What’s in a Sound?

Hearing allows us to understand the history of something’s motion. Sound perception parallels human existence, having meaning only over some duration of time. Sounds are the locus of events in history, as we are ourselves Hence the placement of the frozen snake on a grid calibrated in fractional seconds. Given an instant of time with no duration, sound is as meaningless as we would be under the same circumstance. Not surprising that the first thing which pops into my head as I search for a place to start writing about sound is the snake whose body is a graph of its progress. A snake is only a snake because it has length, just as sound only exists over the fourth dimension of time.

Sound has a poignancy unique amongst the five known senses. Think of the drama communicated by music. Can you call up in your mind the sound of birdsong in May; the melodic wash of wavelets along a lake shore; traffic sounds echoing in city canyons? Close your eyes and listen to the drama of the present moment.

Sounds with describable character arise from orderly repetitive motion of a physical object or sometimes only of air. “White noise” like the hiss of a snake, arises from random movements, or movements too complex for our brain to encompass. Our sense of hearing has tremendous powers of discrimination when it comes to discovering order. This is important for our survival. We can distinguish the hiss of a snake from the roar of a waterfall ahead, from the melodic trickling of water in a desert canyon. Each motion imparts its history to the air as trains of pressure waves, or sounds, which deflect our eardrums. The cochlea of the ear, an organ of thousands of tuning forks, combs the sound, separating it into component parts, micro-twitches of electricity, for the brain’s analysis. Our intelligence reconstitutes from this information a symbolic perception which becomes identifiable as “snake,” “waterfall,” or “a drink.”