Exploring 100,000 Years Of Human Noise

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This week on Soundcheck, we want to know how you block out noise in your day-to-day life. But a recent BBC 4 radio series, Noise: A Human History, examined how noise has shaped civilization for the past 100,000 years.

“It’s fairly ambitious, I suppose,” David Hendy, the host and writer of that series, tells us on Soundcheck. “Many people think [it’s] a fool’s errand. How do you tell a history of sound when sound disappears the moment it’s born?”

Hendy talks with us from the BBC studios in Oxford, England about telling the story of noise -- and about how human-created noise has evolved throughout the ages. 

David Hendy, on how we can study noise even from even before the advent of recording:

Actually, sound does leave traces. You can go back to the memoirs and the diaries of some of the colonists who settled in North America in the 16th and 17th centuries. They write very, very vividly. They describe the sound worlds that they found, the sounds of Native Americans, [and] the sounds that they were making themselves. A lot of travelers have always been struck not just by what they see when they visit new lands, but what they hear.

On distinguishing “noise" versus "sound":

The powerful in history have often condemned the weak or the alien or the strange or the unfamiliar — the foreign — as noisy. And there are examples of that all the way through history right up to the present day. I think it’s useful to talk about noise and to talk about sound, but we have to really get to grips with why it is that some sounds are described as noise and others aren’t.

On protection from noise as a marker of status throughout history:

If you were wealthy and if you were part of the Roman elite, you would flee the center of the city and you would live among the imperial class on the Pallatine Hill. So Ancient Rome had it, and if you follow through the Middle Ages, people with money and power would always be able to insulate themselves from noise through thicker walls or housing further away from the city centers.

On the social importance of noise and the potential risks of pursuing silence:

If we try to soundproof ourselves, we’re also engaged in a social soundproofing. We’re not really listening to other people or to the world around us. We cut ourselves off socially from fellow human beings. Even though it’s a natural instinct to search for quiet, I think we have to be aware of the costs that sometimes come along with that.