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Unhearable Music: A Sci-Fi Tale

hen she wakes
up in the recovery room, Maurice hears nothing. It’s not like hiking in the redwoods, where the lack of city sounds creates an illusion of silence. This is a complete audio void. Still groggy from the drugs, she closes her eyes and dreams of the tiny control room at work, its walls padded with sound-absorbing panels of nippled foam.

Maurice made plans to get this surgery while she was fucking around at work. It was a few weeks before Aquatic Revenge played their legendary 2070 New Year’s gig, and everybody was freaking out because a new song had just dropped. Big parts of it were sampled from blue whale songs, which hover around a frequency of 35 Hz — much lower than human hearing. Maurice hopped onto the Aquatic Revenge fan server to vent.

“What’s the point?” she typed.

A guy named Baleen replied: “Mod your ears and you’ll find out. There are a bunch of skullbud apps that let you hear ultra-low frequencies.”

Six months later, and here she is, finding out. The bed jostles, a noiseless vibration, as heart monitors unstick themselves from her chest and retreat into the EKG monitor. She opens her eyes again to see the wall on her left fading into transparency. Her best friend Kelly sits on the floor outside, sweater mashed against the window wall. Maurice hears nothing.

Reaching for her head, she feels around until she finds the new implants. Two audio processors the size of poker chips fit snugly against her skull, one above each ear. Studded with sensitive microphones, they are supposed to pick up audio and relay it via a wire threaded deep inside her inner ear to the neurons in her cochlea. From there, it sends messages directly to her brain. Maurice taps one of the devices gently and winces in pain — oops, surgery incision still healing. Why isn’t it working?

Kelly finally realizes that Maurice is awake and charges into the room. She moves her lips soundlessly. Maurice shakes her head, pointing at the implants. “Ohhhhh,” Kelly mouths, purple eyes wide. She grabs goggles from the bedside table and sticks them over Maurice’s eyes. A message pops up: It’s a candid of Maurice from two seconds ago, long black hair shaved on both sides for the surgery, darkening bruises on the brown skin of her neck. Underneath, Kelly writes: “hot skullbud style.”

Just then, the technician arrives, goggles opaque, waving his way through some menu that only he can see. Without warning, he flicks on the sound.

“How are the levels for you?” he asks Maurice. His voice is like that time she stood right next to the amplifiers at an Aquatic Revenge show — 130 decibels. 

“Too loud!” Maurice glares at the tech. “Why don’t you give me control of the settings?”

He rolls his eyes and gives a “whatever” shrug, not bothering to change the volume before turning to leave. “It should all be linked to your Axel account.” His ultra-amplified voice explodes in her ears. The door shutting behind him is worse.

“Please don’t say anything, Kelly,” she warns before her friend opens her mouth to speak. “Let me get this fucking app sorted and set the volume on my hearing.”

Ambient hospital noises hammer her brain as she pokes through the permissions on her Axel dashboard, pairing her new skullbuds with the app. The volume is easy. What she really wants to do is fiddle with the expansion packs she’s licensed — Doggystyle, for ultrasound, like dog whistles, and Maxwoofer, for infrasound. She even got the hydrophone attachment for Maxwoofer, which will let her hear underwater. Without the attachment, she won’t be able to attend the concert she’s been waiting for. The one she read about on the Aquatic Revenge server.

A week after surgery, she’s back at work, plugging the recording console into her right skullbud port and watching through the control-room window as the latest CEO, Lisky Apple-ton, yells at her assistant. 

Lisky pokes her head into the control room and makes a wrinkly-nose micromanagement face. “Maurice, can you prioritize the Mickey Jump and Stano Show for today? They’re blowing up right now, and I want to push out another episode.”

“Sure, sure,” Maurice mutters, dreading another three hours of adding squelch noises to cringe comedy.

The CEO swishes out, the tails of a bespoke neon zoot suit flicking behind her. Letting out a long sigh, Maurice props her knees on the edge of the mixing console and grabs a stream from the new Aquatic Revenge drop. Mickey Jump and Stano can wait a few minutes.

A long, low note eats at the edges of her belly and vibrates pleasurably down her spine. Blue whale song. Its slowly descending tone merges seamlessly with the band’s rising beats. 

Even though Maurice has been hearing sounds this low for a week now, the music still blows her away. It’s like suddenly seeing in 3D after a lifetime of playing with flat paper dolls.

Walking home after work, she toggles between the Doggystyle and Maxwoofer apps — first tuning the highest frequencies, then the lowest. She can hear the occasional dog whistle, then the distant moans of trucks and construction. San Francisco looks the same, but hearing a mouse twittering a block away makes it feel much smaller.

When Maurice arrives at the studio the next morning, she gets an urgent text in her goggles from Lisky: “See me now in my office.” This can’t be good.

