The Science of Sound

Why can sound make history so captivating?

I’m committed to articulating why audio presents a compelling way for historians to communicate history. It’s something I know inherently, but it’s not yet an idea I can articulate clearly, as evidenced from my first post on the subject “What Comes Next? Thoughts On the Future of Historical Scholarship.” 

Over the last few weeks, I’ve acquired a couple of books I hope will help me better understand and explain why writing and communicating history with sound is a worthwhile endeavor. Why it is I think native audio histories can make history more alive, relevant, and interesting than when conveyed in text.

I picked up copies of Seth S. Horowitz’s The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind and Jan Schnupp, Israel Nelken, and Andrew King’s Auditory Neuroscience: Making Sense of Sound. I’ve begun my search for answers by reading Auditory Neuroscience because it seems like building a foundation about the hard science behind sound and the way our brains process it will make it easier to understand the soft science behind the psychology of how our brains interpret sound.

I’m half way through the first chapter and the book has already provided many interesting insights about how the physics of sound work. Essentially, sound is a pressure wave that causes vibrations as it displaces and moves the air around it, which our eardrums pick up and our brains interpret. The human brain gathers and infers a LOT of information through sound because sound waves carry a lot of clues about the physical properties or events that created them. For example, if someone drops an object on the floor, the sound waves that come from the object striking the floor tell our brains about the kind of surface the object hit and about the physical properties of the object—its approximate size, weight, material, and shape. 

The authors use the example of someone in your kitchen dropping your silverware drawer on the floor. Even if you don't see the event because you happen to be reading while seated in the living room, your brain immediately interprets the sound waves that come from the event as a mental image; you see what happened in your mind’s eye based on the sounds you heard. You heard lots of metal clanking on the tile floor of the kitchen. Therefore you know from the volume that the incident happened in your kitchen, not in your next-door neighbor’s kitchen or in the kitchen of the apartment above you. You also know from the many sounds the objects made when they hit the floor that the person in your kitchen dropped the forks, spoons, and knives you use to eat with and not the wooden or plastic utensils you cook with. And you can tell from the metallic sounds the silverware made that the person in your kitchen dropped the contents of your silverware drawer on the floor, not your cast iron pot or your metal cookie sheets. 

I find this interesting because like text, sound imparts information that our brains use to create mental images. However, unlike text, the information sound conveys seems more immediate. It imparts information about the objects and events that surround us. We have to be near the sound waves to hear them.

When used as a tool to communicate history, sound can help historians make history seem more alive, relevant, and interesting because sound can make history present. It can place the historical people and events historians discuss in a listener’s immediate mental surroundings. Essentially, a historian who uses sound to convey their research can make their work an immersive experience. 

It also seems to me that sound allows our brains to derive information differently than they do through text. Sound may help us pick out more and different pieces of information than we can through text. I need to read more to find out if this assumption is true. If it proves true, it means sound could help us understand history in more and different ways than we understand it when conveyed through text.  

I don’t see native audio histories as replacing books. I see the use of sound as a complement to text. I believe historians can use sound to enhance the textual works they create and as a gateway to the books they write. If someone enjoys a native audio history, they’ll be more likely to seek out books on the same or similar subjects to the one they're listening to and more likely to spend time with the text-based versions of the native audio history they're enjoying—because producing a native audio history will require lots of writing, writing that could be edited into articles and/or a book.

I still need to get at the science behind why our brains interpret sound waves as they do. Still, this bit of knowledge about the physics of sound seems like a good start on my quest to better understand the power of sound and the ways historians might use it to complement and enhance how they communicate history.