Reviewed: Noise - a Human History of Sound and Listening by David Hendy

Boom industry.

Audience members at Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House in China. Photograph: Iwan Baan

Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening
David Hendy
Profile Books, 402pp, £16.99

During a classical music concert, a cough is rarely just a cough. According to a recent paper by the economist Andreas Wagener, people are twice as likely to cough during a concert as at other times. Furthermore, they are more likely to cough during modern, atonal music than during better-known repertoire and they cough more during slow or quiet passages than during fast and loud ones.

The classical cough, then, is no accident but rather a form of communication disguised as involuntary physiological tic. “Because of their ambiguity – they may always be forgiven as bodily reflexes – coughs are a noisy substitute for direct, verbal communication and participation,” Wagener writes. “They allow for social interaction up to contagious herding, propagate (possibly incorrect) assessments of the performance and reassure concert-goers in their aesthetic judgements.”

Coughers might thus be rebelling nonverbally against the hierarchy imposed on them – that of powerful, noise-making performers and submissive, silent audience. Wagener’s paper is too recent to have found its way into David Hendy’s book, but it reflects in this way one of Noise’s major themes – that social groups struggle for supremacy using sound as a proxy. (In classical music, the asymmetry of the right to make noise is quite recent. Chamber music used to be the mainly ignored soundtrack to parties, while opera-goers would heckle or cheer ad libitum.) From the hypnagogic effects of shamanic singing in enclosed spaces to the territorial authority of church bells and the use of carefully engineered background music in workplaces and supermarkets, sound is often, Hendy points out, a means of control.

If there is one general lesson that this amiably diverting book reminds us of, it’s that sound has more profound effects on us than we often consciously realise – a truth exploited by movie composers and sound editors. It is fascinating to learn, for example, of the archaeologists who moved through ancient French caves in darkness, performing a crude form of bat-like echolocation: shouting or clapping and listening to the reverberations. When the acoustics of the cave changed, they would turn on their torches – and there, more often than not, find a cave painting.

Why the cave art should have been so placed is a mystery – as are many things about the distant past. Thus Hendy’s first section on the prehistory of sound – which also takes in musical stones and African drumming as proto-telegraph – is highly speculative in tone, sometimes excessively so. Discussing what came before human speech, Hendy guesses: “Something with the quality of music might well have been a safer evolutionary bet than using words.” The deployment of the term “evolution - ary” does not help this sentence rise to the level of science.

From prehistory, Hendy moves to classical antiquity, where we find Seneca complaining about the din from the baths he lived above. (This prompts one of the book’s few jokes: “‘Why should I need to suffer the torture any longer than I want to?’ [Seneca] explained, with what can only be described as a complete lack of stoicism.”) Thence we fast-forward to the medieval and early-modern periods, with monkish days measured out in bells, priestly chanting making people feel better and reverberant cathedrals hosting heavenly music.

Eventually, there arose what Hendy calls a “cult of decorum”: making noise was perceived as lower class, if not outright revolutionary. “Increasingly,” Hendy writes, “the noise of revelry was simply assumed to be the noise of outright rebellion.” (There is no mention here of the early-1990s rave scene and the legislative immortalisation, in 1994’s Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, of “repetitive beats” but it fits right in.) The ability to flee annoying tumult was always a prerogative of the rich, from wealthy Romans running to the hills to well-to-do Edinburghers flocking to the New Town. During the First World War, officers suffering shell shock would be sent off for quiet recuperation, while enlisted men were more likely to be classed as “neurasthenic”.

As Hendy skips through the centuries, he observes Henry David Thoreau complaining about the encroaching noise of the railways, the shrieks and roars of Manchester in the Industrial Revolution and the inventions of the stethoscope, gramophone, radio and Muzak. For the latter, Erik Satie must shoulder at least some of the blame, with his call for a new species of “furniture music”. In 1920, he created such a piece to be played in a theatre foyer during the interval. “As soon as they heard it,” Hendy relates, “the theatre audience stopped talking and stood in reverential silence. Satie was furious.” Meanwhile, Hendy notes that “piped music” was originally used as a way of making frightening new technology, such as the elevator, seem more comfortable.

It’s sometimes unclear to what extent Hendy’s examples show sound working as sound, rather than sound happening to accompany something else that is more pointedly relevant. Zooming across the map to South America, Hendy emphasises the frightening loudness of the Spanish colonists’ guns – though one suspects that if the guns’ deafening noise had not been routinely accompanied by the dropping dead of their unfortunate targets, the noise would have soon lost its power to amaze. Hendy is on safer ground when he stresses later that the noise of 20th-century warfare, rather than being a homogeneous pandemonium, was rapidly “readable” by soldiers, who analysed it for a wealth of information critical for their survival.

Leaping around from one colourful and intriguing vignette to another over the course of the book’s 30 short chapters, Hendy fulfils only partially the ambivalent promise of his introduction, in which he disavows the kind of “intellectual history” of sound essayed by other writers and promises instead a “social history”. But even a social history is not just one damned thing after another.

“Instead of worrying about the usual boundaries between noise and music, or cacophony and silence, or speech and song,” Hendy counsels eagerly, “we need to discover the virtues of leaving them to one side.” One may immediately resist the wheedling authoritarianism of his phrasing (“we need”, do we? Speak for yourself!) and conclude regretfully that Hendy’s successful fidelity to this programme of ignoring conceptual distinctions renders his book analytically impoverished.

The term “noise”, for a start, is usually (and usefully) distinguished from “sound” in general by explaining that noise is “unwanted sound”. Yet, like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, Hendy decides that “noise” means just what he wants it to mean: that is, any kind of sound at all. He even heroically leaves to one side the boundary between noise and speech, devoting a chatty chapter to rhetoric in ancient Rome – an interesting enough subject but impossible to cover more than superficially in the 12 pages allotted.

Discussing oral storytelling traditions, Hendy calls the Iliad “a piece of early sound art”, which is in danger of implying, bizarrely, that speech is noise and nothing else. (It seems that if you set too many distinctions to one side, meaning goes out the window.) “In a vigorous oral culture,” Hendy claims, “it’s hard to draw a firm line between speaker and listener.” It isn’t really – the speaker is still the one reciting the story, even if others are chatting and butting in – and to claim otherwise is a kind of conceptual democratisation gone mad.

Hendy has the unfortunate habit, too, of congratulating himself on perfectly unsurprising opinions. He insists early on, “I’ve stressed how the distant human past was probably far from silent” – as though anyone had ever imagined that it was. Later, he writes courageously: “I would go so far as to say that it was through conversation, as much as through writing, that we should locate the origin of philosophy and rational thought in the ancient world.” Anyone who has ever heard of Socrates and his forebears would readily concur.

Throughout, Hendy’s emphasis is on championing noise as a vehicle of sociality. In this rather Panglossian view, there is little worthy of the name of noise “pollution”, except, perhaps, poor Muzak. Several times, Hendy repeats his pretty and persuasive formula that sound is “a kind of ‘touching’ at a distance” but seems reluctant to draw too strongly the obvious conclusion that, if so, some kinds of sound constitute an assault.

Though he expresses sympathy for the noise-exhausted residents of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century, he doesn’t dwell on how the traffic noise suffered by people who live near major roads today in London or New York increases their risk of stroke and lowers their scores on IQ tests. And a single study suggesting that people work more creatively in the babbling ambience of a coffee shop does not warrant Hendy’s warm and fuzzy conclusion that: “We think best . . . whenever we can hear each other close by” – at least, I suppose Marcel Proust would have a word to say about that, from the sonically insulated haven of his cork-lined room. (In his final chapters, Hendy leans heavily on Garret Keizer’s The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, a much more critical and detailed investigation into the noisome effects of modern noise.)

Is the world now noisier than it ever was? The answer seems unequivocally yes, even if you can always dig up curmudgeons in earlier eras complaining about the unprecedented noise of their environments. Our global modern racket, as Hendy hastily acknowledges late on, is physically harming wild animals such as elk (with the din of snow mobiles) and whales (industrial shipping) as well as ourselves.

Not dwelled on within these pages, either, is how so many people today out on the street or on public transport are playing music to themselves using headphones or earphones turned up to alarmingly damaging volumes (thus also irritating people around them with the sonic overspill).

This phenomenon seems to imply a general desperation to control our sonic environment in the face of the thousand aural shocks of metropolitan life. What is surely a coming pandemic of severely compromised hearing because of such mp3-caning habits – a self-inflicted species of the “boilermakers’ disease” that Hendy notes was, by the end of the 19th century, afflicting “shipbuilders, locksmiths, iron-turners, weavers, engine drivers, railway workers” – may be a price some moderns are willing to pay. Fight fire with fire, alien noise with your chosen noise, volume with more volume, until at length noise can’t touch you at all.

It seems telling, too, that though Hendy devotes a chapter to the noise of stadium crowds, from the London 2012 Olympics back to the Colosseum and Circus Maximus, and celebrates the ability of a rebellious crowd to show its displeasure through booing, he does not mention the most notorious modern instrument of sporting mob dictatorship. I mean the vuvuzela, the plastic horn whose aggregated cacophonous buzzfarting ruined the auditory atmosphere of the 2010 World Cup for spectators around the world and often made it impossible for the players themselves to hear one another’s calls. Despite the sunny bias of Hendy’s choice of historical stories, the crowd is not always right, and sometimes noise really is just noise.

Steven Poole’s latest book is “You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up with Gastroculture” Say what? A picnic is interrupted by plane noise (Union Books, £12.99)

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Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening

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David Hendy

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Profile Books, 402pp, £16.99