Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening

By David Hendy. 2013. Profile Books Ltd.: London.

Unless they’re in the most advanced sound-blocking chamber, humans are experiencing sound.  Even when we’re asleep, we’re listening.  Although our sound processing equipment is always turned on, most of us pay little attention to what we’re hearing.  After reading Hendy’s book, it’s unlikely that you’ll ignore a future soundscape.

The focus of Hendy’s book is “how sound is used in the world” and the meanings we infer from the sounds that we hear.

Noise “encompasses not just music and speech but also echoes, chanting, drumbeats, bells, thunder, gunfire, the noise of crowds, the rumbles of the human body, laughter, silence, eavesdropping, mechanical sounds, noisy neighbors, musical recordings, radio, in fact pretty well anything that makes up the broader world of sound and of listening.”  The development and implications of the sound profiles of the places where we live and work is discussed across the full range of human history, from times when we were less developed creatures living in caves to the present day. 

Analyses are compelling: “To trace the story of sound is to tell the story of how we learned to overcome our fears about the natural world, perhaps even to control it; how we learned to communicate with, understand and live alongside our fellow beings; how we have fought with each other for dominance;  how we have sought to find privacy in an increasingly busy world;  how we have struggled with our emotions and our sanity.” The role that social power has played in determining what members of a culture hear is fully addressed; this topic is germane to the design of any sort of space/object.  In today’s workplace environments, for example, people in the C-suite can decide that workers should sit in open plan environments where they have ready access to each other’s conversations. 

This book traces the experience of sound in a variety of places, focusing on the emotional, cognitive and cultural consequences of things heard, with a lot of attention paid to how place and object design influences soundscapes.  The text links neatly to a lot of current evidence-based design research, for example studies related to biophilic design.

Hendy’s book will make designers think about the acoustic repercussions of their design choices in new ways—and maybe for the first time.