Essays, Analyses and Meditations


Back to my essays | Back to the Philosophy pages | Author

Civilizations of Sound

  • As i travel around the world, i try to imagine the impact that the sounds of a place have on people. Each region of the world has different sounds. Some cities in the developing world are extremely noisy. The noise of both modern traffic and traditional markets contribute to the cacophony. Some cities in the West are dominated by the sounds of public transportation. If you only take the subway every day, you may be more exposed to the underground sounds than to the sounds of your own neighborhood. Many suburban neighborhoods in the USA are actually very quiet, with the occasional sounds of a car or children. There are extremely crowded places in the world in which the main sound is still the voices of thousands of people shouting at each other. Those sounds must have an effect on the people who live there.
  • I started wondering about the past. What sounds did people hear in Mexico in 1600? or in London in 1800? or in Rome in 300? or in Moscow in 1700? or in Angkor in 1300? Those sounds shaped their psyche, the psyche of entire nations. There must have been times when the main noise in some cities was the noise of people walking in the streets, the sounds of horses and carriages. There were times when the main sounds were sounds of cannons and gunfire. There is a town in Tamil Nadu, India, in which the main sound all day long is the sound of artisans chiseling stone. In a town in Ethiopia one can still hear the sounds of animals being kept in the houses. In ancient times many towns were like these two towns. In medieval Europe and, in general, in times of war, people must have been used to the sounds of raiding armies, that were different in different ages. Not long ago the typical sound of every house was the ticking of a keywind clock.
  • These sounds may be more important for the history of humankind than the actions of men and women whose psychology had been shaped by those sounds. Different regions developed different psychologies because they were exposed to different sounds.
  • We have a record (called "books") of the words that shaped human cognition over the centuries. We also have a record of images that shaped the minds of people over the centuries. Unfortunately, we don't have a record of the sounds that people heard in past ages. This is a part of the human experience that historians have always neglected.
  • When we analyze the work of an artist (whether a writer or a painter or an architect or even a composer), we tend to focus on the visual aspect of the artist's life: how the landscape and the people looked like. We rarely analyze the sounds that the artist was hearing and that probably contributed as much as the looks to the art. The reason is very simple: we have a record of how the world and how the people looked like in the old days, whereas we don't have a record of how the world and the people "sounded" like before the invention of recording. Nonetheless, i suspect that even a painting was influenced by the sounds that the painter was hearing.
  • The sounds that we hear on a daily basis shape our cognitive growth. In a sense, you are not only what you eat but also what you hear.
  • Each age has been shaped by ordinary, daily sounds as much as by great ideas and terrible wars. The sounds of carriages, tools, animals and rivers have been replaced by the noise of alarm clocks, computer keyboards, videogames, phone ring tones, car keys. Each appliance in the house makes its own noises.
  • Today we are constantly enveloped in a jungle of electrical, electronic and digital noises. Most of us wake up to one of those noises.
  • The familiar voices of one's family and neighbors are being replaced by the cacophony of the strangers who surround us at work and in the streets. The cacophony of the town market has been replaced by the cold announcements of the supermarket.
  • The sound of the live human voice that would read a book or recite a poem (in the days when very few people could read, back when most people were listeners and not readers) has been replaced by the silence of reading in private (a book or an email or a webpage).
  • I believe that this change in the sounds that surround our existence has caused a corresponding change in the way brains work. We are shaped by the sounds that we perceive. Every age has perceived a different sets of sounds. Therefore the minds of each age have worked differently.
  • When one replaces the pervasive sounds of nature of the old world with the pervasive noise of appliances of the new world, one does something very powerful to the human brain.
  • I wonder about the future: what sounds will future generations hear? As the world becomes more and more homogeneous thanks to globalization, will people all over the world hear the same sounds and therefore become more similar to each other?
  • I also wonder if the sounds of the weather are the only connection that we modern selves still maintain with our ancient selves. What else is left of the ancient world other than thunder and raindrops?