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Dr. Alfred Tomatis

The following description of the life and work of Alfred Tomatis was skillfully written by Pierre Sollier, MFT. Pierre is a certified Tomatis practitioner, trained directly by Dr. Tomatis. Pierre is also the co-author of a new translation of Tomatis's book, The Ear and the Voice. Follow this link for detailed information on The Tomatis Method and the center closest to you.

Tomatis enriched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Dr. Tomatis laid the groundwork for a new multi-disciplinary science called Audio-Psycho-Phonology (APP). It explains "why the way we listen" has a profound impact on almost all aspects of our being. In the early 50's, Dr. Tomatis also discovered that Listening Problems are the root cause of many learning problems.

Dr. Tomatis not only discovered the root cause of learning disabilities, but also developed a highly effective technique to remedy them. Thanks to his revolutionary discoveries, he enriched the lives of hundreds of thousands of children and adults. 

Dr. Alfred A. Tomatis

Dr. Alfred A. Tomatis was born on January 1, 1920 in Nice (France), and passed away on Christmas Day 2001. When he was eleven, he moved to Paris and became an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat specialist). After the second world war he started studying the impact of occupational noise. What he found was outright revolutionary. Some people believe that he should have been awarded the Nobel prize. In recognition of his discoveries, he was named Knight of Public Health of France in 1951. Later on, he was also awarded the gold medal for Scientific Research (Brussels, 1958).

Tomatis has written extensively. He has written 14 books, and numerous articles. Unfortunately, only 3 of his books have been translated into English.

Over the years, Tomatis has treated many famous people. Most of them wish to stay anonymous, but some have spoken out publicly. Among those are Maria Callas, Romy Schneider and Gérard Depardieu. Tomatis also established Tomatis Centers in many countries around the world. There are only eight centers in the USA. You can find their addresses on this website, as well as the addresses of Centers in Canada and Mexico.

The Three Laws of Tomatis

When studying people that were exposed to constant noise, he discovered that when our ears cannot hear certain frequencies, our voice does not contain them either. This we now call the first law of Tomatis. The implications of this very simple law are far reaching, as we will see below.

Tomatis liked to experiment. Once he blocked the ears of a famous singer, letting through only certain frequencies. Almost immediately, the voice of the singer deteriorated: the "blocked frequencies" disappeared from his voice. Based on this observation, Tomatis postulated his second law: If we modify the hearing, the voice changes immediately.

Another interesting observation he made was that certain opera singers developed a professional deafness, and as a result were losing their voices. They damaged their ears because they were singing too loudly. More specifically, they developed a "deafness" for the frequencies in the singing range, around 2,000 Hz. As predicted by the First Law of Tomatis, their voices lacked the frequencies around the 2,000 Hz.

Tomatis' father, himself a famous opera singer, urged his son to find techniques to help his friends.  Tomatis Jr. thought long and hard why these opera singers were developing this professional deafness. He came to the conclusion that constant exposure to loud noise makes the muscles in the middle ear become "flabby", so that loud sound could not enter into the inner ear. What a wonderful defense mechanism! If that were the case, one could restore someone's hearing (and thus their voice), by retraining these muscles (third law of Tomatis). We all know how to make muscles stronger: train them. But how might you train the two smallest muscles in the body?

After much experimentation, Tomatis found that these two muscles can be strengthened by having someone listen to "music" that is switched on and off continuously. The muscles have to follow by stretching and relaxing, and so become stronger. His first prototype used an old-fashioned sewing machine to switch the sounds on and off. He later found that one could make faster progress if the music would not be switched on and off, but be switched between two canals: one in which the low frequencies are amplified, and another in which the high frequencies are amplified. This he called "gating". It is one of the functions of a machine he developed, called the Electronic Ear.

Listening and Learning

The bridge to learning came when he realized that each language predominantly uses a different set of frequencies. For example, the French language uses mainly frequencies between 1,000 and 2,000 Hz. French ears are thus accustomed to these frequencies. British people are accustomed to listen to frequencies between 2,000 and 12,000 Hz, so they are "deaf" to the French sounds (and vice-versa). That why it is so difficult to learn a foreign language. Tomatis found that you can train the ear to get accustomed to the foreign frequencies, and so learn foreign languages more easily. In broader terms, this means that: to learn, you have to be able to listen.

