The Third Thing: the ‘Sound’ of Interpersonal Synergy

I don’t listen to podcasts very often, but one that I do subscribe to is Twenty Thousand Hertz, a podcast all about “the stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds.” Host Dallas Taylor often asks his guests the same question: What is your favorite sound? It’s a great question to ponder: what sound brings you the most joy and fulfillment? The laughter of children? A cat purring? Flowing water?

Ever since I first encountered them as a child, my favorite sound in the world has been the sound of difference tones. Musical pitches are sound waves moving at different speeds, measured in Hertz (Hz). A phenomenon called combination tones will happen when two pitches are sounding simultaneously; you can have sum tones as well as difference tones, though difference tones are easier to discern. A difference tone is created if two pitches are held (for example, 1000 Hz and 800 Hz), and the listener perceives a lower pitch (equivalent to 200 Hz – the difference between 1000 and 800) sounding at the same time. This video from the YouTube channel 12tone (embedded below) goes into difference tones in more depth, and it’s worth a watch (with good headphones if you’ve got them!):

How To Play Notes That Aren’t There | 12tone YouTube Channel

On a scientific level, I was fascinated to learn that difference tones are not discernible nor measurable by spectrum analyzers. These ghostly, buzzy tones are either produced by the inner ear or by our brain – so, they literally only exist in our heads! Are difference tones actual “sounds” if they don’t exist outside of our minds? If multiple people “hear” it, is it proof of the existence of the tone, or is it just a shared delusion, since they can’t be objectively measured or recorded?

When introducing the topic of difference tones to my flute students, some are immediately turned off by the buzzy quality of the sound, and some are even a little scared of it. I can understand their aversion… it is a little disorienting to discover that in some circumstances, 1+1=3! But for others, it is astonishing to discover a hidden world, where everything is capable of resonating in perfect harmony, if only in our heads, and only for a brief time before it’s gone. Whether or not this phenomenon can truly be considered a sound, there is something so incredibly fulfilling about perceiving that third “imaginary” note buzzing in perfect harmony alongside the two “real” notes, and it’s one of my favorite shared experiences when performing alongside other musicians.

A recent article from The Atlantic, entitled “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart,” had a passage that struck me profoundly:

Elisa recently wrote to me that what she misses about Rebecca is “the third thing that came from the two of us. the alchemy of our minds and hearts and (dare i say?) souls in conversation. what she brought out in me and what i brought out in her, and how those things don’t exist without our relationship.”
. . .
Of course, as Elisa points out (with a hat-tip to Audre Lorde), all deep friendships generate something outside of themselves, some special and totally other third thing. Whether that thing can be sustained over time becomes the question. (Senior, par. 146)

The third thing. That elusive, mysterious thing created when two people are confident enough to let down their walls and be their authentic selves together. Two people, strongly broadcasting their individual pitches, create the combination tone that marks the uniqueness of that bond. This third thing exists in all deep relationships between two people, and much like difference tones, only really exists in our own heads. This third thing may not even be the same in the heads of the two people involved! 

Reading the quote from The Atlantic made me realize that my lifelong fascination with difference tones mirrors my lifelong fascination with people, as well as the creation of that “third thing” created when two personalities interact. If you have multiple siblings, do you relate to and get along with each of them in exactly the same way? If you are part of a larger friend group, do you have exactly the same bond with every member of that group individually? Probably not! Every relationship is as unique as the people in it. My late father spoke often about “human relations,” not in the businesslike/company HR sense of the phrase, but in the sense that we should always be aware of how energy combined can inadvertently, unexpectedly create something bigger than just ourselves – optimism, camaraderie, new ideas, new works of art, even new life… but also, the potential for embarrassment, pain, hurt feelings, and in extreme cases, catastrophe and destruction that affects innocent people around us.

