Posted by: kaleidophonic | December 30, 2011

Disappeared sounds…

One of the principles of the historical profession is to study change over time. Historians most often trace changes in political structures, ideology, geography, society, and culture. Changes in the arts are also a mainstay of the historical profession, either in art history, architecture, or the study of music. But what about our changing soundscapes? The sonic environment is not immune to the forces of history. Historians have been slow to include hist-aurical listening to their standard methodological practices, which seems, to me at least, to present a great opportunity for fresh exploration of the past. The sounds of the past are often radically different from contemporary sounds, just as the sounds of the future will be radically different from the things we hear today. What meaning can we derive from this kind of change?

Recently a friend turned me on to this article about ‘disappeared’ sounds – sounds that were ubiquitous in our recent history, but which sound foreign and strange to youngsters today, i.e. a generation growing up with a soundscape radically different from that of their parents or grandparents.

What I Still Hear, a short article by Robert Krulwich of NPR (National Public Radio), reminds us that the advent of the digital age has resulted in a wholesale replacement of analog noises. Take, for example, the sound of a telephone. When you dial your cell phone, the beeping you might hear is a pretty far cry from the click-whirrrrr that characterized rotary phone service.

Krulwich argues that these differences are important, because they are the sounds conjured by our imaginations when we talk, when we tell stories, or when we make music. If our aural reference points are different between age groups, what can this mean for inter-generational communications?

Its an intriguing question for which I have no answer. But it warrants exploration. A fine place to start might be this list of disappeared sounds: 11 Sounds That Your Kids Have Probably Never Heard. I’m old enough to have heard all these, even if the technologies they represent belong to a much older generation. I still listen to records, have a rotary phone at the cottage, and long ago wrote elementary school assignments with a manual typewriter. And the gas-station bell? It still exists at some of the country filling-stations I’ve frequented as a motorcycle rider. The bing! bing! of the air-hose alarm-system somehow always makes me smile.

The sound of bells, whether in gas-stations or church steeples, is something that has been a part of our human soundscape for quite some time. In the next few days I’ll be working on a post all about bells – so stay tuned!

– KJ



  1. The gas station at the corner of Pine and St-Denis has a bell (or had – I heard the whole thing has been torn down…). It was fun to jump on…

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