Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

28 NOVEMBER, 2012

When Babbage and Dickens Waged a War on Noise

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How the father of the computer enlisted the greatest Victorian novelist in ridding the streets of sound.

“Sound imposes a narrative on you,” wrote George Prochnik about the cultural evolution of silence, “and it’s always someone else’s narrative.” Indeed, the public-private negotiations of sound date much further back than iPod earbuds and boomboxes. From Discord: The Story of Noise (public library) — which gave us the counterintuitive story of the silent Big Bang — comes the fascinating tale of the first organized war on noise, championed by none other than computing pioneer Charles Babbage, who took it upon himself to purge London of its populous street musicians, known to use their noise as an extortion tactic by playing loudly outside fancy establishments until they were paid to leave. In 1864, Babbage published Chapter on Street Nuisances which, together with Street Music in the Metropolis released by Derby MP Michael Bass the same year, became a seminal manifesto for silence as a civic right.

Italian street musicians in London, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith

Sound scholar Mike Goldsmith writes:

Babbage in particular did everything he could to oppose the noises of the streets, using his considerable resources of intelligence, political contacts, and obstinacy. History has on the whole not been kind to him. He is remembered with respect as the originator of the computer, but most of his other work has been either neglected or ridiculed. Certainly, Babbage was an eccentric in many ways, an dan obsessive man too.

[…]

Babbage attacked noise on many fronts, making numerous court appearances and, like any good naturalist, collecting data to support his case, including his detailed list of 165 interruptions that he suffered over 80 days and his estimate that noise had reduced his working output by a quarter.

Babbage’s efforts might have been more successful had he not insisted in characterizing the battle against noise as the battle of the ‘intellectual worker’ against ‘those whose minds are entirely unoccupied.’ He included in his pamphlet a list of ‘Encouragers of Street Music’:

tavern-keepers, public houses, gin-shops, beer-shops, coffee-shops, servants, children, visitors from the country, and, finally and occasionally, ladies of doubtful virtue…

And he also lists ‘Instruments of torture permitted by the government to be in daily and nightly use in the streets of London,’ comprising

organs, bass bands, fiddles, harps, harpsichord, hurdy-gurdies, flageolets, drums, bagpipes, accordions, halfpenny whistles, tom-toms trumpets, and, the human voice, shouting out objects for sale.

Charles Babbage

But his efforts fell on deaf ears — or, worse yet, inspired retaliation ranging from the petty to the staunchly spiteful:

Babbage’s confrontational tactics regarding local noise-makers and in particular his numerous letters to The Times met with equally devastating responses from his targets: his neighbors hired musicians to play outside his windows, sometimes using damaged wind instruments to add to the annoyance. Another neighbor blew a tin whistle from the window facing Babbage’s house for half an hour every day for several months. A brass band played outside his house for five hours. And, when Babbage left his house,

the crowd of young children, urged on by their parents, and backed at a judicious distance by a set of vagabonds, forms quite a noisy mob, following me as I pass along, and shouting out rather uncomplimentary epithets. When I turn around and survey my illustrious tail it stops .. the instant I turn, the shouting and the abuse are resumed, and the mob again follow at a respectful distance … In one case there were certainly above a hundred persons, consisting o f men, women, and boys, with multitudes of young children who followed me through the streets before I could find a policeman.

Still, Babbage persevered, enlisting the help of notable writers and artists in testifying to his mission. He even got Charles Dickens to contribute to the book:

Dickens writes that he and his cosignatories ‘are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians.’ Writing of ‘brazen performers on brazen instruments,’ he adds: ‘No sooner does it become known to the producers of horrible sounds that any of your correspondents have particular need of quiet in their own houses, than the said houses are beleaguered by discordant hosts seeking to be bought off.’

Ultimately, Babbage had his way — sort of:

The publications of Babbage and Bass won the day. Later in the same year that they appeared, Bass’s Act passed into law. It was the beginning of the end for street musicians, though that end was slow in coming — so slow that, when Babbage was on his deathbed, an organ grinder played outside.

