A Compressed History of Young Alfred Tomatis

Alfred Tomatis was born in France at the end of December 1919, two and a half months premature, weighing just under three pounds. Today doctors pride themselves on being able to keep "preemies" alive. But the preemie has the arduous task of surviving, thrust from the protected natural paradise of the warm watery womb into an outside world of booming, buzzing confusion—of artificial incubators, machine noises, and hospital lights, with shiny metals and tubes threaded in and out of its three-pound body. In Tomatis's case, it happened two and a half months before his brain was sufficiently developed to process, filter, and buffer all these intrusive sensations. Natures developmental clock is precise, and many sensory functions reach a state of readiness for external reality two weeks before the average expected date of delivery. The ear, however, is an exception: its parts reach full size and become operational halfway through pregnancy.

"I have an unshakable intuition," Tomatis wrote, "that my work and speculations are deeply bound up with the conditions and events, feelings and sensations, conscious and subconscious thoughts, basic needs, and secret desires which surround my entry into the world and then put an indelible mark on my infancy." 

The circumstances of Tomatis's prematurity were to haunt him for his whole life. 

His father, Umberto Dante, from Piedmont, Italy, age twenty when Alfred was born, was a charismatic opera singer and would become one of Europe's finest voices; his mother was a teenager. "My arrival in the world," Tomatis wrote, does not seem to have been expected, much less hoped for, by my sixteen-year-old mother The birth seemed to pose a problem for everyone in the family, and no doubt they were eager to get rid of this unexpected baby quickly and with little fuss. Remarkable compression efforts were used to prevent this pregnancy from being noticed; the corsets of that past age, so strongly supported by unbending whalebones, readily helped.

These attempts to hide the pregnancy, Tomatis came to believe, triggered his premature birth and left him with a very strange post-traumatic tendency.

The compression also apparently influenced my need during the first forty years of life to live tightly swathed in clothes, with a body belt that cut me in two, and restricted also by narrow confining shoes. At night, I did not sleep unless eight blankets were piled upon me. Though I was not cold, I needed to experience this pressure of the world around me to reproduce the vital conditions I had known in my mother's womb.

This symptom may seem idiosyncratically neurotic, but it is not unheard of in people born premature or on the autistic spectrum. The author Temple Grandin, herself autistic, found that deep pressure on her body settled her, and invented a "squeeze machine" to calm herself. Though Tomatis was not autistic, he was in tune with some of the more atypical cravings that autistic and premature people experience. But once he finally understood the origin of his cravings for pressure, he lost the need for it.

Communication with his mother, Tomatis felt, was "never easy. All my attempts at intimacy were repulsed." The family lived in Nice, although Tomatis's singer father was often on the road six months of the year. Young Alfred, from birth on, was in constant ill health, suffering from digestive disorders. A doctor came by and couldn't understand Alfred's symptoms but said, "I must search for the answer." This so moved Alfred that he resolved to become a doctor himself.

Young Alfred idealized his father, Umberto, but from a distance, because he was so often away. One day Umberto said to Alfred, "I have thought this over carefully. My boy, if you really want to become a doctor—and a good doctor—you must go to Paris. We don't know anyone there, so you'll have to manage all by yourself, but you'll learn what life is all about, and that will certainly be of some use to you."

Alfred was only eleven, but thinking this plan would give his father pleasure, he went. He boarded at a school, experiencing years of great loneliness. After failures at school, he noticed that he learned his lessons best if he read them out loud. He studied feverishly, going to bed late and waking at four a.m., imitating in this respect his workaholic father. He often worked to the sound of Mozart.

In his third year at school, he won nearly all the academic prizes in his grade. In high school, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was his teacher. Then Alfred completed two certificates in sciences, finishing first in both, including one at the Sorbonne. Just as he was beginning medical school, World War II broke out, and he was drafted. Early in the war, his entire unit was taken prisoner by German and Italian troops. He helped organize a successful escape and joined the French Resistance as a courier. By day, he helped a physician in a labor camp. After the Allies landed in Normandy, he was assigned to the French Air Corps and began to study ear, nose, and throat medicine (ENT, or otolaryngology), still under the influence of his father, who so loved music and sound.

The First Law of Tomatis

Young Tomatis had demonstrated academic brilliance and an uncompromising work ethic; in this next period, he began to show genius. As the war ended, he completed his medical degree and worked as a consultant to the air corps, where he made important observations using an audiometer, a machine that showed that aircraft factory workers were going deaf in a certain range of their hearing, at 4,000 Hz. He was one of the first to demonstrate the occupational health hazard of noise. He noticed also that deafness caused by jet engines, gunfire, and explosions led to movement and psychological problems. The ear had a relationship to the body, it seemed, that had not been observed.

At roughly the same time, in his medical practice, he began treating opera singers, often friends of his fathers who had developed trouble controlling their voices. Singers were referred to otolaryngologists then, because orthodox medical opinion believed that their problems occurred because they strained their voices, damaging their vocal cords, which are part of the larynx. The conventional treatment was to give the patient strychnine (a poison) to tighten the muscles of the vocal cords. When one of Europe's leading baritones, who had been told his vocal cords had become stretched and too slack, was referred to Tomatis, he decided to give him the same test he had given the aircraft workers— and discovered a similar hearing loss, in the range of 4,000 Hz. Tomatis began to suspect that the accepted theory that the larynx was the essential organ for singing was wrong; it was, he would prove, the ear.

