOMATIS law:

If the ear is given the opportunity to correctly hear again frequencies that are no longer perceived or no longer properly perceived, these reappear in the voice instantaneously and unconsciously.

When the singer then sang without a headphone or a frequency corrector, his or her voice problems reoccurred immediately. This prompted Tomatis to delve more deeply into the matter. He looked for the ”ideal sense of hearing“ and elaborated criteria for the ideal hearing curve. After he had defined the parameters for the ideal singer’s ear he constructed an apparatus to condition the ear – the prototype of the  “Electronic Ear“, in order to make the Tomatis effect permanent.

The acoustic stimulation, repeated for a predetermined length of time, leads to a permanent change in hearing and hence phonation.

In 1957 the Academy of Sciences and Medicine in Paris recognised the three TOMATIS laws under the term the “Tomatis Effect“.

The psyche – in control of listening

During his studies, Tomatis soon came to the conclusion that the psychological components of hearing played an essential role. In a large-scale mass screening programme for occupationally-induced hearing loss he established that the group of pilots who suffered occupationally-induced hearing loss yet enjoyed their work exhibited a partially different hearing curve from the group of pilots with occupationally-induced hearing loss who wanted to continue working not for the enjoyment it gave them but simply in order to earn money. The common feature of the first group was a rise at the end of the hearing curve, a “positive antenna“ in the high frequency range, which reflected their inner motivation. With the second group the curve clearly fell away at the end. There was therefore a close relationship between the hearing curve and the mental state of his patients.

The mental aspect became increasingly important for Tomatis in the course of his research work. The therapeutic effects of the Tomatis Effect went far beyond purely auditive stimulation. Not only did hearing and the voice improve, motor skills, attitude and the psyche also changed permanently. By observing the reactions of his patients under therapy Tomatis hypothesised that the basic characteristics of individually different hearing patterns were established in the prenatal period, in the early stages of hearing.

How early in the prenatal period does hearing begin?

Professor Tomatis was a pioneer in prenatal hearing research.  As early as the 1950s he claimed that hearing began in the mother’s womb.  At that time he was laughed at by his colleagues. We now know that he was right. The important thing now in this context is that the ear with its two parts, the cochlear part for hearing and the  vestibular part for balance, is the first sensory organ to be fully developed and connected to the brain via the auditory nerve and that this occurs approximately half-way through pregnancy, but no later than the end of the fifth month. The inner ear has, by this time, reached its final size, and will stay this size into adulthood.

The ear is therefore the first sensory organ to send information to the brain. These signals from the ear are crucial for the growth and development of the brain. The ear also provides the basis for all other forms of perception; these build on the experience based on hearing.

What and how does the foetus hear?

The mother’s voice has a prominent position in the foetus’ world of sound.  It is perceived by the foetus more loudly than body sounds, such as a heartbeat, the action of the bowel and the circulation of the blood. As the fluid in the middle ear inhibits the oscillation of the eardrum, the foetus hears almost exclusively through bone conduction. However, the resonance properties of the skeletal system act like a frequency modulator. Low frequencies are hardly transmitted at all, while high frequencies are transmitted in amplified form. Through the filter effect of the bone, the mother’s voice is rich in high frequencies. It is transmitted through the spinal column into the pelvis, which, being a resonance body, amplifies the high frequencies by up to 2.5 fold. If the child sinks into the pelvis in the last week, a particularly good transmission of sound from bone to bone is possible. The high-pass filter effect in the foetal cranial bone and the sound amplification of the mother’s pelvis are optimally coordinated.

The preferred transmission of sound is therefore reserved for the mother’s voice alone; all other external sounds (voices, music, etc.) are of secondary importance in the sound experience of the unborn child. The foetus not only absorbs the sound, rhythm and melody of the mother’s voice, it also experiences the mother’s emotional world. Is she balanced, cheerful and happy or is she depressed or anxious? The child experiences these emotions as its own and cannot yet differentiate between its mother and itself. “Mother IS child, child IS mother“ Tomatis said in order to demonstrate the unity of mother and child. If the signals received by the foetus are predominantly positive and pleasant, this intrauterine dialogue is successful and the foetus develops a feeling of security and basic trust. These basal perceptual experiences create in the child a positive attitude to listening and a desire to enter into communication.

The ear – more than hearing

When we think of the ear, first and foremost we think of hearing. Other functions are just as important and are affected during listening therapy. Through the balance organ, the ear controls balance, coordination, muscle tone and every individual muscle in our body. It controls the eyes during reading and the arm, hand and finger during writing. It is responsible for posture and gives us uninterrupted information about how we move about in space. Timing and rhythm as well as spatial awareness are also controlled by the ear.

As an energy centre the ear has the task of supplying the brain and hence our entire organism with energy. Tomatis compared the ear to a dynamo, “which converts the stimulations it receives into neurological energy in order to feed the brain“. The high frequencies in particular are responsible for regular “charging“, stimulating cortical activity. This “charging effect“ revitalises and invigorates and manifests itself in mental alertness.

People hear only what they want to hear. Tomatis came to the conclusion that the desire to hear or not to hear is unconsciously controlled by the mind. We hear all the time. Unlike our eyes, our ears are always “open“. Day and night they are exposed to the sounds and noises from the environment. That said, we are not consciously aware of everything we hear. People hear only what they want to hear. Wanting to hear, or listening (listening attentively, paying heed) is an active, conscious process, comparable to the eye when it focuses. The decision to listen, to pay heed requires attentiveness  and a conscious ”turning to the other“. Listening means wanting to enter into communication. It puts the entire person in a state of readiness, enables the cochlea to carry out valuable analyses, enables the body to stand erect and is an indication of alertness and presence.