Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening, by David Hendy

From carnivals to cathedrals to the horrific soundscapes of the first World War, a history of noise turns out to be also a story of power, control and anxiety

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 12:02


Book Title:
Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening


David Hendy

Profile Books

Guideline Price:

David Hendy’s Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening is a highly enjoyable and thought-provoking book, though its title might have been more accurate if the word “noise” had been omitted. For it ranges far beyond the exploration of “unwanted sound” to examine such diverse topics as the art of rhetoric, the healing power of music and the invention of the stethoscope. The word that perhaps should have been included in the title is “soundscape”, since this is the book’s primary focus: the description and exploration of diverse worlds of sound.

For any single volume that ranges over the entire Earth and throughout the whole of human history, there are really only two possible ways to go: either give an overview from such a dizzying height that all details of the story are lost, or pick out a scattering of key moments. It is this latter approach that Hendy takes, and he is very successful in so doing. As he points out himself, until sound began to be recorded at the end of the 19th century, it was a fleeting, transitory phenomenon. Reconstructions are dependent on all sorts of details of particular time and place that are often unknown to the historian and, in any case – one of the book’s key arguments – a soundscape depends on its listeners as well as its makers, so even if we had high-quality recordings of distant historical events, it would still not put us in the position of contemporary witnesses. Despite this, Hendy does a great job of reconstructing a whole range of long-gone sound worlds – and, importantly, he makes clear what is assumption, what is fact and what is guesswork, while still presenting his descriptions in an evocative way.

The book takes us to some wonderful and terrible places: an angelic auditory illusion in Wells Cathedral, a painstaking and detailed reconstruction of the soundscapes of ancient Rome and of 19th-century New York City, the mud and death of the first World War. Hendy does not tell his story to support a preconceived theory or suggested campaign, which makes the book rather different from most on the subject. It is not a book to read to learn about the science of sound or the best ways to battle noise. It is the invocation of other places, other times, that is the book’s main purpose and strength.

In some places, however, Hendy very successfully compares different sound-rich settings and events: he draws a clever and convincing parallel between the rhetorical forces of Barack Obama and of Cicero, and between the roles of sound in sporting events in the Coliseum in ancient times and at the venues of the 2012 Olympics. Such analysis reveals the unchanging elements of our relationship with sound; in particular, that the control of sound, whether modulated and tuneful or loud and noisy, has always been a potent source of power over others.

A high point of the book is Hendy’s account of the rise and impact of radio broadcasting in the 1930s, through which he builds a convincing case that the Nazis, the Soviets, US radio broadcast networks, Roosevelt’s government and John Reith’s BBC all used their understanding of the power of radio-transmitted sound over the hearts and minds of those they wished to influence.

Hendy reminds us that the power of sound takes many forms, from the overwhelming noise of a carnival to the emotional impact of recordings of the voices of those who died on 9/11, and to its destructive effects on the physical and mental health of soldiers in first World War trenches. This latter account is highly effective, and chilling, in bringing to life the harrowing soundscapes of the trenches through the words of such witnesses as Robert Graves and Erich Remarque. At the other extreme, there is a fascinating account of the use of music at St Augustine’s abbey in medieval Canterbury as a source of healing (like ice-cream given only to a child who is ill, the music was made inaccessible to the healthy majority, who did not need such decadent luxury, by shutting the sickroom doors).

A particularly enjoyable section is the discussion of the marking out of separate sound worlds by the lower and upper classes in the 17th century, illustrated by some wonderful quotes from the contemporary etiquette guide The Gentlewoman's Companion . This is used to illustrate the point that, when one group of people labels the characteristic accents, language, music or other sounds of another group as “noise”, then that second group is a very effectively defined as both inferior and irremediably alien. More generally, Hendy argues, when we separate soundscapes we make strangers.

Hendy is skilled at selecting exactly the right example for his argument: that bells have ever been carriers of power, for instance, is supported by (among other examples) a fascinating account of the aftermath of a shipwreck, which left ship masters Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Summers no real power over their crew. When it seemed that the men’s claim that they had been “‘freed from the government of any man’” by the storm was in the ascendant, Gates and Summers hit upon the scheme of summoning them all to prayers by means of the ship’s bell – which did the trick, returning authority to the pair to the extent that they could safely punish the recalcitrant few who did not attend. Small wonder then that when the crew finally returned to civilisation, the first thing they did was go to the local church and have its bell rung for them.

In the book’s closing section, Hendy’s main conclusions are that the history of sound is a story of power, control and anxiety, and that sound and noise cannot be regarded usefully as objective phenomena. To divorce human reactions to sounds from sounds themselves is to rob them of all their meaning.

Today, a popular way of exploring the soundscape of a location is through a “sound walk”, a guided tour in which the guide and the participants do not speak, keep as quiet as possible and simply walk and listen. In this way a surprising richness is revealed, making the familiar feel new. Noise is the literary equivalent, opening our ears and our minds to the sound worlds of other lives and times, and perhaps encouraging us to listen to our own familiar soundscapes with fresh ears.

Dr Mike Goldsmith was a member of the Acoustics Group of the UK National Physical Laboratory from 1987 until 2007. From 2007 to 2010 he led a British government-funded research project to develop and demonstrate DreamSys, a new noise-mapping system based on a largely autonomous array of low-cost microphones. He published Discord , the first history of noise, in 2012 and was recently guest editor of the Noise Abatement Society's e-zine, Soundscape .