Sounds and Culture

For reasons of curiosity, back when I was in grad school, I was skimming the “new books” shelf at Flat State U’s main library and found a book about sound in Colonial America. (Richard C. Rath How America Sounded) Perhaps it would be better to say, a book about how people perceived and understood sounds in Colonial America, and what that might tell us about the mental world of people at the time. At the time, I thought the book was a bit odd and too postmodern, but it turns out to have been useful to writer-Alma. Far less so to grad-student-Alma.

The book considered a lot of things, but what I remember most clearly were the sections about thunder, drums, and church bells. One intriguing thing was that people in the 1600s believed that it was thunder that killed you and burned things, and that the lightning was a secondary reaction from the thunder. If you think about firearms of the time, earthquakes, and other things, the logic makes sense. We didn’t know about electricity, so thunder then lightning matched a cannonball (or the shock wave from an explosion), followed by the muzzle flash. That was one theory, and even if no one found the “thunder ball”, it made sense and matched some of the damage to people and buildings.

Another interesting thing, that I’d never, ever thought about, was how loud church bells were. Now, having stood under Pummerin when it is ringing, I understand this in my bone marrow (because I think that was resonating along with the rest of me.) Short version is, compared both to today, and to the sound-world of the 1600s and 1700s, bells were loud. Can’t hear yourself think if you stand beside the bell-tower loud. Part of this was because there was no background noise: no traffic, no airplanes, no distant-rumble-you-don’t-notice-anymore sounds. Birdsong, perhaps the wind in the trees or water from a stream or river, or human voices and wagons and horses moving on dirt or far more rarely stone or wood, but that was all. Against that, bells carried for miles, and caught everyone’s attention. A warning bell had a certain ring pattern or tone, and everyone knew it. Sort of like tornado sirens today, they warning bell only rang for danger, and all within hearing knew what it meant.

As a writer who writes about pre-modern fantasy worlds, it means the sound world is very different from what most of us think about. Nature sounds are louder in comparison to what we think they should be. Artificial sounds like wooden rattles or bells carry farther and are far more significant to the people hearing them, or in some cases not hearing them. (“Where is the noon bell? I don’t hear it, and the sun is high. Something’s wrong!”) Like smells, they are far more present and meaningful in terms of navigation and something’s-not-right-here. If a character comes toward a city known for tanning hides, and the wind in his nose doesn’t carry the scent of ammonia, tannabark, and other chemicals, he’s going to wonder what’s going on. Likewise if he doesn’t hear the noon bell, or temple bells, or even the curfew bell (if he’s outside at gate close or gate opening time.)

It’s one of those ideas that, once you really think about it, makes perfect sense and reveals a lot about the mental world of the people of the time and place. Drums had a negative connotation, and were banned for use by some groups, because they communicated danger to others, or channeled the devil into the drummer. “He was thunder struck and died” made perfect sense in New England in 1690, because everyone knew that thunder killed people and broke buildings.



21 thoughts on “Sounds and Culture

  1. The old timers of Twin Falls, Idaho used to say that back in the day, you could hear the thunder of the falls while standing at the corner of Shoshone and Main.
    (The Twin Falls and Shoshone Falls are over five miles away.)
    I always attributed the claim to the spring rush before much of it was bring captured by reservoirs–and much of it probably was–but this certainly must have played a role.
    Heck, I remember how eerily quiet it was in the days following 9/11. Distant planes were just background noise that hardly registered, until they weren’t there.

  2. You know, I never wondered about the origin of the word “thunderstruck” before. Now it makes perfect sense.

    Something else about sound: way back then, at night, sound and smell were really all you had to sense your environment. Another writer of my acquaintance once commented that when you are out in the woods on a dark, moonless night, and the wind is blowing and perhaps there’s a distant thunderstorm, you can easily understand where myths and legends like the Wild Hunt came from.

    Even when you do have light to see by, sound is a powerful influence. Walking in the woods on a crisp late-fall day, it’s amazing how LOUD a squirrel rooting around in the leaves can be. A couple of times I’ve heard that noise, looked for a deer or something equally large, and saw nothing at all for several seconds, before seeing the squirrel. Just a wee bit creepy, that is. All that noise and nothing visible there to make it.

    • And smells were a terribly important and noticeable thing, too. I had a reviewer and beta reader note how very often I made mention, in describing a place, of how it smelled … outdoors, or in. And some places plainly would have absolutely reeked – of wood smoke, privies, wet animals … damp wool. And other places, out of doors would have been much pleasanter – dry grass dampened by rain, even the smell of rain having fallen at some distance and the odor carried on the breeze.

  3. My parent’s live on the outskirts of a tiny, one-stop-light, upstate NY, town. (How small is it? the stoplight did not exist until the mid-2000’s.) Every noon, a siren sounds, and is heard for miles around. Everyone expects it and it marks a turning point in the day. I’m usually on vacation, so the moment is ‘Time for breakfast!’.
    However, the siren is also used to call in the volunteer fire department and other emergency workers. When I visit and it sounds at -not noon- time seems to stop for the moment. Talking about this my parent’s, and with the few others I know who live in town, the out-of-time siren causes the same hair-raising feeling even for those who hear it more frequently.

