Discord: The Story of Noise, Mike Goldsmith, Oxford University Press, Pp 336, £ 6.99
NOISE today has become a worldwide issue. A sound is not unlike the circles of ripples that spread from a stone thrown into a pool, all moving outwards from the point of impact. A sudden short sound, like what a clap makes, is similar to a pebble. Energy spreads from the clapped hands in the form of a series of spherical sound waves, travelling about a hundred times faster than the water ripples. A louder clap does not make faster waves than a quiet one; it just squeezes the air molecules harder, forcing them closer together and making the pressure jump higher. Sound is measured in terms of decibels.
The author explains that despite a promising name, even the Big Bang was silent – a sudden burst of energy in which time and space began forming the Universe as it spread. “With no space to expand into, there could be no medium around it into which sound waves could possibly propagate.”
Having learnt a bit about sound, one may ask why read a book about the history of sound? The answer is that the ways in which troublesome noise is viewed and the reasons it can be so hard to control, are often rooted in the historical development of sound and our relation to it. Though noise has been humanity’s permanent companion and sometimes an enemy to be battled, sometimes a servant to be trained, an element to be sprinkled sparingly in musical compositions, a mystery to be solved, or a power to be propitiated, looking at the history of noise “is in some sense a way of looking at the history of ourselves,” explains the author.
He also tells us that the earliest definite evidence of sound is in the form of bone and ivory flutes found in the south-western Germany. They date back more than 35,000 years ago, to the middle Paleolithic periods long before even the most primitive towns existed. Despite the long love affair between humans and music, it is still highly mysterious – we are hardly further forward today than Charles Darwin was in 1871, when he was baffled by sound’s evolutionary functions. Here the author gives a noteworthy piece of information that there are qualities to musical pieces that transcend differences and backgrounds. In 2009, an experiment by the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig found that Mafa tribe members from Cameroon had the same sort of emotional response to classical piano pieces that a Western audience did.
One other recent discovery is that music affects the pre-motor parts of the brain, the function of which is to prime us for physical activity. In other words, music makes us want to move, whether by working together or by performing together.
By 20,000 years ago, our cave-dwelling ancestors were already filling their environment with controlled rock-gongs (called lithophones) which have been found in caves in many parts of the world. The author is of the view that in the prehistoric past, sound and noise had a more prominent and significant role to play than they do today.
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