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Listening, The Ear & Brain Development


During the last half of the twentieth century, Alfred A. Tomatis, a French M.D., researcher and philosopher, defined the ear as a primary organ for multiple physical, emotional and neurological development responses. Not only is the ear and its complex ability to send information to the brain and the body primary for hearing and sound perception, it establishes balance and equilibrium. It is also primary for the development of verticality, spatiality, laterality and language development.

Tomatis's innovative research is based on the ear's ability to discriminate between sounds it selects to hear and the ability to tune out sounds that are unwanted. The ear's ability to listen and focus, select sounds spatially and regulate auditory information as it is perceived by the brain, has become the theme in over a hundred centers worldwide dedicated to assist children and adults with speech and communication disorders, attention deficit disorders, head injuries, and autism.

The listening process beings in utero when the fetus becomes aware of sound and frequencies in the liquid world of the heartbeat, breath and sound of the mother's voice. In La Nuit Uterine (Edition Stock, Paris, 1980), Tomatis explores in depth clinical observations on the state of intrauterine listening. He defines the phylogenic and ontogenetic progression of the ear and its neurological implications for the development of language.

Dr. Tomatis proved that the voice can reflect the state of the ear's ability to hear, a phenomenon know as the Tomatis Effect. When the perception of midrange and high frequencies is missing in the prenatal and the first three years of life, difficulties in listening and learning often arise. Without any obvious traces in deafness, a deficient ability to hear frequencies below 1000Hz can cause difficulty in understanding and remembering spoken information. A listening test for each ear was developed by Dr. Tomatis to show specific areas where frequency deficiencies occur. Defective variations in frequencies between 1000Hz and 2000Hz make it difficult to sing in tune. When there are difficulties above 2000Hz, the voice will be dull and not expressive.

Generally, a healthy adult can hear up to the 20,000Hz range, giving a bright and clear ability to distinguish sounds. When there is a loss in the high frequencies, it is necessary to strain. The ability to focus upon and select sounds or voices in a noisy room is one of the primary challenges of those with listening disabilities.

The following chart created by Timothy Gilmore from the "Overview of the Tomatis Method" by Gilmore, Madaule, and Thompson, 1989) shows the essential role of the ear.

Identification of a Listening Problem

Receptive Language

At the level of receptive oral language, the following can be considered symptomatic of a listening problem:

Body Image

At the level of body awareness or body image, the following can be observed:

Expressive Language

At the level of spoken language, individuals with listening-based communication problems are frequently seen to have very poor audio-vocal control or self-listening. Such symptoms include:

Developmental Characteristics

In compiling clinical histories at listening centers using the Tomatis method, the following events have had an unusually high incidence among individuals with listening-based learning and communication problems:

Listening integrates sensations and perceptions. The complexity of multiple roles of the ear is difficult to measure because of the ear's simultaneous regulation of information it receives from bone and air conduction in regard to both cochlear and vestibular functions.

A complete overview of the theory and clinical work of Dr. Tomatis is given in Perspectives of Listening, part of the Communication and Information Science Series under the editorship of Brenda Dervin at Ohio State University. Billie Thompson, Ph.D. has prepared a comprehensive chapter, "Listening Disabilities: The Plight of Many" in this book. (Ablex Publishing, Norwood, New Jersey, 1993)

In the late 1950's and 1960's Dr. Tomatis developed the Electronic Ear, a device for training the ear for optimal listening. With the information has been assessed from the listening test, the speaking voice, chant and the music of Mozart is then filtered through the Electronic Ear. It is then possible to exercise and literally train the ear to listen more efficiently. Programs range from fifty to two hundred hours of auditory stimulation over a period of a few months through both air and bone conduction. This process is monitored by a specialist to observe the progress of the ear's ability to become a better receptor for more subtle discriminations in linguistic, musical and emotional response. There are passive phases of listening when drawing, resting and working with puzzles assist the listening process. In more active phases of reading aloud and chanting, the Electronic Ear filters and gates sounds so that the ear receives optimal stimulation at the most needed frequencies.

Tomatis was keenly aware that every language has a particular frequency range and accents at certain points. By stimulating the unique frequency ranges through music and vocal participation, the foreign tongue becomes familiar to those studying the language. A richer, more melodious expression of the new language becomes evident as study and the Electronic Ear stimulation work together for ease of the learner.

Medical research for the Electronic Ear is beginning in Europe and Central America. The State of Washington now supports a Tomatis program for those on welfare. The research and work of Tomatis is evident throughout the world.

Born on Christmas Day, 1920, Dr. Tomatis passed away in Carcassonne, France, on Christmas Day, 2001. Over a hundred and fifty centers in fifteen countries are continuing the research with the power of music, Mozart and the Electronic Ear.