It’s an interesting idea to think of this “third thing,” at its best, as positive synergy, bringing out each other’s positive qualities while mitigating their flaws. Philosopher Henri Lefebvre observes that “it is not only in music that one produces perfect harmonies” (Lefebvre 20). George Martin, describing the four Beatles to a young engineer at Abbey Road, said: “There will be one Beatle there, fine. Two Beatles, great. Three Beatles, fantastic. But the minute the four of them are there, that is when the inexplicable charismatic thing happens, the special magic no one has been able to explain. . . you’ll be aware of this inexplicable presence” (Hertsgaard 143). But, as we all know, the Beatles’ personal and professional synergy proved unsustainable over time. Human beings are ever-evolving, ever-changing, and a harmonious difference tone can slowly, or suddenly, change into an unbearable, discordant, unsustainable one as the fundamental pitches drift apart. I’d argue that a friend break-up can be even harder to endure than the end of a love affair, just because there seems to be less sociological infrastructure in place to help us emotionally process the loss when the loss is platonic vs. romantic. And the most final of relationship endings – death – leaves a very particular kind of void in our souls, not only because the other person is irrevocably gone, but because you’ve also permanently lost that “third thing” that the two of you had only with each other, never to be felt in quite the same way again with anyone else.

“I believe that if there’s any kind of God, it wouldn’t be in any one of us — not you, or me — but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed, but — who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt.” — quote spoken by Céline, Before Sunrise (film)

This time of year (wintertime/holidays) can be tough on many people. It’s worth remembering as we go through life that everyone we meet has felt love, pain, and loss. No one gets through life unscathed, and the cyclical rhythm of the holiday season can be hard for people to endure as they mourn important people whom have died, as well as important relationships that have ended — the combination tones that have ceased to sound and that will never resume. But why do we continue to look for that third thing, when we know it’s bound to end?

A Virtual Choir 2,000 Voices Strong | Eric Whitacre TED Talk

In this TED talk about his Virtual Choir project, launched in 2010 (ten years before the COVID-19 pandemic!), about 10 minutes in, Eric Whitacre highlights statements from singers around the world about what motivated them to join this project. Their reasons weren’t about money, or fame, or anything valued by society at large. It was about something far more personal and intimate, a deep desire from one’s soul to be heard and to belong to something; to be one of many theses in the creation of a synthesis. As he states in the video at the 11:18 timestamp, “human beings will go to any lengths necessary to find and connect with each other.” We as a species are hardwired to value and seek out human connection, and I would venture to say, we figuratively are constantly looking for the sound of that synergy – the combination tones that make us feel like part of a larger harmony.

Musicians know that perfection is an unattainable goal. We can practice for decades, spend countless hours honing our skills over the course of a lifetime, and never be perfect at what we do. Yet we do it anyway. Why? Why do we devote our energy to something unachievable? I’d argue that while we individually will never be perfect, the real magic in music lays dormant until there are people gathered to make it, together. There are moments of absolute beauty to be had in the world, moments that can only be created by us showing up and being authentic with those around us. With our imperfect selves, we can create those difference tones in combination with other imperfect people, creating that transcendent “third thing” – rare, elusive moments of interpersonal harmony that might be all in our heads, but are no less real and meaningful for it.

Works Cited:

“How To Play Notes That Aren’t There.” YouTube, uploaded by 12tone, 26 May 2017.

Senior, Jennifer. “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart.” The Atlantic, 9 Feb. 2022, Accessed 26 Dec. 2022.

Lefebvre, Henri. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. Translated by Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore. E-book ed., Bloomsbury Revelations, 2013. Kindle.

Hertsgaard, Mark. A Day In The Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1995.

Before Sunrise. Directed by Richard Linklater, Castle Rock Entertainment, 1995. YouTube, uploaded by Bardabus, 16 Jan. 2011.

Whitacre, Eric. “A Virtual Choir 2,000 Voices Strong.” YouTube, uploaded by TED, 4 Apr. 2011.

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