Music has always played a big role in my life. Some of my earliest memories involve riding through the countryside in the family car singing along to Motown classics on cassette.
Thankfully, my horizons were significantly broadened when I entered school and it wasn’t long before I was introduced to rock. I first heard Metallica’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ whilst sitting in the kitchen at a friend’s house, watcing him grin as I nodded along to the ‘The Best Air Guitar Album in the World Ever…’.
I was hooked. Fortunately, my friends shared an interest in the genre and I spent many of my teenage years attending gigs in some rather questionable nightclubs. I’m pretty sure I did irreparable damage to my neck headbanging to Swedish death metal.
I can’t say that everyone enjoys this type of ‘noise’ and its ever-evolving sub-genres, but what I can say with confidence is that everyone likes music on some level. (If you don’t, there may be something fundamentally wrong with you, perhaps it’s best you get that checked out.)
For many, music is irresistibly alluring, and we can learn from history that our predecessors appreciated it too. All of us know a song or two that has been passed down from the generation above, and anyone can experience great art, both in caves or on canvases, depicting the communion of humans and sound. I like to imagine our ancestors sitting in stone huddles bashing skulls with femur drumsticks. Or more recently, one of Henry VIII’s wives gambolling to Greensleeves played on wooden lutes.
Sounds and indigenous music have been used for gatherings and shamanic ceremonies for millennia. Even today, in remote forests, where tribes remain unseen by the piercing eye of the modern world, humans come together to perform their culture’s music, by chanting and warbling their throats as they dance around firelit clearings. There is something in it that we can all enjoy if we allow ourselves to, so we can safely say that sound is very important to us.
The reason why becomes clearer when we understand what sound is. A sound is a vibration that travels in a wave through the air (or another medium) into your auditory canal for interpretation by the brain. Essentially, there is a message, moving in patterns, entering your ear and influencing your thoughts and behaviours. Some force, invisible to the naked eye, is manifesting inside you and causing you to react.
For example, our favourite songs can bring us to tears or send shivers down our spines. They can cause us to tap pencils against tea mugs, turn paint tins upside-down and bonk them with spoons, and sometimes they can make us scream and drive well above a sensible speed. (I maintain that it is Jack Black who is responsible for torpedoing my car through a fence – not me).
Although sounds are invisible to the naked eye, we know something is there. We can measure the vibrations and record their wavelengths and frequencies using a microphone. We can also use other objects to witness the effect sound has. As we can see in cymatics, sand and water particles create patterns which reflect the ‘shape’ of sound being played on rubber-coated speakers.
We know that sound can only be transferred through movement. An object needs the air to produce a sound as, without a medium to influence, matter cannot pass on its vibration. The natural state of sound is vibration. Without it, it could not exist.
This makes me realise something. Humans are vibrations too. Everything is made up of vibrations – it’s just that our bodies are doing it at a different rate to say, a droplet of water, or a particle of sound. We learned in schoolroom physics that gas particles move freely, and rapidly in their medium. Liquid is denser than gas and their particles move slower and in greater numbers. Humans, animals, and computers are all made up of moving particles, but they are so densely packed, and moving so slowly that they cannot be perceived. The time frame we are provided with is too short.
When we go a little deeper and try to understand how a sound wave can influence a sorting of densely-packed, vibrating particles things get a little weird. It becomes a question only adequately answered when we look at several fields at once. Physics, psychology, and even metaphysics.
I’ve had a blue post-it note on my wall for a few months now. On it is written a quote by Nikola Tesla, an unappreciated genius whose inventions we have used every day for the last century, said:
If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration
Although we may assume that a sound wave passes through us, with repeated exposure, what is to say it wouldn’t leave a trace? It could be that sound waves merge with us, leaving an energetic residue. Perhaps music reacts with our psychosomatic body (the mental representation of our bodies that we project into the world), leaving an indelible print on our emotional state. With time, its effects might build into something so enduring that is it shown in the physical body also. Such can be said when we catch ourselves inexplicably grooving to a tune, or when we observe Pavlov’s dogs salivating in response to the sound of a bell.
This knowledge is innate to all humans. We may not be able to explain it in simple terms, but each of us speaks the language of vibration. It is immediately understandable. For example, one might say to another,
“I like the sound of that,”
“he and I are on the same wavelength,” or
“I’m picking up a good vibe.”
This is often unconscious. We can’t always recognise how a sound is affecting us because the mind is terrific at drowning it out and keeping our focus on the task at hand.
But vibration is woven into our lives, and perceptive people are aware that sounds affect us emotionally (think of the sound of a baby crying, an angry parent, or the time Paul Potts nailed that rendition of Nessum Dorma). It could be said that humans and sound belong to the same field of energy, but their respective movements and densities are not perceivable to one another, despite their interaction.
So how much do we pay attention to the noises we expose ourselves to every day? Could it be that the sounds of the city (the voices of neighbours, the blare of a stranger’s radio, the beeping of horns) affect us in some way that we don’t perceive? In the way that sound waves are invisible to us, could it be that the mind is also blind to its effects simply because it is so good at ignoring them?
I may be accused of hyperbole, but it is true that human prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are known to be tortured and have their will broken through exposure to loud, discordant, and persistent noises. Could it be that humans are inadvertently exposing themselves to the same effects (although in less extreme ways) by living the way we do?
After all, it has only been the last century or two that we have had electricity to light up our contraptions, and grumbling motors spewing their guts into our atmosphere, dirtying the air with toxins both chemical and vibrational. Can we truly know what effect our lifestyle is having on our mental and physical wellbeing as well as the environment? I, for one, am prone to headaches when I don’t get the peace and quiet I crave, and I’m pretty sure I’ve popped an eardrum from all those death metal gigs. It seems that all that background noise may be translated into something tangible at the end of the day.
How valuable is silence in all of this?
I can only speak from personal experience. But the number of times I have enjoyed genuine silence is alarmingly low. Typically, a Brit might have to travel twenty or thirty miles before he can experience a noiseless environment. When we do, we marvel at the silence around us as though it were the call of a rare and endangered bird. But true noiselessness can be almost deafening. I first fully appreciated the absence of sound when I stood at the foot of Mount Everest, overlooking the beautiful Khumbu glacier. I was rooted to the spot, utterly mesmerised by the purity of the silence.
But we are human beings living in the modern era. We must be practical. Our sound technologies insist on enveloping us; our fellow humans robe us in noise from all angles. If I were physically unable to withstand this then I would have been forced to move to a place with relatively low noise. Admittedly, I have been caught wondering what life would be like outside of organised society but until that time comes we must find a way to live in our environment.
Maybe all of this is beside the point. Maybe the human mind really is that good at filtering it out, and noises really can pass straight through us. Though I, for one, would say it’s not as simple as that. Sound affects us deeply, on many levels, and it is only by witnessing a truly quiet moment for yourself, free of unwanted vibrations, that you can really connect with who you are and what’s important.
All we can be is mindful. Mindful of the sounds we are exposing ourselves to, mindful of the vibrations washing over us. We have the choice to turn that pesky radio off, to lower the volume on the television late at night, or if we’re lucky, get outside into the countryside and catch some of that rare silence, breathing in some fresh air while we’re at it.
We should all be conscious of the noises that accompany us in our lives. Maybe, instead of sitting in the office during my next lunch break I will go outside to sit in the park and get away from all the noise just for a few minutes. Or maybe tonight, when I get home, I will turn everything off and just sit quietly with my self – surrounded by all the silence.
What have you been listening to this week? Reply below!
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