The Journal of Sonic Studies

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol04/nr01/a07

Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 4, nr. 1 (May 2013)


Maarten Walraven


Listening to history requires the historian to compose sonic events from the archive. This essay explores how Audible History has developed since Alain Corbin’s ground-breaking Village Bells. The listening historian has broadened the scope of social and cultural history by rearranging existing and creating new narratives. However, historians need to go beyond interrogating the earwitnesses of aural cultures. They need to listen to sounds-as-objects and the acoustic context of events. Three concepts are introduced to develop a methodology for this: 1) silence, which is the silence of the archive as well as the role silence played in history’s sonic register; 2) resonance, which demonstrates the way that resonances between people and their environment and among people created community; 3) echo, as a concept that allows for the objectification of sounds at the same time that it attends to the origins of sounds-as-objects.


Within the growing historiography on sound, the audibility of history has been approached through the methodologies of social and cultural history. Especially the cultural-historical focus on the relation between people and between people and their environment provides a healthy basis for research into the audibility of history (Burke 2012). But how is the methodological basis of audible history different from that of cultural, social and other types of history? What does a sonic methodology bring to history? How does the historian turn into a listening historian? Murray Schafer (Schafer 1994: 23) said that while he was able to record the soundscapes of his own time with the use of technological devices such as the microphone, he had to turn to different methods to come to “the foundation of historical perspectives.” These methods include “earwitness accounts from literature and mythology, as well as … anthropological and historical records.” Schafer’s methodology for describing the sounds of history did not break any new ground: it was focused on the experience of the soundscapes, in line with the social history of his time. The current focus of historians interested in sound is still on experience, in other words, they are interested in listening subjects. This essay argues that the listening subject brings a focus on the sound culture of a society. Such a focus can provide valuable new insights as well as shed new light on existing perceptions of historical processes. However, to use sound itself, the physical, acoustic aspects of sound and its influence on people and their environment, as historical evidence, historians should approach the archive differently than when they investigate sound cultures. What this essay will do, then, is two things: 1) it will argue that historians need to pay attention to the physical aspects of sound to be able to discuss sound itself and its role in history; 2) it will give examples of how historical sources can be listened to and for in the archive.

Three concepts provide the structure for this essay: silence, resonance and echo. Silence is first of all the silences of and in the archive. The latter is the silence that Carolyn Steedman (Steedman 2001) has written of in Dust. To her, historians are looking for a silence, that is, “the space shaped by what once was; and now is no more” (Steedman 2001: 154). As historians look for these silences of the archive, they can only find them through their eyes. Even when writing the history of an era in which sound reproduction existed, the historian remains dependent upon written and visual sources. The question, then, is how to make the archive come alive with sound? Or, how to become a listening historian? In his “essay on method” at the end of Listening to Nineteenth Century America, Mark Smith (Smith 2001: 261-69) argues two main points: 1) that historians need to focus on certain specific sounds and not all sounds within the soundscape; and 2) that context is necessary to give an idea of how these sounds were perceived. Throughout the preceding book, Smith relied mostly on autobiographical accounts, government ordinances and contemporary texts to get to those metaphors about sound that allowed him to analyze a sonic experience. There is, however, so much more to sound than that. First, in the archival sources and, second, in what to listen for within those sources. This essay will link developments in social and cultural history to developments in sonic studies in order to understand how to get the best sound from the silent archive.

The listening historian attempts to bring out the auditory features of a society. Archival sources are read, looked at or listened to with the intention of understanding the influence sound had on people and their environment. This idea was already established by Alain Corbin (Corbin 1998) who, in the words of Emily Thompson (Thompson 2004: 1), theorized the soundscape as “simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world.” Corbin (Corbin 1998: 95) exemplifies this through the village bell, which created “a sense of being rooted in space.” What Corbin achieved through his study was to change the perception of historians focusing on the nineteenth century who viewed this period as one of modernization: where time accelerated and communal identities were lost. Because people engaged with their environment through sound, the listening historian can rearrange or reassert what we know about certain periods and places. But a more thorough methodology is needed through which the listening historian can operate: one that includes the aural culture of a specific time and place, but which is also sensitive to the specific ways that sounds operate.

Silence is one of the things to listen for in the archive, but some of the groundbreaking works in audible history have focused on noise (e.g. Picker 2003; Bijsterveld 2008; Payer 2007). Most of these studies have listened for noise in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the age of machine, industrialization and sound reproduction. Historians have not exclusively linked issues surrounding noise with the last two hundred years (Cockayne 2007), but those histories that have been written on that period all share a conclusion: noise, and its subsequent control through legislation, became an issue that fits into a wider discourse on bourgeois modernity (Thompson 2004; Sterne 2003). Such histories link the history of sound to a recent trend in urban history that argues that historians should not talk about cities so much as about urban societies undergoing similar transformations in the modern period (Lees and Hollen Lees 2008; Jerram 2011). Noise will remain a useful category for analysis, but silence can be equally useful. The first section explores silence through three types: the conscious decision to be silent; the enforcement of silence; and becoming silent, which involved both human action and technological developments.

