Noise: The Defining Sounds From Human History

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

History is visual: You can see a photo from a century ago, visit a room filled with artifacts, and even gaze at paintings in an ancient cave where humans stood 30,000 ago.

But what would it sound like to live in those times?

David Hendy has a good idea. He is a professor of media and communication at the University of Sussex, and he's in love with noise—but not in the way you might think.

Hendy is not interested in noise as mere meaningless din, but noise as a form of media conveying the meaning of a time, like when the world entered the industrial age. When listening farther back in time, one can see that the sound of bells ringing was a tool for the church of the Middle Ages to exert its power over daily life.

Hendy is the author of "Noise: A human History of Sound and Listening," and produced an accompanying series for BBC Radio. He joins The Takeaway to discuss noise as a vital part of our history.


David Hendy

Produced by:

Tyler Adams and Jay Cowit


T.J. Raphael

Comments [23]

Sandy Binion from West Milford NJ

Head Phone Bleeding!!! I never wear them and if I am standing by you and can hear your music bleeding from your earbuds - headphones - or hear your game as you're playing on your phone I will glare at you and move or if I'm stuck (NJ TRansit Buses) don't be surprised if I tap you on the shoulder and politely ask you to turn your (&$^&*(*%) music down.

I am tempted to get a business card that reads THE FACT THAT I CAN HEAR YOUR MUSIC MEANS YOU ARE LOSING YOUR HEARING.

Drives me truly mad.

I am an artist that works many hours in solitude and (this is not a plug) I have WNYC on constantly until I get to Soundcheck and then it gets turned off. I am so comforted by the sound of people talking softly. Music seems to just make me nervous.

Feb. 04 2014 09:31 AM
Barbara Febey from Grayling, MI

Two noises that bother me: bagpipes and in an orchestra piece, the clavier.

Oct. 25 2013 09:01 AM
Penis from Detroit

liars and the ignorant on the radio when I wake up. whether it be a call in segment on the takeaway or CNN reading some red hot tweets, it all blows. nuke the south!

Oct. 23 2013 12:08 AM
urbangranolagirl from Jersey City.

I would turn off my upstairs neighbors grandfather clock, which chimes EVERY 15 MINUTES. It does one bong for each hour on the hour (such fun at midnight!) another sound at the half, and another of the quarter hour (westminster chimes). Seriously, who can live in a 600 sq foot urban apartment with an ALARM going every 15 minutes??? I'm shocked at the sheer obnoxiousness of it. Of course, he takes Ambien nightly to sleep...

Oct. 22 2013 03:49 PM
Matthew from San Jose

leaf blowers
dot matrix printers

Oct. 22 2013 03:44 PM
pogo from New Jersey

I would turn off the The takeaway. I have never listened more than a few minutes. I listened some today but not by choice. Someone else had it on within my range of hearing.
I feel it is the worst program on Public Radio.
Your style of presentation is very annoying and discourteously intrusive. You sound like a 'friend' who thinks they know it all.
Good-bye and Go-away.

Oct. 22 2013 03:42 PM
Jay from Oakland, California

Gas-powered leaf blowers!! The sound is almost unendurable. They are polluters in every sense of the word.

Oct. 22 2013 03:22 PM co-worker whistles on and off alllllll day long...I'm glad she's as happy as a clam, but she's no Snow White, and when I have to concentrate, it can be maddening!

Oct. 22 2013 03:09 PM
Celerino Rivera from San Jose Ca

The sound of my boss's voice and Ted Curz I'd like to send them both back to Canada

Oct. 22 2013 03:09 PM
Lew Beccone from Minneapolis

Pleeeeeze Turn off Ted Cruze.

Oct. 22 2013 02:50 PM
Robert from Wichita

Motor vehicle tire to pavement contact is the primary sound of traffic (that is, when you leave out the engine sounds or grade climbing or brake screeching).

Engineers have designed quieter tires, but only the luxury cars get them. Aggressive mud tires are the noisiest as are overloaded trucks.

Quieter tires for all, is a real possibility--and the pieces are already there.

I'll wait quietly.

Thanks for your coverage here, on the history of noise in society.

Oct. 22 2013 02:50 PM
Stephanie from Waltham MA

I would turn off the sound of lawn mowers/leaf blowers/weed wackers before 10AM. There is no better way to wake me up on the wrong side of the bed.

Oct. 22 2013 02:03 PM

Hi - David from Austin - I thoroughly agree with your recommendation of Emily Cockayne's 'Hubbub' - definitely a source of inspiration for me. I suppose I was trying to take her approach, and test it out in other times and places in my own book... David Hendy.

Oct. 22 2013 01:43 PM
David from Austin

I highly recommend Emily Cockayne's brilliant, one-of-a-kind book "Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, 1600-1770". It's an absolutely fascinating history of London organized by the senses which contemporary urban dwellers would have had stimulated. Noise is only one part of the book but to my knowledge this is the only work of (academic) history that has even approached the topic. Thankfully it does a great job with it!

Oct. 22 2013 01:26 PM
Jerrold Richards from Lyle, Washington

While you're at it, I'd like you to eliminate the Story Corpse segment on NPR's Morning Edition. Manipulative, attention-sucking vampires all trying to suck baahhhluuud out of each other, and out of us, the poor listeners. Creepy.

Oct. 22 2013 12:43 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

I would turn off the sound of silence. I hate walking into a coffee shop and no one is talking. Everyone is on their lap tops, and all I can hear is people clanking on their keyboards.
My favorite thing in life was going to coffee shops in the East Village in the early eighties and eavesdropping on conversations till I could squeeze my way into the conversation. We talked publicly back then, and we listened to each other, if we were interesting or funny.

The bane of my existence would be the sound of the vacuum. I can spend the whole day cleaning house, but I won't vacuum. So, then I don't get credit for the whole days effort.

Noises I hate:
The sound my archaic computer makes
Fluorescent lights
Air conditioners

And the biggest one of all: People speaking inanely and loudly on their cell phones. Why can't they ever be talking about something interesting. It barely sounds like a human language.

Oct. 22 2013 12:36 PM

I'd love to be able to open my windows for 5 minutes, when the weather is nice, and not hear the ice-cream blaring the "music" at airport noise levels.

Oct. 22 2013 12:25 PM
swipp9 from Seattle

The dog next door with tireless vocal cords that sounds almost like another annoying noise, that of windshield wipers on a dry windshield but much louder

Oct. 22 2013 12:24 PM
Ann from Weatherford, Texas

The most irksome noise to me is "So..." on the radio. The sound of NPR interviewees beginning each comment or answer to a question with the irrelevant "So..." Very annoying!

Oct. 22 2013 12:23 PM
Ryan Barrett from Arlington, MA

The shrill, metallic sound of opening an ironing board.

Oct. 22 2013 11:24 AM
Angel from Miami FL

NOISE comes from office coworkers who spend the whole day sighing and moaning and vibrating their lips incessantly. They're expressing fatigue or frustration and in the process passing these feelings to others who then mimic the same actions.
It's difficult to focus with this cacophony o' misery. And this is coming from a person who can study for an exam while blasting any song by Atari Teenage Riot.

Oct. 22 2013 09:57 AM
rrhodes from Asheville, NC

Harley Motorcycles with no mufflers, blaring on the Blue Ridge Parkway outside of Asheville, NC as I try to enjoy the peace and quiet of nature.

Oct. 22 2013 09:45 AM

No sound is more agitating to me than the sounds of gas blowers, mowers and edgers. I wish they would be banned. I can never open my windows because of the constant NOISE (and smell) of these awful machines.

Oct. 22 2013 09:30 AM

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