Sense of hearing

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The sense of hearing or sense of sound is one of the twelve senses through which the human being perceives the sensual world according to Rudolf Steiner's theory of the senses. It serves auditory perception, the hearing of tones, sounds and noises. The perception of language - as speech and not merely as misunderstood noise - also requires the sense of speech. The organ of hearing comprises the two ears, the auditory nerves (cochlear nerves) and the auditory cortex.

The sense of hearing and the etheric body

The sense of hearing is closely connected with the etheric body of man:

„Now we turn to the area which we call that of the sense of hearing. The etheric body of the human being is involved. But this etheric body, as man has it today, is incapable of giving anything away in truth without permanent loss to us, as the sentient body still can. The etheric body has been so formed since Atlantean times that it can no longer give anything away, for man would then have to do without such things in his vital force. It must therefore be done in a quite different way if a hearing effect is to come about. Here, therefore, man can no longer give anything away. Man cannot of himself develop a higher sense than the sense of warmth. If something that man himself does not have were not to enter into him, then no sense of hearing could come into being. Man must therefore be interspersed with beings who place their own substance at his disposal. Therefore, the human organism is permeated by entities which penetrate it like a sponge. These are the beings we call Angeloi, who in the past have already passed through the stage of humanity. They send their astral substance into us human beings as an alien astral substance, which the human being appropriates and allows to work in him and flow out. It flows through the ears towards that which is conveyed to us through sound. On the wings of these beings, as it were, we step into that inner being which we learn to recognise as the soul of things. Here, then, we have to do with beings which stand above man, which fill man, but which are of the same nature as his own astral substance.“ (Lit.:GA 115, p. 45f)

The musical experience

„Now, one can only understand these things, understand them perceptively, if one realises that the musical experience does not have the relationship to the ear that one usually assumes. The musical experience concerns the whole human being, and the ear has a completely different function in the musical experience than is usually assumed. Nothing is more wrong than to simply say: I hear the tone, or I hear a melody with my ear. - That is quite wrong. The tone or a melody or any harmony is actually experienced with the whole person. And this experience comes to consciousness with the ear in a very peculiar way. It is not true that the tones we usually reckon with have air as their medium. Even if we use any other instrument than a wind instrument, the element in which the sound lives is still air. But what we experience in sound has nothing to do with air. And the thing is that the ear is the organ that separates the air from the sound before we experience it, so that we actually receive the sound as resonance, as reflection. The ear is actually the organ which throws the sound living in the air back into our inner being, but in such a way that the air element is separated and then the sound, in that we hear it, lives in the ether element. So the ear is actually there to overcome, if I may express myself in this way, the sound of the tone in the air and to throw the pure etheric experience of the tone back into our inner being. It is a reflective apparatus for the sensation of sound.

Now it is a question of understanding more deeply how the whole tonal experience is constituted in the human being. It is of such a nature, I must say again, that all concepts actually become confused in relation to the experience of sound. Not true, we talk like this: Man is a threefold being, nerve-sense man, rhythmic man, limb-metabolism man. - Yes, that is actually as true as possible for all other relationships. But for the experience of sound, for the musical experience, it is not quite right. For the musical experience, the sense experience is not actually present in the same sense as for the other experiences. The sensory experience is much more internalised for the musical experience than for the other experiences, because for the musical experience the ear is actually only an organ of reflection, the ear does not actually bring the human being into connection with the outside world in the same way as, for example, the eye. The eye brings the human being into connection with the outside world for all forms of the visible, also for the artistic forms of the visible. The eye also comes into consideration for the painter, not only for the one who sees nature. The ear comes into consideration for the musician only insofar as it is able to experience without being in such connection with the outer world as, for example, the eye. The ear comes into consideration for the musical in that it is merely an apparatus of reflection. So that we must actually say: For the musical experience we must first consider the human being as a nervous being. For the ear does not come into consideration as a direct sense organ, but only as a mediator inwards, not as a connector with the outside world - the perception of instrumental music is a very complicated process, which we will have to discuss later - but the ear does not come into consideration as a sense organ directly, but as an organ of reflection.“ (Lit.:GA 283, p. 121f)

Understanding of speech

The understanding of speech already leads beyond the mere sense of hearing; Rudolf Steiner therefore speaks of a separate sense of speech. And it is only through the sense of thinking that we experience the word as the carrier of thought.

According to Steiner, the fact that we also understand a word that we hear comes about in this way:

„With the ear we learn to hear, with the larynx and the organs that lie towards the mouth as far as the mouth, we learn to speak and to sing.

You hear, let us say, some word: "Tree." You can speak the word "tree" yourself, associate a meaning with it. What does that mean: you hear the word "tree"? It means that what you say in the simple word "tree" lives in your ear in the way I have just described, in organs that are modelled on celestial activities. You can say the word "tree". What does that mean, you can say the word "tree"? It means that the earthly air is brought into such a formation by the larynx and the tools of your mouth and so on that the word "tree" comes to manifestation. But that is the second ear as opposed to hearing. But the third is something else which is just not sufficiently perceived. When you hear the word "tree", you speak softly with your etheric body - not with your physical body, but with your etheric body - softly also "tree". And through the so-called eustachian trumpet, which goes from the mouth into the ear, the word "tree" etherically sounds towards the word "tree" coming from outside. The two meet and through that you understand the word "tree". Otherwise you would hear it and it would be something. You understand it by saying back through the eustachian trumpet what comes from outside. And as the vibrations from without thus meet with the vibrations from within and intermingle, the inner man understands that which comes from without.“ (Lit.:GA 218, p. 320)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
Email: URL:
Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.