I have always been fascinated with the neuroscience behind our craft – making music and sounds for games.  To really tell a story with music and sound,  I believe we need to have a great curiosity about this subject.  At Designing Music NOW, we are lucky to have Dr. Seth Horowitz as part of our team, and he is one of the world’s leading Auditory Neuroscientists.  In this in-depth and rather casual interview that I conducted with him over one year ago (wow-time flies!), we talk about a wide range of subjects from how his early childhood illness gave him super hearing (like a Bat’s hearing, which he studied extensively); his interest in studying the evolution of hearing and how hearing, closely related to touch, was the first sense that evolved (predating vision which did not evolve complex eyes until the Cambrian explosion); his work with Dolphins, especially those in captivity and how ambient sound affected their behavior; the importance of hearing and balance and why jump scares are so critical to horror movies and games; and his fascinating work with NASA and his recordings of the massive explosions of the Vertical Gun.

In short, this interview with Dr. Horowitz was a rare insight into a mind that studies deeply how the mind perceives audio, and how that feedback loop between audio and mind has shaped the evolution of our minds.

The Universal Sense

Dr. Horowitz’s book about this subject, The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, is a must read for those interested in deepening their understanding of audio.  Music and sound design all start at the same place – listening.  We naturally develop this ability as composers and sound designers, but when we turn our attention to really understanding how it works, we grow in our craft.  This book is fun to read, full of interesting anecdotes, and will change the way you look at sound forever.  Here is a blurb from the publisher’s website about the book:

universal-senseEvery day, we are beset by millions of sounds-ambient ones like the rumble of the train and the hum of air conditioner, as well as more pronounced sounds, such as human speech, music, and sirens. How do we know which sounds should startle us, which should engage us, and which should turn us off?

Why do we often fall asleep on train rides or in the car? Is there really a musical note that can make you sick to your stomach? Why do city folks have trouble sleeping in the country, and vice versa?In this fascinating exploration, research psychologist and sound engineer Seth Horowitz shows how our sense of hearing manipulates the way we think, consume, sleep, and feel.

Starting with the basics of the biology, Horowitz explains why we hear what we hear, and in turn, how we’ve learned to manipulate sound: into music, commercial jingles, car horns, and modern inventions like cochlear implants, ultrasound scans, and the mosquito ringtone. Combining the best parts of This is Your Brain on Music and The Emotional Brain, this book gives new insight into what really makes us tick

Catching up with Seth

Seth has been busy the past year working on two separate grants from NASA, and when I asked him to fill us in on what he has been up to, this is what he said:

The short version is I’ve been working with coder Chris Konopka on an audio based system to stop motion sickness in VR and gaming, along the way coming up with a Max/MSP based system that can handle large scale, high poly models for VR.  NASA has given us a couple of rounds of funding for both as the system can deal with very high resolution, large format models of terrestrial and space-body terrains while simultaneously limiting motion sickness.  At this point we are moving into VR and are creating a wearable that should both stop motion sickness and (if the next iteration works) may prevent falls in at risk and elderly populations.  As someone who is both aging and can trip over a painted line, I’m hoping it works.  We have a minimalist web site ( just as a place holder but nothing too interesting on it.

The Interview


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Further Reading

If you are interested in the intersection and study of neuroscience, music and sound, here are three additional books that I have learned a great deal from on this subject.

Auditory Neuroscience: Making Sense of Sound

This is your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain




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