He began testing the volume of the sound produced by the opera singers ii^ his practice, using a machine to measure it in decibels. Typically, when singing at half strength, the singers produced 80 to 90 decibels. At full strength, they could achieve up to 130 or 140 decibels. He calculated that because his sound equipment, a meter away from the singer, was detecting 130 decibels, the volume within the singer's skull, directly affecting the ear, was 150 decibels. (By comparison, the volume of a French Caravelle jet engine—a sound level he had measured in the air corps—was 132 decibels.) At certain frequencies, because of the intensity of the sound they produced inside their heads, singers were singing themselves into deafness; they sang poorly because they heard poorly.

In the late 1940s Tomatis continued to attack the conventional wisdom that the larynx is the key organ for singing. He showed that contrary to conventional wisdom, singers with bass voices did not have larger larynxes than those with higher voices. Human beings aren't constructed like pipe organs, in which larger tubes produce lower sounds. Powerful tenors sing at frequencies from 800 Hz up to 4,000 Hz, but so do baritones and basses; the only difference is that the baritones and basses can add lower notes, because they can hear lower notes. He summed it up by saying provocatively "One sings with ones ear," a statement that caused much laughter.

But when scientists at the Sorbonne presented his experiments to the National Academy of Medicine and the French Academy of Sciences, they concluded that "the voice can only contain the frequencies that the ear can hear." The idea came to be called "the Tomatis effect" and became the first of what would be his laws.

His next project was to discover the difference between the "good" singing voices and "bad" ("good" being those widely considered the great singers of the day). He built a machine, which he called the sonic analyzer, that could display a picture of all the different frequencies in a persons voice. Using this device on singers, he made discoveries that laid the groundwork for healing children with disabilities.

This project began in an unlikely way. While Tomatis was working with opera singers, he gathered all the recordings he could find—old wax phonograph cylinders for gramophones, records, and master recordings—of the worlds most famous opera singer, Enrico Caruso, who had died in 1921. He studied them in detail with his sonic analyzer, expecting to find that Caruso's singing voice would go as high as the human speaking voice, which can produce sounds up to 15,000 Hz. To his surprise, Tomatis found that Caruso's voice went only to 8,000 Hz. (Most fine singers' voices, he would later discover, go only to 7,000 Hz.) Caruso's voice had had two periods. The first lasted from 1896 to 1902, when it was very fine; the second was the "spectacularly beautiful" period, lasting from 1903 until his health declined, when it was even better. Tomatis found that in the second period, his voice was objectively less rich in terms of frequencies and for all the sound frequencies below 2,000 Hz. During the second period, he hypothesized, Caruso couldn't hear low frequencies well.

Further research showed that in early 1902 Caruso had had an operation on the right side of his face, which probably affected his Eustachian tubes (which connect the middle ear to the back of the throat). Tomatis had noticed that people with blocked Eustachian tubes had the same drop in frequencies that Caruso had. The operation, he concluded, had made Caruso partially deaf so that, ironically, he could hear only in his new singing range and thus could not produce the sounds of lesser quality below it. "It was as if Caruso," Tomatis wrote, "had benefited from a sort of filter which allowed him to hear essential, high frequency sounds rich in harmonics as opposed to low frequency fundamental sounds." Unable to hear, and thus produce lower tones (which normally interfere with perception of higher tones), Caruso had a richer perception of his superhigh overtones. Tomatis used to joke that Caruso was condemned to sing beautifully, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Tomatis's Second and Third Laws

Next, Tomatis invented a new instrument to help singers with damaged voices. He called it the Electronic Ear and it became the basis of all Tomatis's treatments. It consisted of a microphone, a system of amplifiers and filters to block out some frequencies and emphasize others, and headphones. A performer would sing or speak into the microphone and hear his or her own filtered voice through the headphones.

When he assessed his struggling singers, he found that they were not hearing high frequencies well. So he set up the filters on the Electronic Ear so that they could hear themselves with Caruso's ears—that is, with the lower frequencies blocked—allowing them to hear the higher tones better. When singers sang into Tomatis's machine, their voices improved radically. This led him to formulate his second law: "If one brings to the compromised ear the possibility of hearing the lost or compromised frequencies correctly, these are instantly and unconsciously restored in the vocal emission." Put simply, hearing, if "fixed," can heal the voice. He had singers train several hours a day over several weeks, listening to themselves through "Caruso's ears." With training, their new ability to listen and sing well lasted even after they stopped using the machine. And so he formulated his third law, the Law of Retention, which was that training the ear by exposing it to the proper frequencies can lead to a permanent effect on listening (and hence the brain) and the voice. Tomatis knew that this was a form of brain training: "the sensory apparatus we know as the ear is simply an external attribute of the cerebral cortex." (In Chapter 7 I called this permanent effect of brain training the residual effect; it is a result of neurons firing together and wiring together, making lasting changes in the brain.)

Tomatis also made observations on the energizing effect of good listening. He noticed that when he used the Electronic Ear, especially on singers with imperfect voices, "all, without exception, felt an increased sense of well-being. Even among those who were not singers, many confided in me that they felt like singing." When they unblocked their high frequencies, clients would puff up their chests like opera singers. They stood straighter, breathed more deeply, felt they had more energy and vitality, and listened to themselves better—all quite involuntarily. With blocked high frequencies, they would speak in lifeless, de-energized voices, and they would slouch; their voices would become hard to take, monotonous, and even draining on the listener.

Tomatis also observed that the ear is intimately connected not only with balance but also with posture. There is a distinct listening posture, often seen when people listen to classical music: the right ear in most people is a bit forward, as is the head. This listening posture, he observed, is tied into the overall tonus of the body: the person looks spry, and alert. Just as neurons are never totally off, so too in a healthy person, relaxed muscles are never totally slack. Tomatis argued that input from the ear has an impact on the verticality and tonus of the entire body—and of course certain kinds of music make people feel they must get up and dance. His observation that good listening is energizing suggested to him that higher frequencies energize the brain, and he summarized it by proposing that "the ear is a battery to the brain."