She’s barely got her ass in the seat across from her boss when Lisky starts yammering. “Listen, I’m sure you know that our numbers are down all over the place,” she says. “The critics love us, of course, but the numbers.”

Maurice’s heart feels like a blue whale song. Infrasound. Low, and getting lower.

“Listen. It’s really a productivity problem.” Lisky shows her teeth in what’s probably supposed to be a smile. “We can keep doing some niche shows, but we need to pump out a lot more like Mickey Jump and Stano. They’re quick to produce. Plus, they’re just funner!”

This job has been Maurice’s life for five years. She’s produced three Audie-winning audiobooks. And now this blockhead wants to tell her what’s funner

“The company has been tracking everybody’s performance on the studio network, and it’s clear that we’re wasting too many hours on personal projects.” She pulls her goggles off and gives Maurice a significant look. “So we’re creating a brand-new flow, with special schedules and productivity tweaks. Here you go.” Putting her goggles back on, the CEO flicks a pink-ie finger and sends Maurice a data blob. “There’s all the texty text! Thanks and bye!”

Back at the mixing console, Maurice’s skullbud picks up two engineers whispering about pay cuts in the next room. A producer upstairs starts crying. What the fuck? 

She reads more carefully, and realizes that the memo is announcing time cuts for everyone. Now Maurice won’t be able to afford the subscription packages that give her superhuman hearing.

Even worse, the corporation has set up per-sonal-hardware access controls. Maurice can’t believe it. That’s the kind of thing schools put into classrooms, to prevent kids from using their goggles to stream games instead of homework. At the studio, though, the controls can only mean one thing. They’re hijacking her skullbuds while she’s in the studio.

 Maurice’s audio cuts out and then resumes with a crackle. Suddenly she’s got Lisky’s voice in her ear, at high volume. 

“All-hands meeting in the break room!”

Fifteen sullen audio engineers and producers file into the brick-walled room where her team used to pour shots for visiting bands. It was a place to hang out and share ideas. Now, they can’t say hi to each other, because Lisky’s voice is the only thing they’re permitted to hear.

“I know this is all going to seem strange at first, but studies show people get more done when they can’t hear anything distracting,” Lisky says. “Of course, you can always listen to our catalog of productivity music.”

Maurice looks at her friend Kelly, standing across the room with the content team. “Fuck this shit,” Kelly mouths. Rob, the new guy, is surreptitiously trying to reboot his skullbuds, but Maurice can tell it’s not working.

The meeting goes on and on — there’s no way to tune it out. Just when the volume levels become punch-you-in-the-head painful, Lisky ends the meeting and everyone goes back to their desks in shock. Masochistically, Maurice searches an internal menu for that productivity-music catalog the CEO promised. Of course it’s all low-fi crap and inspirational chants.

“I’m out of here,” she texts Kelly. “I can’t deal with being in the studio right now.”

“Let’s head down to Monterey Bay for the concert,” her friend replies. “I’ve already got the car loaded with our canoe and gear.”

Five hours later, she and Kelly stand with at least a hundred other people at Moss Landing. Everyone is wearing wetsuits spiderwebbed with heating elements. Maurice unboxes her hydrophone — a thumb-size mic attached to a long cord — and plugs it into her skullbuds. A few people have skullbuds that plug into waterproof heads-up displays, and they look like astronauts in gleaming helmets. Dozens of canoes and small boats inflate themselves on the hard-packed sand.

They’re not here for Aquatic Revenge, nor for any band that can sing in the frequencies above 20 Hz. They’re here for the loudest, subwooferest concert on Earth, which most humans will never hear. It’s sung by blue whales, at 180 dB and 35 Hz. Without skullbud volume correction, the tender neurons of her inner ear would be destroyed.

She and Kelly join the odd flotilla of boats bobbing on wind-ruffled water, mottled with orange summer light. Maurice puts on her goggles and pulls up a map overlay that shows her the bathymetry of the bay — its dramatic mountains and valleys — hidden beneath foamy gray swells. She can see the fingers of a massive, underwater canyon reaching all the way to the shoreline. 

The canoe extrudes its automated fin system and huge, flexible sheets of biofilm paddle them swiftly out into the deepest water. As the land diminishes, so, too, do Lisky’s words in Maurice’s memory. She trails her fingers in the icy water, playing out the cord that stretches between skullbuds and hydrophone. The mic is 30 meters down now. There will be no more human words or sounds for a while. She can hear fish screeching and a few whales warming up.

They float over a spot where the ocean floor drops off suddenly, creating a sheer wall that plunges 6,000 feet into the depths. It’s like an underwater Grand Canyon, and until the past century, it was a concert venue that belonged exclusively to life in the sea.

Blue whales love to feed here, so researchers at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute have wired up the whole canyon with sensors, listening and observing. That’s how they discovered the whale concerts. Something about the bay’s depth and shape is especially good for amplifying blue whale songs — their chorus can travel thousands of miles, reaching the ears of whales in Hawaii and maybe even Japan.

