From echos in the deepest chambers of caves to the roar of a crowd in a town square, it's been said that sound is a way of 'touching at a distance.' And of course, like everything else around us, humans have found ingenious ways to manipulate it.
In the days before electricity, cathedrals were architecturally designed to amplify the human voice. Acoustic engineering — long before there was such a term — allowed mere mortals to project the authority of the church. The big, booming sound had everything to do with the angles and textures of walls and the height of the ceiling.
St Paul's Cathedral, an iconic building in the centre of London, is an excellent example of the effect of architecture on acoustics. Stand on one side of the circular gallery, talk quietly and your conversation can be heard clearly on the other side some 30 metres away as the sound hugs the walls and moves around the room.
Sometimes our forefathers got it wrong. The Hamilton Mausoleum in Glasgow is a building with such poor acoustics that it earned a reputation in the Guinness Books of Records as having the “world’s longest echo.” Conversation there quickly becomes impossible in a tangle of bouncing sound.
The Electro-Acoustic Revolution
With the advent of recorded music and the electronic amplification of sound, our world changed dramatically. Suddenly a human voice could be heard far beyond the confines of a market stall or cathedral’s walls.
With the telephone, the voodoo of radio, and loudspeakers, mere mortals stole the magic — the psychological power — of big sound. Humans could make noise every bit as far-reaching as the voices of priests, or the bells of the churches and town halls. The monopoly that the authorities had over communication was over.
Barry Truax, a composer and professor at Simon Fraser University, says, "Electroacoustic technology represents the ultimate democratization of acoustic-power. Now anyone can compete at the decibel level of the gods.”
Internal Combustion – The Roaring Twenties
By the 1920s, man-made urban noise from trucks, cars and trains had become a nuisance and a political issue. The internal combustion engines led the list of official complaints, but the incessant prattle of electronically amplified sound — radios and storefront loudspeakers blaring onto public sidewalks—ranked a close third.
In New York City, a backlash developed and a loudspeaker ban was enacted in 1929.
Factory Floor & Home Companion
Others embraced the new aural tapestry. Radios began to play on factory floors and in other industrial and commercial workplaces. The amplified human voice became a constant companion. Radio provided structure; it “bracketed” the workday and made boring, monotonous work more tolerable.
At home, disembodied voices became an antidote to loneliness. In 1946, George Orwell observed that, "In very many English homes, the radio is literally never turned off … I know people who keep the radio playing all through a meal and at the same time continue talking just loudly enough for the voices and the music to cancel out."
In the same essay, he accurately predicted that in the ‘pleasure spots’ of the future, besides creating a completely controlled, artificial environment, one would “never be out of the sound of music.”
The Sound of Social Engineering
Soon, sound was deployed to manipulate human emotion as a means of social engineering.
“Musak” was invented to make riding an elevator a little less frightening by creating a mood; a non-threatening feeling of calm and safety. Now, we have shopping malls and branded theme parks with “completely artificial soundscapes” designed to put people in the right frame of mind for commerce. Background music has even invaded our work spaces, creating a rhythm to get us to work harder.
“What are the long-range effects when most environments have predictable, stereotyped moods associated with them? Do our own emotions become a commodity?” wonders Barry Truax.
The Engineering of Quiet
As cars are made of lighter materials for the sake of economy and fuel efficiency, they have become more susceptible to road noise. Doors no longer close with that familiar, reassuring thunk that is associated with more expensive models.
And of course, engineers have learned to solve these and other noise problems. Lexus, the company that claims to make “the quietest car,” has made this a major advertising feature. Others go the extra mile to create just the right sound of engine noise from the exhaust pipe. Porsche offers several “sporty” or throatier engine sounds — at the touch of a button. Having quieted the car's interior, manufacturers can then offer entertainment systems that add $10,000 - $12,000 to the price tag.
Boeing, the Seattle-based aircraft manufacturer, claims to make the world’s quietest jetliner. Having conquered the problems of long-distance flight in all kinds of weather and at great speed, the final frontier of airliner design and engineering is noise — both for people on the ground and for passengers in the cabin. They use carbon-fibre composite bodies, new wing shapes and serrated edges at the front and rear of the latest jet engines to give the Boeing 787 Dreamliner a “noise footprint that is 60 per cent smaller” than other comparable airplanes.
There are a growing number of antidotes to the noise of modern life. "Quiet spas" offer the ultimate in aural luxury. Electrolux makes what they claim is “the world’s quietest vacuum cleaner.” There's also a “quietest refrigerator.”
Of course, all these products sell for a premium. You can enjoy a degree of peace and quiet — but only if you can afford it. Technology creates a problem — unwanted noise — to which it eventually becomes the solution, too.
In the United States, an estimated 4 million people live and work amid “damaging noise” every day, while 10 million suffer from “noise-induced” hearing loss. Untold numbers of people hide from all this noise by creating their own private soundscapes with portable music players and noise-cancelling headphones.
But is immersing oneself in an acoustic bubble really the answer? “The appeal to the listener remains the opportunity to create a sense of order in what otherwise might seem uncontrollable daily circumstances. The listener is choosing to imbed him or herself within a virtual environment that is set apart from the real world … as an escape from it, ” says Barry Truax.
As we move from the natural world around us and into a world of our own making, it is a strange time indeed.