Vincent Van Gogh and his hearing

Now, I realize that Vincent Van Gogh was not a musician… well, maybe he was, but alas we will never know for sure.  Some recent research has been uncovered in some writings from the physician that treated him after his self-inflicted ear-adectomy.  I am sure that if I had listened better to my undergraduate Latin and classics professors I would have a neat Latin sounding phrase for his missing ear… pinna-ablation? Otoloss?  But I can only restrict myself to what I do know about….the acoustics.

Let’s start at the beginning. As we all know there are two BIG questions about Van Gogh.  One is how much of his ear was lopped off and the second is how does one actually pronounce his name?  The second may never be agreed on, but the first question is the subject of this blog.

It all started with Bernadette Murphy.  Bernadette is an amateur historian who spent 7 years combing through research materials for a book that she was writing on Van Gogh.  Bernadette’s new book is entitled Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story  and interestingly enough, it is about Van Gogh’s ear!

In her research Bernadette came across the notes and drawings of Dr. Felix Rey.  In his drawings, he shows that all of Van Gogh’s ear had been sliced off.  Van Gogh gave the severed ear to a prostitute named Gabrielle, but although interesting, this doesn’t provide us with any real information about his hearing status after the ear-adectomy.

I checked my clinical files and I don’t think that I have tested Van Gogh recently, but if I could see him, I am sure that I would find a mild high frequency conductive hearing loss- almost like listening to a conversation from another room, but with the door open.

Of course, I am assuming that after his impromptu day-surgery, he had left his ear canal intact so there would still be a quarter wavelength resonance that would aid his hearing status.  Because his pinna would have been removed, the natural resonance of the ear canal would be slightly higher than the typical 2700 Hz “Real Ear Unaided Response” or REUR (…. or Gain, REUG) that we are accustomed to seeing. Part of the reason behind the REUR being the greatest in the 2700 Hz region is due to the “end” or “boundary” conditions on the ear canal.  Both the compliance of the eardrum and the end correction conditions of the lateral side of his ear canal would contribute to the 2700 Hz resonance.  Without the lateral end of the ear canal in place, the REUR resonance would peak at a slightly higher frequency.  I am sure that if I would have mentioned this to Van Gogh, he would have found it fascinating.

Incidentally if anyone is interested in a more complete discussion of this type of reasoning and the associated acoustics, I wrote a neat article on this topic, questioning the nature of the concha resonance.  It can be found in the December 2005 issue of The Hearing Journal in an article called The etiology of the REUG:  Did we get it completely right?

And while we are talking about the concha resonance which obviously would be completely missing from Van Gogh’s auditory input, the traditional view is that this resonance in the REUR, which has its best frequency between 4500-5500 Hz, is related to the volume of air oscillating in this bowl shaped indentation in the outer ear.  Well, poor Van Gogh would also be missing this 4500-5500 Hz enhancement.  Researchers suspect that other than contributing to the net high frequency boost of the outer ear, this resonance is responsible, at least in part, for vertical localization cues.

In the December 2005 The Hearing Journal article I argued that this concha related resonance is not always concha related and may be associated with the second mode of resonance of the conical shaped ear canal.  (Without going in to too much complexity, even though the ear canal is “closed” at one end (intact TM) and “open” at the other end (the lateral meatal opening), it may not function as a quarter wave resonator.  It may function more as a one half wavelength resonator because it is conically shaped (and not a cylinder like a clarinet which is indeed a quarter wavelength resonator- in this case the 4500-5500 Hz resonance we see may be simply the second mode of resonance of 2700 Hz for the half wavelength resonator ear canal (F= 2v/2L or simply v/L) …. After all many tubes that are conically shaped but are closed at one end and open at the other end, do function as one half wavelength resonators.  This includes the oboe, bassoon, saxophone, and tuba, just to name a few.).

Regardless, (or may I say EarRegardless), of the acoustic etiology of the various outer ear associated resonances, Van Gogh would have been missing this high frequency enhancement and as such would have had a high frequency conductive loss after his oto-adectomy.


About Marshall Chasin

Marshall Chasin, AuD, is a clinical and research audiologist who has a special interest in the prevention of hearing loss for musicians, as well as the treatment of those who have hearing loss. I have other special interests such as clarinet and karate, but those may come out in the blog over time.