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Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening

Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening

David Hendy


A social and scientific history of human sound: not just undesired noise, but how sound binds societies together and how we decide what constitutes "noise" in the first place.

There are some fascinating vignettes. My favourite is the relationship between cave paintings and the soundscapes of the caves in which they're painted: many of the works occur in locations that are "significant" in the sounds that can be heard, or in the ways that sounds made there reverberate into the wider cave. There's also a discussion of colonial attitudes to the languages and music of indigenous peoples, and how the contempt for these (as "hellish din") contributed to the colonists' disdain for them.

As someone who loves silence, there are also some explorations that were awkward and discomforting for me, as to how the ability to find silence is a manifestation of "othering" others in society, and regarding their sounds as encroaching and unwanted. There's also a sense that the pursuits one enjoys in silence – like reading – often come about because the noise of their construction has been offloaded elsewhere, to impact on other people.

As to "noise", it seems to boil down to whether the sounds being heard are perceived as being made by "us" or "them", and to what extent we can exercise some control over them. That makes sound a part of the wider behaviour of a society: if we are all "us", then we will tackle excess sound differently than if those sounds are being made by a "them". In that sense, noise complaints are a measure of social cohesiveness and our willingness to rub along well with others.

4/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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