Humans have to turn themselves into audio cyborgs to appreciate it. Maurice looks around at the audience and the gathering shadows below, feeling as if she’s found her people. They’re all sick of the human music scene and want to hear something else. Something that isn’t produced for money, or fame. Something that isn’t even made for land dwellers.

They are at the edge of the canyon’s deepest cut when the blue whale concert begins. The songs are smooth and bubbling and monolithic and gargantuan; they rumble in Maurice’s chest and jaw, the infrasound churning up feelings and snuffing them out all at once. 

On the Aquatic Revenge server, people sometimes try to describe what it feels like to hear raw whale song. It’s like eating a skyscraper, says one. It makes your brain as big as the ocean, says another.

Maurice prefers not to label what she feels. She only wants to listen to something beautiful that nobody can explain.

The next year is a parade of chaos. Maurice quits the studio and takes on some decent freelance clients. To afford rent, she has to cancel all her skullbud subscriptions. Even the infrasound package, which means her Aquatic Revenge albums sound like shit. And no more blue whale concerts.

There’s one horrifying week when her skullbuds go into that void mode she remembers from right after her surgery. That isn’t supposed to happen — if the devices shut down, her ears should revert to natural mode. So she goes onto the whale-concert server to ask if anyone can help. That’s when she sees it — a post that might save her summer: “I’ve got a hack for Axel skullbuds. And it gets around the digital restrictions on infrasound, too.”

It’s from Baleen, the guy who told her about the hydrophone mod for skullbuds in the first place. She sends him a DM and they start chatting. Apparently she isn’t the only blue whale fan who is too poor to hear the sounds of her favorite music. Baleen gives her the GitHub link for a homemade app he calls Free Noise.

That night, as Free Noise loads, Maurice feels like she’s about to go into surgery again. There’s no telling how the world’s soundscape will feel to her afterward. She opens the app and holds her breath, like she’s diving into the ocean. And then she puts on an Aquatic Revenge song, the 30-minute one that throbs with blue whale recordings.

She feels the first low note so deep in her chest that it’s almost as if her heart has become another organ. As the call deepens and swells in amplitude, she starts to cry. Maurice missed this music so much. Closing her eyes, she leans back on her bed and thinks about how the ocean sounds on the inside: booming, like a wall of jet engines, vibrating with a sound beyond human comprehension. 


Scientists are working toward a future like Maurice’s. Here’s the real-life inspo

THIS STORY TAKES PLACE 50 years in the future, but it was inspired by the direction of today’s technology and scientific discoveries. 

Maurice’s skullbuds don’t exist right now, but University of California, San Francisco neuroscientist Charles Limb is working on a technology that might one day evolve into them. He specializes in cochlear implants (CIs), electronic devices that restore hearing by connecting a skull-mounted microphone to tiny electrodes in our inner ear’s cochlea. 

As a musician, though, there’s one thing that frustrates him. Most people with CIs don’t like to listen to music — it sounds wrong to them. That’s because CIs today come with only around 20 electrodes, and each connects to a single nerve cell in the cochlea. The problem is that our cochlea have roughly 15,000 of these cells, each dedicated to tuning particular frequencies. The CI has to translate what we’d normally hear with 15,000 tuners into something we hear with only 20. Plus, it’s hard for surgeons to reach the neurons that hear the lowest frequencies because they’re in the deepest part of the inner ear. There go your low notes. But Limb believes that one day we’ll have CIs with many more electrodes that will create a better experience of pitch.

The skullbuds in this story are speculative, but the workplace surveillance Maurice experiences is completely real. Many companies watch what employees are doing in email and texts, and control what they see online. Plus, hackers have been taking control of medical devices like pacemakers and infusion pumps for years. In 2016, a student hacked cochlear implants to improve their performance. Extrapolating these hacks into the future, you’ve got all the tools to hijack Maurice’s skullbuds and force them to play low-fi.

As for the blue whale concerts? I learned about them from Megan McKenna, an acoustic ecologist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado. She works with hydrophones, or mics that work underwater, for recording whale songs, and is a particular expert on blue whales. Blue whales love to gather at the edges of the Monterey Bay canyon to feast on krill and sing. When I ask what she thinks it would be like to attach a hydrophone to her ear and listen to whale song, McKenna’s eyes light up. “It would totally change your perception of space, if you could hear that low frequency,” she says. “You’d hear all of Monterey Bay in one moment: whales, fish, boats 20 miles away.” She smiles. “Our concept of space would blow up.”

When we imagine future tech, we usually focus on the ways it could turn humans into robotic workers, easily manipulated by surveillance capitalism. And that’s not untrue. But in this story, I wanted to suggest that there is a more subversive possibility. Modifying our bodies with technology could bring us closer to the natural world. A.N.

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