The Language Of Sound

05 February 2021

Sound is a wonderful thing. Yet it is such a simple thing, consisting as it does of vibrations through air or other media. We usually sense these vibrations, these pressure changes, which our ears then recognise and our brains convert them into what we call ‘sound’. Such sound waves need to travel through some medium, whether it be solid, liquid or gas. These waves move by vibrating the molecules in the matter. But molecules in solids are packed very tightly, so this enables the sound to travel much faster through a solid than through liquid or through a gas. That is why I smile when I watch the science fiction films such as Star Trek, where we ‘hear’ a sound when weapons are fired in space – but there is no medium for any sound to travel through, so no vibration and no ‘sound’ would be heard! Poetic licence…

But these vibrations are vital to life here on this beautiful Earth. Creatures create warning sound to alert others of danger nearby, or listen for potential food. A little while ago I was outside in the gardens here and I watched a blackbird feeding. It would stand, sometimes with its head on one side, to listen for earth movement by worms. I am sure it was also ‘feeling’ with its feet, to sense the worm movement. Then on YouTube I watched an item with Evelyn Glennie, who is deaf, where she was teaching a deaf person to ‘hear’ by them feeling vibrations in the way that she does. It was all about teaching their senses to learn this new language, this form of communication.

I have mentioned before about my love of music, but that sound is basically a series of vibrations in a rhythmical pattern that is pleasing to us. Not all of the patterns we sense are appealing to every one of us though. I have been asked on quite a few occasions to say what ‘kind’ of music do I like. I always reply that I like ‘good’ music. I have said about my dear mother’s love of music, I have said about how I was able to join the local church choir but one thing that I found inspiring was the sound of that church organ. But how could a single instrument create variations in tone, pitch and volume when played by just one person? Yes, there were several keyboards, quite a number of stops and pedals, but to manipulate them in such a way was, to me, pure artistry. All this in what seemed a small space. Then I soon found out that the space was far larger than I had imagined! That really is quite often the case as I have found out over the years, having seen and heard quite a few pipe organs in both churches and concert halls. There is much that exists ‘behind the scenes’ as you might say. It is still sound, a movement of air, but that is why, if I could, I would go and sit in the choir stalls in cathedrals when an organ recital was on. I could not just hear the sound, I could actually feel it!

Over in Philadelphia, U.S.A. there is the Wanamaker organ, or to give it its full title the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ, which is the largest pipe organ in the world based on number of ranks and physical mass weight. It is located within a spacious 7-storey Grand Court at Macy’s Centre City (formerly the Wanamaker’s department store) and is usually played twice a day every day except Sundays. The organ is featured at several special concerts that are usually held throughout the year, including events featuring the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ Festival Chorus and Brass Ensemble. From a technical aspect, this organ is a concert organ of the American Symphonic school of design, which combines traditional organ tone with those of a symphony orchestra. In its present configuration, this organ has 28,750 pipes in 464 ranks. The organ console consists of six manuals, with an array of stops and controls. Basically, it is big, and can make a loud sound! I know – I’ve been there and have heard it.

For me, something I was introduced to with music was the effect it can have on us. I was taught to read music at school, I learned to play first the harmonica and then the trumpet. Others were taught to play a recorder and the piano, but with my weak right hand I couldn’t work the relevant controls of those. Even playing a trumpet I used my left hand to press the valves, rather than the ‘proper’ way. But it wasn’t just playing the music, to me it was also about listening to it. I found the sounds created my own mental images, like when listening to Vltava, by Smetana. I could picture the water as it started its journey in the mountains, as it gradually moved faster, over rocks, waterfalls, as it widened out into a much bigger plain, then flowing through the towns and cities, finally reaching the sea. I have delighted in listening to performances of this work which has been truly described as a symphonic poem. I have watched some performances of this work and as often happens when I am listening to some music, I cannot sit still. Like me, neither could most of the orchestra. They were moving a little as they played, they were enjoying the sound so much. But there are some pieces that have a much more sombre tone, for example Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns. When I was a good bit younger I didn’t like the sound at all, even though I didn’t know what the piece was called. In fact for many years I couldn’t listen to it, as it conjured up images which made me unhappy. As I grew older, I found I could listen to it. So it seems our musical tastes as well as other tastes change as we get older.

Sound can affect not just us of course. I am aware that plants and animals react to positive and negative sound. You may not believe or agree with me, but it does happen. I watched on tv where an elephant with poor eyesight was being played piano music and the calming effect that sound had on the creature. Sound can be used for setting a mood, this has long been known and is why shopping centres will often play the appropriate music they think will entice customers to stay and shop. Imagine if they were playing overly loud, raucous sound so that we couldn’t talk to our friends and maybe have that extra mug of tea or coffee – oh, and that piece of cake… Sounds can affect our driving too of course, as some brash, harsh sounds can make us drive aggressively or not give way to others when we might have done so otherwise. There are various types of jazz, some I like more than others, but I have to be in the right mood to listen to that. Having played a trumpet and been part of a local brass band for a while, that sound can be invigorating, as a stirring march can brighten spirits. So I have found. But classical, especially Bach… That calms the mind, the body and the soul.

Most harmonies will be pleasant too, though we all have differing tastes. I have had the opportunity to listen to music played by musicians from India and talking to them later I learned that their basic structure of music is very different to that which I had been taught. But in most cases it is a pleasing sound. In my experience, music can be used to get a message across, even if no words are spoken. Having said that, if some words are sung but not pronounced too well, it can lead to some humorous responses! Overall though, good music can have a real, positive effect on us all and be a lovely language, a delightful form of communication.

It is winter here, so this week…
One autumn an Inuit tribe asked their family leader if the winter was going to be cold or not. Not really knowing an answer, the leader replied that the winter was going to be cold and that the members of the village were to collect wood and to be prepared.

Being a good leader, he then went to the nearby phone booth and called the National Weather Service and asked, “Is this winter to be cold?” The man on the phone responded, “This winter is going to be quite cold indeed.” So the leader went back to speed up his people to collect yet more wood in order to be prepared.

A week later he called the National Weather Service again, “Is it going to be a very cold winter?” “Yes”, the man replied, “it’s going to be a very cold winter.” So the leader went back to his people and ordered them to go and find every scrap of wood they could find. Two weeks later he called the National Weather Service again: “Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?”

“Absolutely,” the man replied, “the Eskimos are collecting wood like crazy!”

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