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A noisy history of the world

David Hendy is presenting a BBC Radio 4 series on the history of humans' relationship with sound. Here he tells Spencer Mizen why exploring what our ancestors heard, as well as saw, is crucial to gaining a better understanding of what it was like to live in the past

Published: March 1, 2013 at 6:17 am
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How important is sound to understanding the human experience through history?

It’s absolutely critical. A visual history is only half a history – trying to uncover the noises our ancestors made, what they heard, is key to building a picture of what their lives were really like. How can we begin to understand how it felt to live in a tenement in New York’s Lower East Side without appreciating the noise that filled one of the most overcrowded places on Earth – the kind of unrelenting din that sent people mad through lack of sleep?


Or how can we try to portray what it was like to serve as a soldier in the trenches of the First World War without referring to the horror of the conflict through sound – the shells and the gunfire? This is especially the case in a place where soldiers experienced the war more through their ears than their eyes. You couldn’t stick your head above the parapet, so you determined whether you were winning or losing a battle – where the next shell or bullet was coming from – by using your ears.

How do you present a history of noise when we have no recorded sound from before the 19th century?

You’re right, history is usually about the visual record – evidence like paintings and manuscripts. This material isn’t, of course, available to historians of sound, so we’ve got to be a bit more creative.

We have to take clues from some of the evidence that our ancestors have left us. For example, a series of portals in the west front of Wells Cathedral gives us a hint as to what worship sounded like in the Middle Ages. These portals were used to conceal choristers, and were sited behind statues of angels.

On important days in the Christian calendar, such as Palm Sunday, the choristers would sing from the portals, giving the congregation the impression that they were hearing the voices of angels. That would have had a profound impact on them.

Luckily, our ancestors left us surprisingly detailed accounts of the sounds that confronted them in their lives. This is especially true of European explorers – because they were regularly experiencing sounds they’d never heard before. For example, 17th-century colonists in America were struck by the sounds of the ‘howling wilderness’, while British explorers in the Outback were taken aback by the silence, occasionally pierced by the sound of dogs. They found it unsettling – and, so struck were they by this soundscape that they were moved to describe the impact this had on them.

How far back in human history does your series go?

It goes right back to the very beginning, with proto-humans. The fact is that sound has always had a significant impact on the way that we understand the world around us. And because sound is so fleeting and hard to define, it’s always had this magical quality. The people who, 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, left us those beautiful pieces of cave art in southern France seem to have sensed this. We’ve established that the art is often found in the parts of the caves with the best echoes, so maybe the artists attributed these noises to a supernatural source, and regarded their paintings as a means of representing the sound in a way they understood.

How has sound shaped the way that humans have evolved?

Above all, it’s helped us bond with one another, to evolve as social animals. From early hunter-gatherers using drums in the jungles of Africa to teenagers texting today, sound has always been as much about getting ‘in tune’ with one another as merely conveying a message. I like to refer to it as touching from a distance.

This can be seen in something as unremarkable as the ringing of a bell in the Middle Ages. Yes, that bell told people that it was time to go to church but it also reminded them that they were part of a community. People felt safe in earshot of the bells because it told them that they were under some sort of spiritual protection.

Have people used noise to exert power in the past?

Undoubtedly. One of the series’ principal aims is to explore the way that people have tried to wield influence through sound. It’s a history of people competing to make themselves heard.

This can be seen at least as far back as the classical world – when Roman and Greek elites attempted to flaunt their power via music, chanting and the clashing of arms during public spectacles. Fast-forward 2,000 years and you’ve got Goebbels using radio as a platform for projecting the Nazis’ message into every home in Germany. The advent of radio suddenly gave rulers the opportunity to speak to entire nations – with malevolent as well as benign results.

On the flip side, you’ve got cases where people tried to silence others as a form of oppression. A classic example of this is the plight of African-American slaves. For them, music was a way of holding onto their culture when everything else had been taken away from them. So, when the slave-masters denied them drums – suspecting that they were being used to stir up revolt – they reverted to singing and hand-slapping. They were locked in a battle to stop themselves being silenced.

To what extent did the industrial revolution change the soundscape?

In my opinion, some people have overplayed the so-called monstrous effect that the new noises of the industrial revolution had on the ‘peace and quiet’ that preceded it. Most of the people who complained about it were writers who were barely touched by it – apart from the sound of, say, a passing railway. Those who were affected most by industrialisation generally didn’t write about it: for example, the workers who were, day after day, exposed to the din of the factories.

It’s probably true that the industrial revolution flattened the soundscape – that it drowned out other noises. But we’ve got to remember that another revolution – the science revolution – suddenly introduced us to lots of new sounds: new music and voices, courtesy of the gramophone; the sounds of our own body, thanks to the stethoscope.

What would someone from, say, medieval London make of the noises the city produces today?

What they’d be struck by most, I feel, is not so much the amount of noise they’d experienced, more the fact that that noise never lets up. In the past, there would have been a night curfew, and it would have been quiet. That simply doesn’t happen now.

You could also argue that our medieval time traveller would be taken aback by the noise of London’s traffic. That’s probably true, but it’s also true that, when cars first appeared, some people were glad to see the back of iron-rimmed wheels clattering on cobbles, because they’re a lot noisier than rubber on tarmac.

One thing we probably can say with some confidence is that our ancestors’ listening skills were superior to our own. We don’t seem to need to be alive to every little sound that we hear – probably because we’re so in control of the environment around us. That simply wouldn’t apply, for example, to someone hunting in the rainforest.

People today seem to expend a lot of energy trying to escape noise. Has that always been the case?

The Romans tried to repel external noises with wall hangings, later we hung tapestries or built houses further from the road and, in the early 20th century, no New York office block was complete without ceiling tiles and cork floors. Yet, as the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle proved when he built a soundproof study back in the 19th century – only to be infuriated by every single sound that shattered the silence – this tactic is doomed to failure.

Instead of attempting to escape noise, we should try and manage it – especially in our public spaces. This might mean introducing a richer soundscape by curbing things that drown out other sounds – traffic, for example. But what we can’t do is create silence. In an increasingly busy world, attempting to pull up the drawbridge and escape noise isn’t going to work.

David Hendy is a professor of media and communication at the University of Sussex. His books include Life on Air: A History of Radio 4 (Oxford, 2007)


This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine


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