What the past sounded like

The problem of noise is ageless: even Julius Caesar worried about loud wagon traffic, Mike Goldsmith finds

It’s easy to dismiss noise as mere nuisance. But to Mike Goldsmith, a British writer who has studied the science of acoustics for years, the aural clutter of daily life is far from junk. Instead it provides an unusual vantage point on human history, Goldsmith argues in his new book, “Discord: The Story of Noise.”

From the cries of street vendors to the blare of car horns, noise has distracted us, charmed us, and driven us nuts—and our response to this cacophony provides a window into centuries of changing technology, society, and daily life.

The trouble with studying noise is that unlike artifacts that can be excavated by archaeologists, noise is evanescent. Until fairly recently in human history, it faded away nearly as soon as it came into existence. But Goldsmith realized that even if the sounds themselves had vanished, human reaction had not, faithfully recorded in diaries, court proceedings, and art.


To reconstruct noise from antiquity onwards, Goldsmith plumbed texts from Greece and Rome, paintings depicting the hubbub of urban life in the 18th century, and attempts to curb sound by everyone from Julius Caesar trying to stop wagon traffic in residential areas to antinoise crusaders of the 20th century. He delved into the key figures in the modern science of acoustics, including Wallace Clement Sabine, a physicist at Harvard University, “the father of effective architectural acoustics,” who used sound-absorbing materials to fix a lecture hall at the Fogg Art Museum once so echoey that it was practically unusable.

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What emerges from the history of this unlovable buzz is just how subtly and inescapably noise is entwined with life, and how our efforts to fight it reflect the ways human culture has both evolved and stayed the same.

Goldsmith spoke with Ideas by phone from his home in Twickenham.

IDEAS: You call your book a history of noise. When did noise begin?

GOLDSMITH: It’s been on the earth before there were people. Animals evolved responses to noise to escape from their predators and to find their prey. One of the reasons I think noise is so problematic for people today is the natural reaction to sudden sounds is fear, and that’s one that evolved in our past.


IDEAS: What is noise?

GOLDSMITH: The definition I prefer is sound out of place, which underlies the fact that a particular sound, like the sound of a trumpet, is not itself noisy. If it’s a piece of jazz, a trumpet is just what you need, and if you’re trying to go to sleep and there is a trumpet outside the door, it is noise. Any sound can be noise—it depends on where and when it exists.

IDEAS: Plato thought sound was perceived in the liver. How else have people been so wrong about it?

GOLDSMITH: My favorite one is one that remained popular for centuries. This is supposed to be a discovery by the Greeks: You improve the acoustics [of a space] by scattering pots around it in various spots....These were special sounding vessels. I think the idea is if you do make a noise near a large vessel, it sometimes does ring, and if you blow over it, it will return a sound. The idea was that they would suck noises out of the air, or that they would send them back and resonate. Actually, as soon as measurements were made, it was found it makes no difference at all to a room.

You get a lot in these early areas of science where people turned up their nose at doing experiments, but they look it up in Plato and Aristotle. Nobody notices these pot things didn’t work.


IDEAS: If you turned off the other senses and just listened to the last 2,000 years, how would human history sound?

GOLDSMITH: The first difference is the sounds of machines in the most general way, the very basic technology—copper being worked, or the first wheels riding along roads. That would be a big difference from horses and conversation and animal noises and bird songs and so on. The rise of the cities around 10,000 B.C. onwards—that would have been a quite noticeable change. Then, more recently, the repetitive, the industrialization noises of engines, where you get continuous drones, or you get repetitive banging sounds or hitting sounds, not being made by humans at all. Possibly a little more recent than that in all cities is the replacement of individual sounds with an overall level of sounds. The 16th and 17th centuries would have been relatively noisy in the sense of a lot of things going on, but you could always pick out individual sounds like people shouting, cats yowling, bells being rung. By the 18th century, there were so many different noises....You can’t orient yourself so well in terms of sound. Now, the whole city would be making a noise. You can no longer escape from the noise....Omnipresence of sound, that’s what marks the 20th century.

IDEAS: When you were writing this book, what were the noises you heard?

GOLDSMITH: I don’t mind a bit of noise around me too much. Thanks to using a laptop, I wrote it all over the place. In fact, one of the stories in the book which I always quite liked was that [Thomas] Carlyle, a writer in the 19th century, he was very irritated by noise and lived in the city. So he decided he would build a soundproof study on top of his house. What he found was, although it did block out noise, the little noises within the house seemed particularly loud to him, so in some ways it was as bad as before.

IDEAS: Did a particular noise inspire you?

GOLDSMITH: One thing I was very interested by, in writing the book, is the [1785] Mozart string quartet, the “Dissonance” Quartet. It doesn’t sound dissonant. The interesting thing in listening to that and reading about the history of noise or discordance in music is, when you have something like that, [which is] more discordant than music people would have been listening to at the time, in Mozart’s can’t recapture that feeling that it’s weird. It just sounds a little bit unusual. The Rite of Spring [by Stravinsky], famously, on its premiere in Paris, there was a riot... the music was so alien and monstrous. Today, it’s not disturbingly dissonant.

IDEAS: Has our tolerance for noise changed?

GOLDSMITH: It’s quite difficult to look back over how things have changed....However, in London there have been a number of surveys since the 1940s. While there have been various changes in the levels of noise, people have grown more sensitive to it....The noise level that might annoy people now might have seemed innocuous a few decades ago.

The first antinoise campaigns were started in about the 1860s, which was of course when the industrial revolution had really raised the noise level. But there weren’t any complaints against the [sounds] of the industrial revolution. They were against street musicians who’d been around for centuries....Because noise is kind of a signifier of power, whoever is in control is allowed to make noise.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.