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15 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Birth of Sound: Why the Big Bang Was Actually Silent

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The science of why the wail of the baby Universe sounded like muffled highway traffic.

Questions of what sound is, why its digitization is a dangerous thing, and how it bleeds into other senses have long fascinated thinkers and listeners alike. In Discord: The Story of Noise (public library) from Oxford University Press, sound scholar Mike Goldsmith, former Head of the Acoustic Group at the UK National Physical Laboratory, explores the flipside of the cultural evolution of silence by tracing our relationship with noise, the history of sound, and where our auditory future might take us.

Among the many fascinating and counterintuitive facets of noise Goldsmith examines is the very dawn of sound, in a chapter titled A Silent Bang:

Despite a promising name, the Big Bang was silent — a sudden burst of energy in which time and space began, forming the Universe as it spread. With no space to expand into, there could be no medium around it into which sound waves could possibly propagate. But, in cosmic terms, the Universe was not silent for long — 380,000 years later (a mere 0.0003 per cent of its present age), it was filled with sound. And, this was not the random roar of white noise that one might perhaps expect — it was a sound with a pitch: it had a characteristic wavelength.

It would not, however, have been an audible sound to any eared creatures, could they have existed so far back in time, before even the stars were born: a vast objet like the Universe makes a very low sound indeed — about one trillionth of a hertz.

The reason that there was such a vast deep tone in the infancy of space and time is closely connected to one of the most mysterious and important aspects of the Universe’s history: structure, of which sound is a signpost. If the Universe had remained as it began, a completely homogenous, smoothed-out volume of energy, then galaxies, stars, and people could not exist today. But, for reasons that are still unclear, there was a clumpiness in the early Universe — some areas were a little denser than others, and it was these denser areas that would eventually become stars and galaxies. Density means gravity, and gravity attracted nearby matter (then in the form of plasma — a ‘gas’ of ions). he motion of that matter caused compression, heating the plasma, which in turn increased its output of radiation. The force of this radiation counteracted the gravitational force, and so the compression became an expansion — and it is this cycle of compression and expansion that formed the primordial sound waves.

But that early sound of was unlike what we typically think of as “sound,” not only because of its physical nature, but also because it fell on deaf — or, rather, non-existent — ears:

The wavelengths of the wail of the baby Universe — measured in hundreds of thousands of light years — were limited by the speed with which the pull of gravity travelled from one region to another, which is the speed of light. So, there was an ever-falling lowest possible pitch to the Universe, and consequently a gradually descending tone marked its growth.

The variation in pressure of the sound was around 1 per cent, or 11 dB, the kind of level that would be associated with motorway traffic a few metres away and over thirteen billion years later.

In the early Universe, as new generations of stars formed using the nuclear reaction products of the old, planets like ours formed with them — and sound waves surged and echoed through their structures and their atmospheres and, later, their hydrospheres too. But, as far as we know, for ten billion years there was nothing to hear them.

Though life on Earth began some four billion years ago in the ancient seas, it wasn’t until about 400 million years ago that the first amphibians crawled onto land, equipped with complex structures that could not only detect sound waves both underwater and in air, but could also estimate their strengths, pitches, and directions. So “sound” itself, or at least our conception and experience of it, is a property of evolution rather than of the physical environment.

The rest of Discord goes on to examine everything from the basic nature of sound to the war on noise pollution to scientific advances harnessing the power of sound in medicine.

Complement with Jad Abumrad’s fantastic talk on sound, science, and mystery.

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06 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Beatles Perform Shakespeare in Color, 1964

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The Fab Four take on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The Beatles: iconic craze-starters, tireless tourers, comic book heroes, vintage children’s book protagonists, animation pioneers, and one timelessly photogenic bunch. In 1964, the Fab Four added another art under their belt — live theater — when they performed Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in color, to the sound of shouting hecklers (scripted, part of the play) and someone yelling “Go back to Liverpool!” (unscripted, decidedly unshakespearean). Enjoy.

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