The Rationalization of Sound

Mall mural, Shoreview, MN © 2006 Jeff Ward

On the wall beside the drugstore, across from a Parisian style cafe, inside a dying enclosed mall in Shoreview (a northern suburb of the Twin Cities) this musical apparition caught my eye. It was a space I loved; murals covered every wall of this tiny mall and the air was filled with muzak instead of the rush of people. There was a soundscape to these suburbs that I was captivated with. I’ll never forget going to the Shoreview Target store in the dead of my first Minnesota winter. It was like entering into a scene from The Shining set in a store like the one in One Hour Photo: white, spare, oddly menacing and above all incredibly creepy. It was visceral— a three dimensional experience—not a movie.

Mall mural, Shoreview, MN © 2008 Jeff Ward

The mall, located over a set of railroad tracks and across the community marker on a wall that was always vandalized to read “horeview” actually seemed warm and inviting to me. It was like walking into a make believe town where the empty shops had been replaced by paintings of shops, and the people with likenesses permanently enjoying the space looking outward from the walls. The scenes were intelligible, and fitted well to the space, complete with flâneurs peeking from behind the sculptural plastic trees.

Mall mural, Shoreview, MN © 2006 Jeff Ward

In the beginning, Victor Gruen saw the architectural space of the modern shopping mall as a substitute for the plazas and promenades of old world cities. I suspect the muralist who created that odd environment inside that mall in Shoreview, MN, wasn’t thinking of that. It’s an interesting cultural and aesthetic confluence, but the soundscape simply didn’t match up.

Emily Thompson, in The Soundscape of Modernity, uses the term soundscape to be inclusive of the cultures that create them.

Like a landscape, a soundscape is simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving the environment; it is both a world and a culture constructed to make sense of that world. The physical aspects of a soundscape consist not only of the sounds themselves, the waves of acoustical energy permeating the atmosphere in which people live, but also the material objects that create and sometimes destroy those sounds. A soundscapes cultural aspects incorporate scientific and aesthetic ways of listening, a listener’s relationship to their environment, and the social circumstances that dictate who gets to hear what. (1-2)

The narrative Thompson arranges is the emergence of a “modern soundscape” from 1900-1933. The centerpiece is a transformation of sound into signal roughly analogous to William Ivin’s suggestion of a movement from image to report in print illustration. And like the term legend, it replicates both a sensory experience, and the means to make sense of it. Architectural acoustics seeks to replicate the conditions of “good sound” in a repeatable fashion; just what qualifies as good is socially negotiated.

Reasoning about the nature of sound requires models. There were two important perspectives that interfaced in dramatically in the nineteenth century that lead to the modern soundscape.  Hermann von Hemholtz was a towering figure in  acoustics. Seeking to promote psychophysics, founded on the model that there was a direct relationship between perception and reality, Hemholtz discovered that vowel sounds could be replicated using tuning forks or resonant chambers that matched their frequency. Heinrich Hertz, a student of Hemholtz succeeded in tying things together for a wave model of electromagnetic activity using James Clerk Maxwell’s equations. It’s easy to adopt the enlightenment/scientific method paradigm for progress, as typified by Galileo in 1623:

Philosophy [i.e. natural philosophy] is written in this grand book — I mean the Universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering around in a dark labyrinth.

However, it would be a mistake to believe that acoustical science was based entirely on Newtonian materialism. The first textbook on acoustics from 1877, still in use today, was written by a staunch idealist who proclaimed “I have never thought the materialist view possible, and I look to a power beyond what we see, and to a life in which we may at least hope to take part. ” Lord Rayleigh, who also provided a material explanation as to why the sky is blue, follows a different philosophy of science than Hemholtz, and rather than pursuing psychophysics, maintained an interest in parapsychology as a member of the Society for Psychical Research.

Thompson’s survey of soundscapes begins in 1900, summoning an epigram from a plaque in the lobby of Symphony Hall in Boston dedicated to Wallace Sabine:

Symphony Hall, the first auditorium to be built in known conformity with acoustical laws, was designed in accordance with his specifications and mathematical formulae, the fruit of long and arduous research. Through self-effacing devotion to science, he nobly served the art of music. Here stands his monument. (13)

Sabine is still famous for the Sabine Reverberation Equation, used to measure the effects of the absorption of sound by material in the sound field. He found that the strict mathematical formulae of Hertz, when applied to sound, did not successfully predict the level of reverberation in actual environments. He used instruments developed by Lord Rayleigh for creating visual representations of sound waves to measure the absorption of sound waves by different materials, arriving at a mathematical relation that could be used to predict reliably how architectural environments would sound, at least as far as reverberation at different frequencies was concerned. Eventually, less reverberation was to be preferred for maximum intelligibility.

Part of the reason for this had little to do with music; it is speech that is most frequently rendered unintelligible by reverberation. Research into sound has been driven more by the mystery of voice than the requirements of environments, though with the increased demand for large public meeting spaces, emphasis on architectural acoustics becomes especially important.

The success of Symphony Hall in Boston was initially mixed— it was a “controlled” hall, compared to other venues. Some felt it sucked the life out of the music played there, but now it is revered as one of the finest sounding music halls available. In 1902, Sabine began to study “The Accuracy of Musical Taste in Regard to Architectural Acoustics,” declaring that the fundamental problem was a lack of understanding both of physical phenomena and musical effect. Judgement and taste necessitated the development of more refined authorities adjudicate disputes.

Thompson makes the argument that until the advent of electronic sound reinforcement (in 1933) architectural acoustics was a fertile field of negotiation regarding the definition of what constituted “good sound.” There was a tension between mathematical modeling and more human standards of perception that was fundamentally altered by the transformation from sound to signal.

Signal works here on two levels; on one hand, it is the waveform approach to sound versus material vibrations. On the other hand, signal also has an equivalence with message, or spoken word, which reaches its logical culmination much later in the Shannon-Weaver model for communication (1948). Lord Rayleigh’s desire for visual representation of speech was also taken up, in a non-mathematical way, by an elocution teacher,  Alexander Melville Bell.

In 1867, Bell attempted to create a symbolic language for sound, Visible Speech, which was based on the shape the mouth made while making sounds. It was an attempt at a universal language that would reproduce not only the symbolic content, but also the sound of dialects and variations between speakers. The modern equivalent exists in the form of the IPA, first discussed in 1886.

In a profound sense, the “report” of speech by standard symbolic alphabets strips away the richness of the experience of speech in material environments. There are two tracks here worth highlighting. Sound as electromagnetic signal appeals to mathematic rationalization of material properties. Sound as a uniquely situated event appeals to the philosophical idealist mode of rationalizing it within a human context. Bell’s Visible Speech is a legend for the material realities of the body that produces speech.

It’s worth noting that these factors do not operate in isolation. They interact in curious ways. Alexander Graham Bell’s development of the telephone was grounded in his father’s work on Visible Speech, but also in a fortuitous misreading of Hemholtz’s scientific paper on the reproduction of vowel sounds. How sound gets rationalized is cultural, aesthetic, and not entirely scientific.