Where, in the absence of sound, questions arise as to what sounds are, resonance raises questions concerning what causes sounds. For Brandon LaBelle (LaBelle 2010: xxiv) everyday “acoustic territories” are “full of dynamic resonance,” which he contends create “connective moments.” LaBelle is especially interested in the way the resonant qualities of sound bring human bodies together in our contemporary age. The body will also play an important part in this essay, with a focus on the effect of sound resonating through the body. Thinking beyond the body, resonance also requires space, and architects interested in acoustics have shown that the organization of space affects the perception of sound (Blesser and Salter 2007; Onaga and Rindel 2007). Combining these two elements has pushed Carolyn Birdsall (Birdsall 2012: 28) to use the term “affirmative resonance” to analyze “the role of sound in the creation of resonant spaces within urban environments.” This resonance is affirmative because it creates a positive relation between people, which I want to call, with Barry Truax (Truax 2001: 65-92) and others, an “acoustic community.” Such communities were purposefully created, as Birdsall shows through her examples of the Nazis, but they also came into existence in a more haphazard way, through everyday sonic events. Finding out how sounds resonated within urban communities opens up knowledge of historical acoustemologies, a term coined by Steven Feld (Feld 1996: 91) to mean: that which people know through what they hear. But in order to understand various historical resonances, historians need to be sensitive to the resonances within the archive and remain open to different types of sources. I agree with Mark Smith (Smith 2001: 261) that historians cannot compose an entire soundscape and instead need to focus on certain sounds. In order to do that, historians need to listen to more than the typical historical contexts on which Smith based his book. In order to understand, for example, the resonance of a space, historians need to know about the acoustic qualities of that space. The second section, then, presents the argument that resonance played a role in the creation of community and examines how historians can investigate that role by analyzing traditional archival sources in combination with acoustics.

Resonance and echo are two closely related sonic effects, and it might be said that it is the still resonating – or reverberating – echo that historians hope to find in the archive. LaBelle (LaBelle 2010: 7) has taken the echo to explain how, as a sonic phenomenon, the echo has specific sonic qualities that make “sound into an object.” This idea resonates with Casey O’Callaghan (O’Callaghan 2007: 128-29), for who the echo remains the “original sound … albeit with distortion of place and time.” Listening for echoes in the archive means to be open to the aurality of history and understanding the way in which both historians experience the echo as well as the way historical subjects experienced the sounds. In both cases, the “Hörgewohnheiten,” or normalities of listening, define the way sound is and was perceived (Payer, 2003: 183). The echo will thus specifically bring the listener into consideration and, in so doing, their social and cultural context (Smith 2001; Morat 2010). The distortion of time and place means that a sound can be heard without knowing its cause. The echo, however, “is not a new sound,” as it remains related to its cause (O’Callaghan 2007: 135). Both the primary experience of a sound and the experience of an echo happen within acoustic contexts, and historians need to analyze these contexts just as they analyze the social, cultural and political contexts. Within the third section, I argue that the echo, as historical sonic event, requires an analysis of the acoustics of a space, whereas the echoes that exist within the archive are given validity because echoes are bound to the original sonic event. To prevent confusion between these two forms of echo, the former, phenomenological one, is designated as the echo proper and the latter, metaphorical one, as the archival echo.


Archives are quiet places where you hear only the typing on keyboards, the occasional footstep or sneeze, the rustling of pages and the soft speech of researcher talking to archivist. In his writings, Schafer (Schafer 1994) already asserted that sound should be considered on the axis between noise and silence, thus requiring silence to be included in any analysis of the sonic. Similarly, Douglas Kahn’s (Kahn 1999: 5) “historical register” includes silence. Following these sonic theorists, historians need to be sensible to silence as well as sound if they want to understand the historical implications of the audible. Within the historiography on noise the searching for silence by the middle classes has been investigated by highlighting the noises that disrupted silences (Picker 2000; Toyka-Seid 2005; Bijsterveld 2008). The more active role of silence in the power structures of society, however, has received less attention. Silence is a complex of being silent, silencing and becoming silent. Being silent can be an externally imposed or a self-imposed activity. Within a variety of academic disciplines surrounding language, silence has become a tool “for tackling diverse communicative phenomena” (Jaworski 1997: 3; Kurzon 1997). What this take on silence does is to move away from thinking about silence as absence-of-sound and to start thinking about it as a presence. In what follows, several examples will be given where silence has been addressed as a presence. These examples present a way into understanding how historians can examine historical silences.

In the early twentieth century anti-noise societies were founded in most western industrialized countries. In Germany the anti-noise movement was led by Theodor Lessing, a philosopher who is still most commonly known for his work on Jewish self-hatred (Lessing 1984). In the early-twentieth century, however, Lessing published two articles on the problem of noise in which he also “suggested a few measures that could be taken immediately to silence the sounds that especially irritated him” (Baron 1982: 168). These practical suggestions were in general aimed more at restricting the production of noise by people, such as piano-playing neighbors or street musicians, than at the noises of industry, which Lessing implicitly linked to economic progress. Some of Lessing’s suggestions, however, did involve the material environment, as he suggested changes to uneven street pavements in order to lessen the noise of vehicles and horses (Lessing 1908: 34). Some of these suggestions were already being implemented in urban societies across Europe. In Paris, London, Manchester and other cities, local authorities conducted experiments with wooden pavements.