    My family moved to NY in ’90 and I have lived near Boston since ’91. Old churches in every direction, but the bells were silenced long before my move. Most churches play recordings to mark the hour, or occasions. It is still an experience to be near a church when it… er… plays a very loud recording to ring the hour. But, I cannot hear the bells from my house, just a few blocks from the nearest churches.

    New to the blog – discovered it a few weeks before the latest Familiar book. Thank you.

    • Welcome! And you’re welcome.

      When I worked in Really Flat State, the small town where I lived (3000 souls give or take) also had a siren at noon. I worked outside of town, so we listened for the trains and cow bells. You didn’t want to hear cow bells – it meant someone had a fence down and we had to shoo cows off the airport.

    • “However, the siren is also used to call in the volunteer fire department …”

      I grew up in a small town area like that. Whenever the siren sounded for the noon test (once per week in my area) or for real, the neighbor’s hound dog would join in with his own long howl. AAAOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!! Sort of a a repeater station for the emergency signal.

  4. “Round of the drums / beat in my heart
    the thunder of guns / tore me apart.
    You’ve been / Thunderstruck.
    rode down the highway / broke the limit
    we hit the town.
    Went through to Texas / yeah Texas
    we had some fun…”

  5. Being able to ‘hear’ the environment around you was what kept you alive back in those days… The crack of a twig, the brush of an animal squeezing through a brush line, or indians… Life or death…

  6. Not sound, but light. Astronomers will show study after study showing that there is NO relation to trouble/crimes/nonsense/madness and phase of the moon. Yet the idea persists. (I have even heard of something nutty happening and someone saying “must be Full Moon” and getting agreement.. and some looks outside at the crescent moon..)

    HOWEVER… that’s in the Modern World of electric (and gas before, yes) lighting. In times gone by, I *could* see there being more mischief around the time of the full moon, simply because there was a more light for mischief-makers to make use of.

    • My college roommate worked as an EMT and hospital orderly for a time. He swears that a full moon really does bring out the crazies.

      • Yeah. It doesn’t matter what the astronomers believe; it only matters what the crazy, drunk, and chemically altered believe. And they certainly make sure that the ER on a full moon remains “interesting!”

        • Guess what the records the astronomers going by. Yep, those.

          And in moon-madness was light related… wouldn’t concentrating it telescopically have some effect?

    • One of the errors I’ve seen in the “it doesn’t have a relation” studies, they were thinking like astronomers, not like people looking at the moon.

      Because on the last day of August, it wasn’t a full moon…by the calendar. It sure LOOKED like a full moon to the daughter who asked if the moon changed directions when it changed phase. (…not as crazy as it sounds, I’d put it as less of a howler than telling the time to 15 minutes by “the moon is just over the horizon” type stuff, which I’ve seen where they clearly hadn’t memorized the moon rise for that night.)

      Only started looking for that error because I found a study that did find a correlation between “full moon” and “new moon” and folks acting up.
      They did it by mapping out ER, cop and 911 calls, after sunset, in a specific area, and charting that, then looking at the resulting pattern. They got a MOSTLY ebb-and-flow looking thing.
      So they looked at where the ebb-and-flow changed, and found things like “it was raining like crazy,” or “there was a big concert this night” or “drunk driver emphasis patrols.”
      Only after they’d identified causes for the observed pattern did they put the moon phases on the pattern, and found it roughly matched full moon, with a smaller rise for new.

      The other half of looking at it like astronomers is the thing where location matters– if you sample too big of an area, you get so much noise that the signal vanishes.

  7. We often make assumptions about our sound environments. Like the eastern US in summer, with the ever-present sounds of cicadas. (Yes, they’re found in many other places, primarily tropical and subtropical, but the eastern US is where the sometimes overwhelming Magicicada genus is found.) People coming from other places comment on being startled that the trees are screaming at them. To natives, it’s the sound of summer, something you don’t notice missing until you come back to it.

    • Out here, some people say that cicadas “sound hot.” They start “singing” in mid-summer, and we tend to associate them with the baking heat of July-August.

    • That’s one of the things I enjoy about Japanese summer animes — when they start using the cicada sound effects, it actually equates pretty closely to summer in much of the US.

      OTOH, it TOTALLY FREAKED ME OUT when I found out that the whole “make a ghost doll out of tissue paper” was a Japanese SUMMER craft, because it’s an appeal to a Buddhist monk/deity to send fine weather. It’s the Teru Teru Bozu. (Shiny Bald-guy.) And if it works, you’re actually supposed to give him sake and then throw the doll in a river. (Which was why all the tissue paper — it was easy-dissolve rice paper.)

      Yup, there is one totally and completely pagan thing that Americans do on Halloween, and that’s it, and it’s not even for the same reasons. Thank the genius of American kindergarten teachers wanting an easy craft.

    • I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. The Good Humor truck said summer to me. Nobody I knew bought ice in the supermarket. This was in the 60’s and 70’s.

  8. I’ve read of at least one study that found correlation, but the full moons were also on the Friday/Saturday/Sunday time frames. So …

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