The discovery that listening is key to learning opened a whole new area of research. One of the things Tomatis asked himself: would it make any difference with what ear you listen? Most people think that our two ears are identical and serve identical purposes. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Tomatis found that people who are right ear dominant learn much more easily. As Tomatis has a strong background in neurology, he readily understood why. The right ear is connected to the left brain, the place where language is processed. That is a fast and accurate connection. The left ear, however, is connected to the right brain, where language cannot be processed. It has to jump via the corpus callosum to the left brain. This is not only a slower connection, but it is also a less reliable connection. In the process, some of the higher frequencies get lost, and these are key to interpreting language. For example, a  "b"  and a  "p"  only differ in the higher harmonics and someone who is left ear dominant thus has to guess from the context what was said. That introduces errors and delays. So, Tomatis modified his Electronic Ear so that he could train people to become right ear dominant, and make them better learners.

If listening is key to learning, perceiving all the frequencies of the auditory spectrum well is equally important. Based on thousands and thousands of tests, Tomatis came to the conclusion that people with an "ideal listening curve" learn more easily than those who have a distorted curve. To improve someone's listening curve, Tomatis reasoned, we have to use gated music that is filtered. By letting only certain frequencies through, we can train selectively those parts of the listening curve that need to be strengthened. So, he again modified his Electronic Ear, and equipped it with 8 high quality filters. With this new device, the listening curves of his clients improved, and so did their learning. 

Tomatis observed, however, something very astounding. Not only did the people learn better, they also gained more energy. What might be the explanation for that? He realized that it was because his clients were starting to perceive the high frequencies well. In the ear, there are many more receptors (Corti cells) for high pitch tones than for lower ones. High frequencies are thus transmitting more the auditory information to the brain, thereby stimulating it more. So, when we hear high pitch sounds better, the brain gets stimulated more, resulting in more energy. We call this Ear-Energy. Tomatis says it this way: ears are like dynamos. 

Another surprising side-effect is that motor skills improve. For Tomatis this was not a surprise, as the gated music also stimulates that part of the ear that regulates all of our movements (the vestibule), and when the ear is "normalized", people will improve their motor skills (being able to catch a ball, ride a bike, stand straight, etc).

Listening with your body

As an ENT, Tomatis knew that we listen not only with our ears, but also with our bodies. Our bones are particularly good sound conductors. You can test this yourself, by putting a tuning fork on the top of your skull. You can hear the sound as if it came through your ears. If good listening is a prerequisite for good learning, he reasoned, "I better study both modes of listening: with the ears and with the bones". This led him to develop a revolutionary new theory to explain how sounds enter into the inner-ear:

Sounds that reach the ear are modulated by the middle ear. Some sounds are amplified, some are muffled into the background. The ear acts like a "gate-keeper". This gives us the ability to focus on what is important.  Sounds that are captured by the bones go directly into the inner-ear, without passing through the middle ear, the gate keeper. So, background noise and the voice of the teacher are as loud, making it impossible to really focus. 

To learn well, we have to be able to focus. That is not possible if we predominantly listen through bone conduction. To restore our ability to focus (and thus learn), he concluded,  we have to desensitize the bone conduction. Could that be done by applying gated music directly to the bone? He equipped the Electronic Ear with a vibrator to be placed on the top of the skull and tested what effect that had on the way people listened. What he found was that it desensitized the bone conduction, making that people started to listen predominantly with their ears. Their behavior problems alleviated and their performance in school improved.

What problems has Tomatis addressed?

The Tomatis Listening Therapy has helped children and adults with auditory processing problems, dyslexia, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, autism, and those with sensory integration and motor-skill difficulties. It has also helped adults fight depression, learn foreign languages faster, develop better communication skills, and improve both creativity and on-the-job performance. Many musicians, singers and actors also found it helpful in fine-tuning their artistic skills.

The work of Tomatis has revolutionized our understanding of the role our ears play in our day-to day lives. Thanks to him, hundreds of thousands of people now live fuller and richer lives.

Used by kind permission of the author.
Copyright © 2001-2003, Pierre Sollier, MFT. All rights reserved.


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