Such experiments were part of an effort to deal with the ever-increasing noise levels of urban societies. There was a wish, mostly among middle-class listeners, to silence the urban environment and particularly the sound signals that they considered a nuisance. Because of this, Chris Otter (Otter 2002: 12) has shown that “the acoustic qualities of paving surfaces came under scrutiny.” Different types of paving were tested and used, and it seemed wooden paving had the most potential. Environmental differences meant that what worked in one city, did not necessarily work in another. Manchester’s wet climate, for example, meant that the wooden paving was unsuccessful as it “crumbled beneath the feet of horses and pedestrians” when it got wet (Otter 2008: 95). While wooden paving generally lost its attraction in the 1880s and 1890s, asphalt was still being experimented with. Over the years it gained a “reputation as a reasonably cheap, generally durable, moderately quiet surface” (Otter 2008: 95). Key to the breakthrough of asphalt as a preferred surface for streets was a chemical breakdown of different types of it. Charles Kingzett (Kingzett 1883), for example, found that to make good asphalt, it was necessary to add a natural pitch – a substance derived from petroleum – to the natural asphalt rock. Natural pitch was a soft pitch that filled the spaces between the asphalt rock, reducing contact during compression. The fluid mixture, often also including coal-tar and creosote oil, was not only necessary for the hardening of the asphalt, but also accounted for a higher sound absorption rate by keeping pavements even, thus making it more quiet than other materials. Even when the Manchester Corporation still preferred granite stone pavements around 1900, engineers used “a pitch-composition for closing the joints of the stone-sets,” because it provided an “elasticity [that prevented] it from cracking” (Law and Clark 1901: 199-200). In other words, pitch was the key to a frictionless and quiet pavement. Of course, the advent of the car as the dominant vehicle moving through the urban streets played a large role in asphalt becoming the preferred surface, but prior to this, the soundproofing qualities, which worked to dampen to a certain extent the contact sounds of the vehicles on the street, also played a part. That latter point was why people like Lessing argued vehemently for the implementation of asphalt and is why historians need to understand its acoustic properties.

Silence, in the case of paving and other practical issues surrounding noise abatement, was part of a becoming-silent. Before Lessing, Thomas Carlyle, philosopher and historian, had already been campaigning for a quieter urban environment in England in the 1860s. Like Lessing, Carlyle had wanted to silence certain sounds, but he went to more extremes to withdraw himself from the hubbub of the urban street. The least desirable noises for Carlyle and his fellow London anti-noise campaigners were those of the street musicians, especially the Italian organ grinders (Picker 2003: 60). For the historian John Picker, Carlyle’s plight was that of a struggle between inside and outside, the domestic and its exterior. The becoming-silent of Carlyle’s interior, when he built his soundproof study, is but one voice within the urban multitude (Picker 2000). There were those who agreed with him and those who did not, and within those discussions, the differences between silence and noise became, in the words of Peter Bailey (Bailey 1978: 173), “social distinctions [that] were vulnerable.” Within the debate surrounding street noises, the meaning of silence changed too. Through Lessing, Carlyle, and other middle-class ears, silencing became a powerful tool that allowed the middle classes to infuse public spaces with their values.

That is not to say that silencing could only be used as a top-down tool of power. The imposed silence perhaps was, but the self-imposed silence could be a subversive bottom-up force. Mark Smith (Smith 2001) has shown how slaves in the American Antebellum South resisted their masters through silent actions. Such resistance was grounded in “stealth” and “grave silence” and Smith (Smith 2001: 88) provides evidence that slaves “knew the power of their stealth and recognized the discomfort their silence caused their masters.” Smith derives his evidence from travel accounts and autobiographical accounts of former slaves. Within these written documents people expressed the way that they experienced and used silence. It is up to the historian, as Smith argues in his essay on method, to contextualize this silence. What is taken from the accounts is that slaves used their stealth to subvert their masters and that they both planned and executed every escape in the utmost silence. It is this kind of context that shows how there was a heightened sensibility to sound in American plantations. The slaves’ self-imposed silence was a way to exert control in an environment where masters supposedly wielded all the power, thus inviting historians to rethink the power relations between slaves, masters and their environment. Smith has demonstrated that slaves imposed silence upon themselves to work around the aural cues around which the plantation masters had constructed their environment. Slaves used silence to challenge the existing power structures, and paying attention to it gives historians more insight into slaves’ agency.

