Book review: Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening, By David Hendy


The school-day definition of noise was "unorganised sound". Another has it as sound "out of place". The word itself may come from the Latin noxia, meaning "harmful things". Music, classics masters, librarians, the Noise Abatement Society and all but the most liberal parents, were united in thinking it was A Bad Thing.

David Hendy's purpose is to show that noise is very powerful indeed, and that it dramatically signifies various values. He begins in the farthest human past, with sacred places – caves, stone circles – often chosen for their acoustic potential.There's a place, half a mile from my home on the west coast of Scotland, where a natural bowl of rock has such a perfect acoustic that a murmured sentence can be heard clearly on the other side.

Hendy spins out a rapid narrative, making churches and cathedrals resonant instruments of social and spiritual control,the church bell the forerunner of the loudspeaker. Noise can be comfortingly social – JK Rowling liked to work in a busy café – and it can be threatening, disorienting, maddening. Shell-shock, battle fatigue and post-traumatic stress, are associated with noise.

John Cage is the presiding deity of the musical avant-garde, and widely thought to be an exponent of silence. In fact, his message was: if we try to ignore noise, it'll drive us nuts; but if we concentrate on it and listen deeply, it's as fascinating as Bach. Next time a kid runs a stick along a railing, don't snarl but listen to the micropitches. There's a powerful modernist aesthetic of noise, from the Italian Futurists to the clangour of bands like Test Department and Throbbing Gristle.

So pacey is Hendy's narrative, one doesn't notice the absence of recorded examples. As social history it's hard to beat, and one's tempted to borrow the answer of a slightly camp young officer who was asked to give his reaction to the Western Front. "The noise, my dear. And the people!"

Profile, £16.99. Order for £15.29 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030