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Hearing is not the only function of the ear
Interview with Barbara Zanchi
by Andrea Bistrich

An interview with music therapist, Barbara Zanchi, about sound-stimulation, shown to balance mental and physical capabilities through expansion/control of one's listening capacity.  


Città della Pieve, Italy
Barbara Zanchi, pianist and music-therapist, recently established the 'Centro di Educazione all’ Ascolto' (Centre for the Education of Listening) in Città della Pieve, Italy, where courses are held for the re-training of the ear according to the comprehensive treatment of the French physician, neurologist and ear, nose and throat specialist Dr Alfred A.Tomatis. His method, known as the 'Tomatis Method', 'auditory training' or 'listening therapy', is used today in over 250 centres worldwide.*

Zanchi herself specialized in the field of audio-psychophonology, and later founded 'La Musica Interna', a music association and school in Bologna. She is the Italian co-ordinator of the post-graduate programme for music-therapy at Bristol University (UK). Andrea Bistrich interviewed her for Share International about the possibilities and benefits of this new way of listening.

Share International: How did you come into contact with the work of Dr. Tomatis?

Barbara Zanchi: As a music-therapist I mainly worked with handicapped children, children with language or general delay problems. When I heard about Dr Tomatis, a few years ago, I immediately got very interested in his method of treatment, because he works in the same field, and he had some extraordinary results. It was not long before I decided to visit him in Paris to undergo personal treatment.

SI:  What was your experience there? Could you observe any effects on you?

BZ: For the first time I experienced what the power of sound really is, and that I could use it as a very real source of energy, a possibility for recharging. After, and even during, the treatment, I realized that I had become more sensitive to the subtle levels of sound. The effects were obvious, even on the physical body. I felt much better, balanced in a way, more energized and relaxed.

SI:  What exactly is meant by the Tomatis effect?

BZ: As a result of his research on auditory processing and language development for the past 45 years Dr Tomatis has developed a comprehensive process of learning, of retraining the ear by a special technique of sound-stimulation. He has proved the stimulating effects of certain high-frequency sounds on the central nervous system, the cortex in particular, which is the centre of the thought processes. The aim of his work is to bring equilibrium to the main conscious activities of life, for example the motor skills, the senses, the control and handling of emotions, behavioural and social adjustment, or in the field of memory and concentration.

The work of Tomatis concentrates on the function of the middle ear. A proper functioning of the middle ear means that through sound adaptation the inner ear, which is the most sensitive part of the entire ear system, is protected. In this way the sound can be softened. Otherwise it would destroy the inner ear. The problem is when the mechanism of the middle ear is very rigid. And this is particularly what his work is about: ‘gymnastics of the muscles of the ear’ or, in other words, the re-education of the function of the middle ear. Finally, the ear should be able to open itself when it wants to listen, but should also be able to close whenever it is necessary.

SI:  How can one achieve a more sensitive, less rigid middle ear?

BZ: First of all a test is made of the profile of how the person listens. Listening, here, means an active process; it requires the desire to open one’s ear to understand and handle what is heard. Hearing, however, is more passive. One can have good hearing, but really be a poor listener.

A graph showing the listening curve provides a lot of essential information about the physical, emotional and listening situation: for instance, does the person have access to higher sounds, or more lower sounds. Furthermore, the developmental history is checked: a stressful pregnancy, difficult birth, early separation from the mother also shed light on possible causes and may help to identify and prevent listening problems early. From that you can work out a schedule to improve the person’s capacities. Eventually, the real listening work starts. This is done through an electronic device called the Electronic Ear, including a set of headphones, a microphone and a system of electronic gates which filters specific sounds according to the individual requirements of the patient. It is a kind of working model which trains and supports one’s real ears to function without distortion.

SI:  Isn’t it like living with a machine?

BZ: No. If you, for example, have a problem with voice distortion (ie that one’s own voice is distorted), it can be corrected within a certain period of time by working on your listening. This correction can be established if you follow the treatment for a minimum time of initially 60 half-hour sessions over 15 consecutive days at two hours per day, followed by a gap of three to five weeks and a further 30 sessions over eight days. Depending on different aims and individual requirements the sessions could be spread over a longer period.

SI:  Does the ear adapt the sounds automatically or should the person work on it consciously?