Books in English by Alfred A. Tomatis

The Conscious Ear, Station Hill Press, Barrytown, NY, 1991

Education and Dyslexia, AIAPP Publishers, Fribourg, Switzerland, 1978

The Ear and Language, Moulin Publishing, Norval, Ontario, Canada, 1996

In French:

L'Oreille et le Language, Editions du Seuil, collection Points-Sciences, Paris, 1963

Education et Dyslexie, Editions ESF, collection Sciences de L'Education, Paris, 1972

Vers L'Ecoute Humaine I et II, Editions ESF, collection Sciences de l'Eductaion, Paris, 1974

L'Oreille et la Vie, Robert Laffont, collections Réponse Santé, Paris, 1977

La Nuit Utérine, Editons Stock, Paris, 1980

L'Oreille et la Voix, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1987

Les Troubles Scolaires, Editions Ergo Press, Paris, 1989

Vertiges, Editions Ergo Press, Paris,1989

Neuf Mois au Paradis, Editions Ergo Press, Paris, 1989

Pourquoi Mozart?, Editions Fixot, 1991

Nous sommes Nés pour Parles toutes les Langues, Editions Fixot, 1991

Ecouter l'Univers, Robert Laffont, Paris, 1996

Books about Tomatis and Listening:

About the Tomatis Method edited by Gilmor, Maduale, and Thompson, the Listening Center Press, Toronto, 1989

Perspectives on Listening edited By Wolvin and Coakley, Ablex Publishing, Norwood, NJ, 1993

When Listening Comes Alive, Paul Madaule, Moulin Press, 1994.

About the Author

Don Campbell is a renowned musician, composer, educator, and author who has become an internationally recognized authority on the role of music in education and health. He is the author of nine books, including the 1997 best-seller, . In this book, Campbell provides compelling evidence of the influence of particular sounds, tones, and rhythms on mental performance and spiritual outlook, as well as in the treatment of disease.

Online information on Tomatis Centers worldwide: Tomatis,

Music - Sound Therapy

There's no question that sound has a major impact on all of us. Soft ballads soothe us, anthems stir us, heavy metal sends some of us into frenzies. It's no wonder, then, that doctors have adopted sound and music for a variety of therapeutic uses. -

Hospital DJ Spins Ambient Music 24/7

Can music improve body, mind and spirit? The Exempla Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette, Colorado believes in this so much that they hired Don Campbell, author of The Mozart Effect to be their soundscape architect.

This revolutionary approach to health care is based on scientific research. The released a report based on 600 studies showing that design in hospitals, including light and sound, can have a dramatic impact on how fast and how well patients recover from illness. Better design characteristics, including less noise, amount to fewer errors, fewer drugs, less stress and better sleep.

Armed with a storehouse of information, Don Campbell has assembled 9000 musical selections for each time, place and stage of recovery, which separate the hospital into unique "harmonic zones" designed to enhance and improve patients and health professionals' experience in circumstances that normally produce stress and anxiety. These songs feed each harmonic zone, around the clock, 24/7 in an order that never repeats itself. The goal of this unique project is to improve the recovery process and to create the healthiest environment possible for patients, staff and visitors.

Music improves sleep quality in older adults

Journal of Advanced Nursing 2005 Feb;49(3):234-44.

Lai HL, Good M. Community Health Center, Buddhist Tzu-Chi General Hospital, Hualien, Taiwan, ROC.

AIM: The aim of this paper is to report an investigation of the effects of soft music on sleep quality in older community-dwelling men and women in Taiwan. BACKGROUND: Sleep is a complex rhythmic state that may be affected by the aging process. Few studies have focused on the effects of music, a non-pharmacological method of improving the quality of sleep in older adults. METHOD: A randomized controlled trial was used with a two-group repeated measures design. Sixty people aged 60-83 years with difficulty in sleeping were recruited through community leaders and screened using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) and Epworth Sleepiness Scale. Those reporting depression, cognitive impairment, medical or environmental problems that might interfere with sleep; and those who used sleeping medications, meditation, or caffeine at bedtime were excluded. Participants listened to their choice among six 45-minute sedative music tapes at bedtime for 3 weeks. There were five types of Western and one of Chinese music. Sleep quality was measured with the PSQI before the study and at three weekly post-tests. Groups were comparable on demographic variables, anxiety, depressive symptoms, physical activity, bedtime routine, herbal tea use, napping, pain, and pretest overall sleep quality.

RESULTS: Music resulted in significantly better sleep quality in the experimental group, as well as significantly better components of sleep quality: better perceived sleep quality, longer sleep duration, greater sleep efficiency, shorter sleep latency, less sleep disturbance and less daytime dysfunction (P = 0.04-0.001). Sleep improved weekly, indicating a cumulative dose effect.

CONCLUSION: The findings provide evidence for the use of soothing music as an empirically-based intervention for sleep in older people.

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Updated: Dec 21 2013