Another type of silence that historians need to start paying attention to is the silence which is related to what Sophia Rosenfeld (Rosenfeld 2011) has termed “being heard.” What Rosenfeld asks of historians is to become aware of those people who may have made a lot of noise, but who were ignored nonetheless. The claim put forward by Rosenfeld (Rosenfeld 2011: 328) is a political one, in which she states that “true citizenship … involves not only getting to speak, but also being actively and attentively heard.” Silence here is the opposite of self-imposed silence and means that one is turned a deaf ear. This is a history that remains largely unwritten, although it has close relations to the original social historical ideal of writing the history of those who had no voice in it (Thompson 1991; Williams 1958). Rosenfeld’s call finds some grounding in the work of historians such as Julia Swindells (Swindells 1985) and Julie-Marie Strange (Strange 2007). The former wrote about the silence of history surrounding women’s autobiographies. Swindells (Swindells 1985: 203) has argued that “while women managed to write, [they] have not necessarily been read. That is indeed a kind of silence.” In Strange’s case, the silence was the perceived speechlessness of working-class fathers during periods of bereavement. Both historians have found silences in the historiography made up of historical noises that fell on deaf ears among contemporaries.

It is within this interplay that silence is useful for historians, in that it makes space for a deeper understanding of a topic, by recognizing and allowing a new voice to enter the composition. When discussing audible history, historians often expose silences in the historiography through sound, but they can do the same through silence. At the same time, historians should realize that they cannot increase the volume on the entire soundscape. In other words, each history silences another as it emphasizes specific stories and connections. Thus, silence must always be a consideration, for when historians discuss sound, there is always also a concurrent silence. This can be, from the examples presented here, the silence imposed by the middle classes on those who produced what they perceived as noise; the self-imposed silence used actively to subvert power structures; or the silence that already attracts historians, that of the silence within the historiography. Historians’ attention to silence not only breathes new life into the narratives of history-from-below, but also recognizes the agency of a new set of historical subjects, whether they are single actors, groups or materials. All of the types of silence discussed here, however, are fixed within the physicality of the sonic spectrum.


In one of the groundbreaking works in audible history, Bruce Smith (Smith 1999) wrote that resonance is what links people to their environment. Sound, through resonance, “seeks a listener” and “seeks communication” (Smith 1999: 14). A sound uttered is, albeit not necessarily, a sound heard. In other words, every sound invites a response, and it does so by resonating. The first resonances of the spoken word arise from within the body of the one who speaks. The sounds produced by the body are thus related to that body via its internal resonances. Communication through sound creates an intimacy through bodily connections, while it also already creates a distance, because the same sounds have different resonances within different bodies and thus attain different meanings. Resonance creates a connection between people within a certain environment, both through speech as well as through other forms of sound. These connections, what LaBelle (LaBelle 2010: xxiv) has termed “relational movements,” create communities. There are speech communities and acoustic communities, and in what follows, the former will be investigated as a step toward understanding how the latter functioned.

It was the linguist Dell Hymes (Hymes 2001: 199) who coined the term “speech community,” which he defined as being organized through two points:

1) The organization of linguistic features within a speech community is in terms of ways of speaking within a verbal repertoire.
2) Membership in a speech community consists in sharing one (or more) ways of speaking.

What this tells us is that sound and speaking are more important than language. It can be inferred that context is just as important as language, which resonates with Daniel Morat’s (Morat 2010: 6) idea that “sounds … can only be analyzed within their social, political and cultural context.” Hymes’ idea of speech community has been taken up by Smith (Smith 1999: 42) who acknowledged that “a speech community might be distinguished from other such communities not only by the social station of its speakers but by dialect, by variety or register, by code, or by some combination of these differences.” Within Smith’s soundscape of Early Modern England, different speech communities lived together in the same place, but each community expressed their differing identities within the codes of their speech. Speech communities, then, were arbiters of identity, and the way that speech resonated within a community defined it not only internally but also externally.

The resonances of sounds within a group are mostly psychical, meaning that they have less to do with the physical aspects of the sound and more with how a person interprets them. This type of resonance is also what Smith (Smith 1999: 184, emphasis in original) is writing about when he argues that “[b]allads may begin within, they may reverberate around, but they have their social being among.” The ballad was an important communicative tool for people in the Early Modern period and helped “to confirm a speech community’s identity” by allowing certain moods and ideas to resonate within a group (Smith 1999: 184). The sound of the sung ballad remained an important feature of society up until the late-nineteenth century, at which point legislation and public grievances had forced the balladeers inside – into Music Halls, Tingel Tangel and other establishments. Up until that time, the resonating ballad created a community through communal singing and through the interplay of singer, accompaniment, words and listener. A ballad could reinforce an identity shared by one community, while it could disrupt another.

Most historians have used ballads as written expressions of class and analyzed them as being by the working classes for the working classes (Palmer 1988; Joyce 1994). When historians listen for the resonances of the ballads within a community, the next step is to take note of what James Hepburn (Hepburn 2000: 62-3) has called the “captive audience,” which includes both the “intended audience” and the “actual audience.” The ballad did not merely resonate between the singer and his or her intended audience, but also resonated with everyone within earshot. Some enjoyed the sounds, others did not. The debates that existed between those two groups allow historians to understand the volatility of affect within the urban sonic environment.

One such debate can be found in the exchange between two men who wrote to the Manchester Guardian in 1853. One letter to the editor, signed by “a lover of music” asked “when will our ears cease to be bored by the execrable din that wandering musicians inflict? It is annoying to everyone, much more to men of business.”[1] This man was clearly not the intended audience, but he was often within earshot of, in this case, a German band, at that time a common feature of the English urban soundscape. The perception of street music was subjective, and that the German band’s “execrable din” could also be listened to differently is evidenced in another letter to the editor of the Manchester Guardian. This time signed “a lover of real music,” the man stressed “that so far from being an annoyance, [German bands] are a great assistance, as they drown out the noise of the vehicles outside.”[2] The music of the German band resonated within the space of the street and entered into buildings. The men of business were not close enough to give a penny to the musicians and were thus not their intended audience, yet they heard their music. For some this was a welcome occurrence for which they adopted an active listening. For others, the music was a distraction and when it entered their ear, music became nuisance.

Listening tastes are subjective, making the effect of a sound volatile. What can be certain, however, is that when a sound is heard, it will affect. As soon as the resonance reaches the ear, the soundwaves make the ear and the brain react. That such reactions can be manipulated is shown by Birdsall, who investigates the way the Nazis used resonance to organize people during political rallies and festivals. According to Birdsall (Birdsall 2012: 32, emphasis in original), “[p]olitical attempts to sound out urban space … operated on a principle of creating resonance in a city.” The physical resonance was used to create an experience in which the political message of the Nazis was communicated to the audience. Birdsall (Birdsall 2012: 34) is aware that “[o]verwhelming sounds do not automatically eradicate all possibilities for thinking and self-awareness.” It is for this reason that Birdsall (Birdsall 2012: 35) has coined the term “affirmative resonance, [which] refers to a practice or event when a group of people communally create sounds that resonate in a space, thus reinforcing the legitimacy of their group and its identity patterns.” The mass use of affirmative resonance negated the subjective effect of sound, creating a shared identity among those attending the Nazi festivals. Not only has Birdsall analyzed a strategy used by the Nazis that has largely been taken for granted within the propaganda package of the party, but she has also shown how to find the resonating archive by paying attention to acoustics. Her method is based on an examination of how the Nazis used urban space and filled it with affirmative resonance in the form of marching troops, radio broadcasts, or a “Heil Hitler.” The people attending the Nazi festivals became part of the event they were experiencing through their resonating bodies. In other words, they were a resonating component of an acoustemology.

To understand how an acoustemology worked, historians need to know about the acoustics of a space. Practically, this means that historians need to be aware, for example, of the materials within the space and the absorption coefficients of those materials. Theoretically, this means that historians need to construct what Blesser and Salter (Blesser and Salter 2007: 11) have called “spatial auditory awareness,” a combination of “spatial attributes, auditory perception … and cultural values,” through which “some spaces emphasize aural privacy [and] others reinforce social cohesion.” In the case of Birdsall, she needs to analyze the buildings lining the streets, the surface of the streets and the number of human bodies in the street. Also of import is whether the sound was produced by voice, feet and instruments or whether it came through loudspeakers. Much can be learnt here from the way that architects have applied acoustics in concert halls and theatres. As Emily Thompson (Thompson 2004) has shown, architectural acoustics has been a part of Western cultural history through the development of concert halls.

Thompson’s analysis, however, is as much a history of the idea of acoustics as it is of its practice. In order to understand how acoustic communities operated, historians need to focus more on the practical knowledge of acoustics, and thus the physicality of sound. Smith (Smith 1999: 206-245) has done this in his discussion of the theatre, in which he analyzed the material, the construction of the building as well as the different elocutions of actors required within the theatre. This work needs to be done if historians are to understand how sound affected humans and created acoustic communities. Jacob Kreutzfeldt (Kreutzfeldt 2012) has similarly analyzed the resonating acoustics and the way street criers in Copenhagen between 1929 and 1935 adapted their cry to the space they inhabited. In other words, to re-compose the interplay of humans and their environment through sound, historians must pay attention to the resonances, both psychical and physical, within that environment. In doing so, historians can understand how people used the resonances in their environments, urban or rural, home or public, to create communities.


As I have said, resonance and echo are two closely related phenomena. Both are firmly connected to space, and both require an understanding of the physical aspects of and around the sound examined by the historian. In my discussion of resonance, the importance of these physical aspects took precedence. With the echo I hope to strike a balance between the social, cultural and political context of an event and the specific acoustic qualities of the space where that event took place. What the echo does is to bring “back the original event … reshaped or refigured, thereby returning sound and rendering it a spatial object” (Labelle 2010: 7). Not only does this idea of the echo allow historians to treat the sounds they find in the archive as original, it also, like resonance, calls for a spatial understanding of those sounds. The practices of listening also come into play, as each person listens differently, as was already made clear in the discussion of street music, above. The echo, because of its reshaping through time and place and because knowledge of the source can be lost, also “disorients and distracts” (Labelle 2010: 7). The echo, like silence, presents a tool which is both a historical reality and a metaphor for the archive. In the latter sense, the echo relates the archival sources to their original events. Archival material that gives access to sound does not present the original sound, but the sound and the different experiences of it can be reconstructed from the archival material. To understand the echoes within the archives, historians need to be aware of the way different people listened to the original sounds. This section, then, will deal with real sounds that have dissipated but which form an echo in the archival materials. Alongside this, an example is also given of a historian who has examined the role of the echo proper within a historical context. Finally, the importance of acoustic context is highlighted once again.

The echo, while still the “original sound” is also a form of illusion (O’Callaghan 2007: 128 and 126-140). It is a slightly distorted image of the original that needs to be understood on its own terms “across the scales from acoustic physics, socio-psycho-physiology to aesthetic, architectural, and urban design” (Goodman 2010: 46). Within history this means that historians need to be aware of the attributes of sound that have been discussed here in relation to silence and resonance. The illusion of the archival echo can only be understood within the context in which the original sound was heard. Going back to the example of the road surfaces, the historical echo is found in the minutes of local government committees, reports in newspapers and periodicals, and recorded knowledge of the properties of the different road surfacing materials in a particular environment. All of these various sources allow for a reconstruction of the sonic event of vehicles driving on roads. While the echoes within the archive can be more broadly applied as a metaphor, much like silence, this application becomes more pertinent in relation to sound. Historians have used many of the sources mentioned here, however, not in relation to sonic events. That sound is now becoming a part of the historiography not only allows for a rereading of what is known about a period or place, but also opens up history to various other disciplines, as evidenced by Goodman’s quote, above.

The transformation of road surfaces was a component of urban design partially influenced by acoustics and partially influenced by the effect of the sound created on and by the street. The echo proper of these sounds resonated off the walls of the buildings lining the streets, but it also entered into those buildings, creating disturbances. One observer from late-nineteenth-century Manchester, writing for the medical journal The Lancet, called for more noiseless paving around hospitals. The reason, he wrote, was that

[n]ow that the weather is hot and windows are kept open, the noise of the traffic over the granite setts is deafening and very detrimental to the welfare of the patients who have to lie on a bed of pain the livelong day, listening wearily to the grinding past of heavily laden vehicles, longing for an interval of rest which never comes.[3]

For this observer, the noise was produced by the traffic, but the solution for reducing this noise lay in the street itself. The point to be taken from this is that for most observers the noise of vehicles was an inherent part of the progress of society. A sentiment echoed by the “lover of real music” who wrote that “the noise of the vehicles outside [was] a real but unavoidable annoyance.”[4] The echoes proper as well as the resonances of vehicles were part and parcel of the modern urban environment and were heard to within a wider cultural context.

The echoes proper heard by the patients in hospitals and the working people in offices and warehouses present real sounds and not illusions. Where these people heard the different sounds of the streets, however, was in their offices or hospital beds, not outside on the street itself. What was heard were echoes proper that had a particular psychical effect within each situation in which they occurred. The context for the different effects of the echo proper is found in the echoes that are quietly reverberate in the archive and which the attentive historian’s ear can play with. For O’Callaghan writing on the echo proper, “awareness of an echo normally furnishes awareness of the event that made the sound” ('O'Callaghan 2007: 134). What this knowledge of the echo proper provides for historians is that it grounds the archival echoes in their historical sonic events. If historians then consider all the sonic properties surrounding those events and the context in which they occurred, the echo becomes the means to understanding audible history.

The example of the echo proper of street noise and how it was said to be experienced by patients and office workers has presented an insight into the effect of the echo proper on society. A more in-depth example is found in Richard Cullen Rath’s (Rath 2003) investigation of the differences between American and European church acoustics in the Early Modern period. Rath (Rath 2003: 97-8) is aware of the effect of the archival echo and the need to pay attention to acoustics: “Thinking about acoustics, we can still hear the echoes of those social orders and begin to notice how people created and maintained ranked points of contacts within their communities.” Rath’s point here resonates with the effort of this essay to pay attention specifically to the points of contact and intersection of people and their environment. Sound is one such point of contact, and especially within buildings such as churches and theatres, priests, actors and others sometimes utilized to create such an experience of contact.

Much like Birdsall’s analysis of affirmative resonance, Rath focuses on the echo in an overwhelming sense. He discusses the “compendium of echoes” created by the architectural lay-out of the early-modern Catholic church (Rath 2003: 99). Rath (Rath 2003: 100) specifically emphasises the effect of the design of the churches on the sonic events inside it:

The high, acoustically reflective ceilings added sonic power to the priest’s voice, reverberating and reinforcing it, while at the same time further muddying it with the echoes that constituted the nave’s reverberation … Sounds bounced around echo upon echo upon echo rather than reaching the listener’s ear all at once.

What this example shows is that an understanding of the physical space and its acoustics are important for the historian wanting to understand the role sound played in creating community. It is through such an analysis that Rath (Rath 2003: 100) can take the next step, which is to claim that the sonic events within the early-modern Catholic church “created a powerfully moving effect.” In other words, to understand the experience of a sonic event, historians need to be aware not just of the social, cultural and political context of the event, but also its acoustic context.

With examples such as churches or the concert halls analyzed by Thompson (Thompson 2004), historians have been able to discuss and analyze the role of the echo proper as a historical sonic event. The early-twentieth-century specialist of architectural acoustics Wallace Sabine, for example, was often “called upon to lessen the reverberation or to eliminate a distinct echo” (Thompson 2004: 175). It is in these specialized cases, where the architects of a building took its acoustics into account, that the echo proper becomes a possible topic of historical interest. In most other cases, however, the echo emerges as the archival echo. If the source material does not specifically discuss echoes, then historians can only reach them through the physical acoustic properties of the space in which they were originally heard, taking into account as much as possible, of course, the attributes that might have disappeared with time. In such situations it is best to follow Blesser and Salter’s (Blesser and Salter 2007: 56) statement that “normally, we experience a distinct echo as bound to the original sound.” The exceptions being those occasions where historians, as in Birdsall’s case, might argue for a moment of sensory overload in which the sonic event separated psychically from its source. In all other cases, the sonic event and the archival echo need to be understood as the same, while taking into account the permutations of the echo through time and place. Thinking of an archival echo as being anchored to its original sound allows historians to link those echoes to historical sonic events.


The main premise of this essay has been to understand how historians can listen to archival sources; how they have listened to archival sources; and how they can become more attentive to the audibility of history. From the methodological bases of social and cultural history, historians exploring sonic environments have started to increase the volume of the soundscapes of history. To move beyond this and to be able to re-compose the experience of sound as well as sound itself, historians need to pay attention to acoustics. Sound is a temporal and spatial event, and the acoustic properties of the spaces in which sounds were heard are an essential part of understanding the variety of meaning those sounds might have produced and how a variety of people experienced sounds. As historians such as Smith (Smith 2001), Sterne (Sterne 2003) and Morat (Morat 2010) have argued, the social, political and cultural contexts of sound need to be analyzed. What this essay has argued is that the acoustic context should be added to that list. As historians sensible to sound have shown, listening is “an intensely situated experience” (Smith 1999: 31). Within the site of this experience, the acoustics of the space must be taken into account to create the fullest possible composition of a historical event.

Historians of sound have focused mainly on listeners and their sonic cultures. As Celia Applegate (Applegate 2012: 330), writing on music and the historian, has argued, “[t]hose who write about music are almost without exception concerned with something we might more accurately call musical culture, a handy portmanteau of a term … [that] tends to include everything … except for the music itself.” In line with Applegate’s concern, historians of sound should remember that while listeners and their sound cultures are very important, it is equally important to consider the sound itself, or what I would like to call the physical sound, with all its acoustic properties as well as the acoustic properties of the space within which it resonated. When historians do consider the physical sound, their soundscapes become richer, and a deeper understanding of how sound might have influenced a particular group of people and their environment, by whom and in which it is heard, can arise.

This acoustic context is most obviously related to the resonances that created and disrupted communities. The way that acoustic communities often distort categories of history such as class, gender or race is probably one of the most useful additions that attention to sonic cultures has provided for historians so far and these distortions can be further explored through attending to physical sounds. But, as for example Birdsall has shown, resonance and sound can also be used to increase the exertion of power of one group over another group; an idea that also relates to the examples given here on silencing and self-imposed silence. What attention to silence gives to historians is that it moves away from thinking about sound as something that always has volume. Silence is as much on the spectrum of sound as noise is and it can be thought about in a myriad different ways. One of these ways is the silence of the archive and it is that silence that can be taken away by thinking about echoes. Because scholars of sound, such as O’Callaghan (O’Callaghan 2007: 128) and LaBelle (LaBelle 2010: 7), have argued that the echo is still the original sound, historians can take the reverberations in the archive as representative of their original sounds. Of course, issues of time and place have distorted the archival sounds and this essay has argued that attending to the physical sound and its acoustic context allows possible meanings and experiences of these sounds to be uncovered. Attention to sound through silence, resonance and echo provides a template for historians through which they can construct a story, one that remains an interpretation of archival sources, but which challenges accepted notions and opens up sonic environments and its implications for, among other things, the creation of community.


Manchester Guardian, 7 December 1853.

Manchester Guardian, 10 December 1853.

The Lancet, 11 June, 1881.

Manchester Guardian, 10 December 1853.


Anon (1853). “Itinerant Musicians.” Manchester Guardian, December 7.

Anon (1853). “Street Music.” Manchester Guardian, December 10.

Anon (1881). “Manchester.” The Lancet 117/3015: 972.

Applegate, Celia (2012). “Introduction: Music Among the Historians.” German History 30/3: 329-349.

Bailey, Peter (1978). Leisure and Class in Victorian England: Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control, 1830-1885. Oxon: Routledge.

Baron, Lawrence (1982). “Noise and Degeneration: Theodor Lessing’s Crusade for Quiet.” Journal of Contemporary History 17/1: 165-178.

Birdsall, Carolyn (2012). Nazi Soundscapes: Sound, Technology and Urban Space in Germany, 1933-1945. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Blesser, Barry and Linda-Ruth Salter (2007). Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Burke, Peter (2012). “Strengths and Weaknesses of Cultural History.” Cultural History 1/1: 1-13.

