The measurement of hearing is fraught with unique uncertainties. If to measure means to “assign numerals to events,” audiologist Ira Hirsh queried in 1952, while his field was professionalizing in the United States, “what are the observable events in hearing?” The key attributes of sound had first to be enumerated before they could be turned into probes for “sounding out” the ear. It’s one thing to calibrate pitch and loudness, but quite another to take on timbre and intelligibility, the definitions of which remain topics of immense debate. In the case of speech audiometry—the subject of this talk—I argue that the quantification of “hearing loss for speech” derives from articulation testing in the field of telephone engineering. More specifically, the molding of speech sounds into yardsticks of “useful hearing” arose in the historical context of Quality Control, as did the notion that human hearing should be “screened” and inspected in industrial fashion.
Guest lecturer: Mara Mills, New York University
Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication