Words on Sounds – Introduction


Sound is a fleeting, elusive, and evanescent thing; even to call it a ‘thing’ misrepresents. And yet, it’s also one of the most fundamental aspects of human sensory experience. For those with normal sensory abilities, sound is our primary way of knowing the world. Primary in the sense that sound precedes sight in physiological development (we hear before we leave the womb); primary also in the sense that our ears tell our eyes where to look (our ability to aurally locate sound sources that we can not yet see – behind us, around the corner, on the other side of a wall); primary in the sense that, while we often shut our eyes, our ears are always working (we have no ear-lids); primary again in the sense that it is common for us to be in situations where we can not see (or at least vision is severely restricted) but exceedingly uncommon to be in situations where we can not hear (there’s no common aural equivalent of darkness). The situation is similar with sound in relation to our other sensory modalities of taste and smell. Only touch, of which we might say that hearing is a physiological variant, is on more-or-less equal footing with sound, with the exception of proximity.

As radiated kinetic energy, sound is both immense and intimate, vast and infinitesimal. It physically connects us to distant vibrating objects and yet informs us of our closest surroundings. Sound is transformed by everything with which it comes into contact between source and listener – as such, it tells us as much, if not more, about where we are as it does about what is vibrating. We hear context and environment as much as we hear things. Our location relative not only to sound sources but also to physical features of the environmental context is a prominent aspect of aural perception. Even more so than sight, hearing is inherently spatial in nature.

Sound and hearing are at once both deeply personal and inherently social, simultaneously of a piece with both the sacred and the profane. Many spiritual traditions – including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, animism, and various ‘traditional’ belief systems – accord a special place for sound, be it the word of god, the harmony of the spheres, the singing into creation of the physical world, or as a means to focus and quiet the mind for communion and/or meditation. Conversely, sound is also a means to domination, subjugation, and repression; a thing to be exploited, arrayed, and deployed, or else regulated, legislated and silenced. It is both personal and political.

The world is truly a world of sound, and listening is a primary entrée into that world: it helps you orient yourself, understand where you are, and what is around you. Sound is the way in, the way through, and the way out.


Listen to the sounds around you, and know your world.


6 thoughts on “Words on Sounds – Introduction

  1. And yet we are deceived. If we could hear up into the hundreds of thousands of Hertz, if we could hear/feel frequencies up to the crossover with sight, that would be a truly religious experience. Yet we are restricted by two stiff ears and a brain that wrongly interprets sound often, until sight confirms the truth. Look at prey, rather than lazy predators, for truly astonishing hearing ability. If only they could talk! Sound is duplicitous. Human arrogance allows so much sound to be scrapped nowadays. I guess we used to be more aware. I guess that background noise was less of an issue 10,000 years ago. Every sound would have been important. Now, in the city anyway, every sound reduces our sensitivity to hearing.
    Thank you for the inspiration. Looking forward to hearing more from you. Your words resonate with me, especially sound as “radiated kinetic energy”.
    I’ll be following your blog.
    All the best,
    Clay Gold (sound artist) https://sites.google.com/site/claygoldrecording/

    • Hi Clay, thanks for the comments. I’m personally not so sure that sight provides THE truth, so much as another truth. All of our senses deceive, which is why we need all of them in various ways: sensory crowd sourcing gets us closer to the truth than any single source on its own.

  2. Agreed. However, we generally accept that what we see is actually real, for us, actual fact as we understand it, and we are usually aware when we are being visually deceived. All other sensory experiences require further processing based upon experience. This is what I find so interesting about sound, its shadowy aspect. But the whole system is an ebb and flow of distortion and clarity indeed.

    • I think the key phrase there is “generally accept.” There are a number of studies documenting and explaining a whole host of common visual illusions. Visual memory, in particular, is very susceptible to serious inaccuracy and misrepresentation. For just one set of examples, see the ‘publications’ and ‘demos’ links on this site: http://shamslab.psych.ucla.edu/. Of course, auditory illusions abound, as well. For some reason, though, we’ve decided as a culture that visual evidence is to be valued higher than aural evidence, but it wasn’t always this way – it’s a relatively modern development.

      p.s. – there are some great examples and links here, too: http://www.livescience.com/24191-why-some-people-see-sound.html.

  3. Thanks for the links. Exciting to read about current research in this field. Still I think that anything which involves “memory” is suddenly out of the realm of immediate experience and into the world of processing, which is as you say prone to distortion. I would also say that it is less of a cultural decision and more an evolution with regard to the evaluation of visual evidence. Look at all those people plugged into another sound-world, as we travel around, completely rejecting their audio environment. People can function whilst listening to something other than the world around them, but as soon as we start watching something else (imagine digital goggles displaying films, like headphones for listening) it becomes impossible to operate properly. As soon as our vision changes, that becomes our location, our reality, whether moving through different environments, hallucinating or at the movies; the brain responds primarily to deal with what we see. But we can walk through a city listening to the sounds of the desert, or an ocean, and the brain will not for a second have us believe that we are anywhere other than a city.

  4. Cognition of all sensory input relies on short- and long-term memory to various degrees, so it gets pretty hard to draw a definitive line between ‘immediate experience’ and memory, between ‘now’ and ‘not now.’

    Your remarks regarding reliance on sight are true – there’s no denying that modern western culture would be sunk without a heavy reliance on visual information. That doesn’t make it ‘natural’ however – it’s still a factor of cultural construct. We’ve created our modern cities with all the noise and commotion, and have made it so that our ears have become less useful for a number of basic survival tasks. But this is definitely cultural; compare it to the scenario of rainforest jungle dwellers who can’t see more than 10 feet in front of them, even in broad daylight. They rely on sound much more than sight for navigating and understanding their environment, to say nothing of basic survival. In our case, what we can’t hear probably can’t hurt us but what we can’t see definitely could; in their case it’s largely the opposite – they can’t see any of the predators and other hazards, but they can hear them. My point here is that our relative sensory weighting is largely dependent upon how & where we find ourselves living, and in the modern western situation, that’s largely of our own making, i.e., culturally determined. By devaluing our sense of hearing we’ve willingly traded away its usefulness in order to gain certain benefits, which then rewards a sensory shift to visual information.

    For some interesting reading on this general topic, have a look at Steve Feld’s book ‘Sound and Sentiment’ and some of his other writings about the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea – they live in a very aurally-centric society.

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