Bijsterveld, Karin (2008). Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture and the Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Cloonan, Martin and Bruce Johnson (2002). “Killing me Softly with his Song: An Initial Investigation into the Use of Popular Music as a Tool of Oppression.” Popular Music 21/1: 27-39.

Cockayne, Emily (2007). Hubbub, Filth, Noise & Stench in England, 1600-1770. London: Yale University Press.

Corbin, Alain (1998). Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside. (trans. Martin Thom). New York: Columbia University Press.

Egan, David M. (1988). Architectural Acoustics. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Feld, Steven (1996). “Waterfalls of Song: An Acoustemology of Place Resounding in Bosavi, Papua New Guinea.” In Steven Feld and Keith Basso (eds.), Senses of Place (pp. 91-135). Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Goodman, Steve (2010). Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hepburn, James (2000). A Book of Scattered Leaves: Poetry and Poverty in Broadside Ballads of Nineteenth-Century England, Study and Anthology, Vol. 1. London: Bucknell University Press.

Hymes, Dell (2001). Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. London: Routledge.

Jaworski, Adam (1997). Silence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Jerram, Leif (2011). Streetlife: The Untold History of Europe’s Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Joyce, Patrick (1994). Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class 1848-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kahn, Douglas (1999). Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Kingzett, Charles (1883). “Some Analyses on Asphalte Pavings.” Analyst 8: 4-10.

Kreutzfeldt, Jacob (2012). “Street Cries and the Urban Ritournelle.” Sound Effects 2/1: 61-80.

Kurzon, Dennis (1997). Discourse of Silence. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

LaBelle, Brandon (2010). Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life. London: Continuum.

Law, Henry and D.K. Clark (1901). The Construction of Roads and Streets. London: Crosby Lockwood and Son.

Lees, Andrew and Lynn Hollen Lees (2007). Cities and the Making of Modern Europe, 1750-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lessing, Theodor (1908). Der Lärm: Eine Kampfschrift gegen die Geräusche unseres Lebens. Wiesbaden: Bergmann.

Lessing, Theodor (1984). Der Jüdische Selbsthaß. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.

Morat, Daniel (2010). “Sound Studies – Sound Histories: Zur Frage nach dem Klang in der Geschichtswissenschaft und der Geschichte der Klangwissenschaft.” Auditive Perspektiven 4: 1-8.

O’Callaghan, Casey (2007). Sounds: A Philosophical Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Onaga, Hiroshi and Jens Holger Rindel (2007). “Acoustic characteristics of urban streets in relation to scattering caused by building facades.” Applied Acoustics 68: 310-325.

Otter, Chris (2002). “Making Liberalism Durable: Vision and Civility in the Late-Victorian City.” Social History 27/1: 1-15.

Otter, Chris (2008). The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Palmer, Roy (1988). The Sound of History: Songs and Social Comment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Payer, Peter (2003). “Vom Geräusch zum Lärm: Zur Geschichte des Hörens im 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhundert.” In Wolfram Aichinger, Franz Eder and Claudia Leitner (eds.), Sinne und Erfahrung in der Geschichte (pp. 173-191). Innsbruck: Studien-Verlag.

Payer, Peter (2007). “The Age of Noise: Early Reactions in Vienna, 1870-1914.” Journal of Urban History 33: 773-793.

Picker, John M. (2000). “The Soundproof Study: Victorian Professionals, Work Space and Urban Noise.” Victorian Studies 42/3: 427-453.

Picker, John M. (2003). Victorian Soundscapes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rath, Richard Cullen (2003). How Early America Sounded. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Rosenfeld, Sophia (2011). “On Being Heard: A Case for Paying Attention to the Historical Ear.” The American Historical Review 116/2: 316-334.

Schafer, Richard Murray (1994). The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester: Destiny Books.

Smith, Bruce (1999). The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending the O-Factor. London: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Mark M. (2001). Listening to Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Steedman, Carolyn (2001). Dust. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Sterne, Jonathan (2003). The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. London: Duke University Press.

Strange, Julie-Marie (2007). “Speechless with Grief: Bereavement and the Working-Class Father, c. 1880-1914.” In Helen Rogers and Trev Broughton (eds.), Gender and Fatherhood in the Nineteenth Century (pp. 138-151). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Swindells, Julia (1985). Victorian Women and Victorian Writing: The Other Side of Silence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, E.P. (1991). The Making of the English Working Class. London: Penguin Books.

Thompson, Emily (2004). The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Toyka-Seid, Michael (2005). “Noise Abatement and the Search for Quiet Space in the Modern City.” In Dieter Schott, Bill Lucking and Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud (eds.), Resources of the City: Contributions to an Environmental History of Modern Europe (pp. 215-229). Aldershot: Ashgate.

Truax, Barry (2001). Acoustic Communication. Second Edition. Westport: Ablex Publishing.

Williams, Raymond (1958). Culture and Society. London: Chatto and Windus.

Maarten Walraven is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Manchester. His PhD investigates the role of sound in the urban communities of turn-of-the-nineteenth-century industrial cities in Britain and Germany. He is particularly interested in embedding the study of sound into the wider historiographies of urban, social and cultural history.