BZ: People at a certain stage may of course realize what is happening, what changes during the process of sound treatment. But even then it is better just to let it go without pondering too much. While listening, people are asked not to use their concrete mind, but to do something which is connected to their right brain hemisphere which plays a role in the processing of music and is responsible for the perception of more spatial relations. You can draw, do puzzles, do things with your hands or just listen as a kind of meditation. Even while sleeping it works. We observed this, during a series of sessions with hyperactive children. Usually they cannot stop doing something even for one second. Five minutes after putting on the headphones they were sleeping. And that was very important for them, eventually, to find this possibility to stop all activity, and relax.

SI:  You mentioned problems such as voice distortion, language difficulties, hyperactivity. Are there any other serious symptoms for which people want treatment?

BZ: Yes, many come with hearing disorders like tinnitus and Menière’s vertigo, others suffer from adult problems: midlife crisis, M.E., depression, anxieties, or they come for a general tuning-up. For those who wish to learn foreign languages faster, the treatment with the Electronic Ear proved to be extraordinarily successful. Almost every language uses a different range of frequencies, and so it can be difficult to achieve proper conversational standards in any language which is outside the range of one’s own. The first law we should then keep in mind is that 'our voice produces only what the ear can hear'. This is of major importance especially for musicians, singers and actors. Over the years we have successfully treated people working in that field, including such famous names as Sting and Gerard Depardieu.

SI:  Another interesting statement which I found through the Tomatis technique concerning the ear-voice connection is that sound is produced neither in the mouth nor in the upper body but in fact is formed in the bones.

BZ: Yes. For a good voice you have to train in a certain way, which is called the ‘bone voice’. If you use your voice in such a way that the bones vibrate, then the bones function like a filter. They take off the lower frequencies. What is left is the best part of the voice. This is called audio-vocal training. The better the sounds you make, the better your listening works, and the better your listening works, the better your voice is. It is a circle. And it is interesting that Tomatis discovered this by studying (listening to it on records) the voice of Enrico Caruso — the famous Italian opera singer. Caruso had the best years of his career after an accident which left him deaf for a certain period. He only could hear his voice through his bones. And by using the bone control of his voice, it improved extraordinarily.

Listening means an active process; it requires the desire to open one’s ear to understand and handle what is heard. Hearing, however, is more passive

SI:  The music which is filtered during these listening treatments to produce high frequency sounds is mainly that of Mozart. Why him?

BZ: Tomatis did a lot of research to find the right kind of music for his ideas. And he came to the conclusion that the best music was Mozart and Gregorian chant. This is not only for the artistic value of the music but for the richness of sound. For example, if you cut out the low frequencies in Mozart’s music, there still remains an unbelievably vast number of higher vibrations.

SI:  But what about Beethoven, Bach, Schubert or the work of other great composers?

BZ: With Mozart it is different; Mozart is able to open both the listener’s ear and heart. This special effect has been proved during the past decades therapeutically as well as pedagogically in thousands of case studies.

Mozart once put it like this: "I am looking for two notes that love each other." And this is why Dr Tomatis calls him more than a musician, but music itself, 'the incarnation of harmony'. From Africa to Asia, Mozart is found to have the same beneficial effects, regardless of people’s cultural background, because the harmony which his music is able to give is universal, it is something which goes beyond culture.

And with Gregorian chant it is similiar, in a way. It brings people in contact with the rhythm that exists outside themselves, the harmony of the universe. While Mozart works on the harmony of one’s inner structure, Gregorian chant synthesizes us with the sacred world, higher and greater than ourselves.

SI:  Do you use this kind of music also for your children’s programmes?

BZ: It depends on the symptoms of our little patients. For children with serious problems including motor and language delay, autism or neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy, downs syndrome, epilepsy, etc, we have developed a special treatment in which we use the voice of the mother as a therapeutic tool. The mother’s voice is recorded and so highly filtered that the child doesn’t understand the words but he listens to the voice as the equivalent of the sound as heard in the mother’s womb. This makes it possible for the child to go back to its sonic birth from which the desire of communication started, and through this symbolic experience the desire to communicate and listen is stimulated, in effect re-created and restored.

SI:  How do you see the future regarding the possibility of new listening?

BZ: Children should be educated in how to listen properly and how to become more sensitive to what is going on. We have to recognize that sound has positive as well as negative effects on us. At the moment, it is primarily the negative effects of sound which societies are experiencing. Today, even in smaller cities, people suffer from noisy traffic, noise at the work place, noise at home or in their neighbourhood etc. Stress and anxiety are the visible results of low frequencies. In fact, we have to develop a new culture. A culture in which we create the possibilities of using sound for the better as a method of harmonizing.

* See: Alfred A.Tomatis, Listening to the Universe, 1997.

From the January/February 1999  issue of Share International


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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005