Sound as Experience
When you think of sound, it’s likely that one of the first things to come to mind is Music. And while most of us could probably give an example of something that we consider musical, say by holding up something that contains it, like an iPod or a vinyl record, or by describing something that produces it, like a violin or guitar, it isn’t readily obvious what in fact music or sound is… Indeed, often times in a composition and its recording, the things we don’t hear are as important as the things we do (Harper, 2011).
Sound is further complicated by how we hear it. Hearing, unsurprisingly, is a highly contingent term, and it depends on a number of socio-historical and socio-economic factors, like how wealthy you are and when/where you lived, as well as some basic physiological characteristics, like if you have a fully developed and uninjured inner ear. While the average human-being hears sound between 20 and 20,000 Hz (16,000 for adults) and 0 - 140 db (the former measurement of pitch, the latter of volume), a deaf or hearing impaired individual can experience a very different kind and range of sound e.g. by hand-holding balloons (Shibata 2001). In fact, we all experience sound in many different ways, like the low frequencies and deep bass of a night club, or the low rumble of a plane or car engine… even an earthquake is technically ‘sound’! As vibrational energy, there are nearly infinite ways to experience sound, each with it’s own historical and mechanical contingencies.
Fortunately for our purposes, we will not be focusing on infinite sound, and instead be focusing on sound and it’s reproduction in the United States from 1860 through 2015. Thus broadly speaking there are three categories or ‘modules’ important to this analysis: First there is Physical sound, which is sound in it’s original vibrational or analog form. Then there is Electrical sound, which is sound as electricity. And finally, there’s Digital sound, which is electrical sound encoded into a machine language like binary. Importantly, these terms only describe the process of recording the sound. Playback is necessarily experienced in the same way no matter the medium i.e. as the compressions and rarefactions of air particles (vibrations). It is also important to note that the three aforementioned modules, while chronologically successive, are not mutually exclusive i.e. each category precedes the other, but remains constitutive — physical sound is necessary for electrical sound is necessary for digital sound etc. Each module will include an analysis of early recording processes, the mechanics behind them, and the possible and real effect this had on how sound was consumed and experienced.