Listening for History

A few days ago, I went to a local convenience store to buy ice cream. While I was paying, I noticed that, when the cash register drawer was opened, a little speaker on the machine made the sound of an old-fashioned cash register drawer, with a bell and everything. This struck me as funny and then got me thinking. How many things in life now do we use that artificially produce the sound of their non-electronic predecessors?

The most obvious, perhaps, is the cell phone that rings like an old rotary phone, with a bell instead of a chirping, trilling tone. I shake my head whenever I hear someone’s cell phone emit this sound, because in a way, it totally defeats the purpose–to have an electronic device make the sound of something it’s not. Not to mention that, usually, when this choice is set, the person who chose it has the ring volume so loud that everyone within a quarter-mile vicinity knows they’re getting “an incoming”.

Being a musician, of course I thought about synthesizers that reproduce all the instruments of the orchestra. I’ve had the privilege of seeing this field evolve, so that now, there’s even a keyboard that can be used to play parts with a human orchestra if players of those instruments aren’t available. Some musicians see this as a threat–after all, if a machine can now do what they can for less money and without the possibility of errors or fatigue or the need for health insurance and retirement benefits, pretty soon they’ll be completely irrelevant. Not really, in my opinion. The quality and realism of these synthesizers blows my mind. But there will never be a replacement for live music, played from the heart. No machine can replicate that.

Another overlooked sound, because it’s so obvious, is the doorbell. Lots of them go “ding-dong,” or play “Westminster Chimes”. But most of them have no bells anywhere in them. Instead, they’re wires hooked up to a receiver that has been programmed to play digital versions of those sounds.

Many churches still “chime the hour” and play hymns on a “carillon” at noon and five. When my husband and I lived in our first apartment, there was a church across the street that did this. I loved it because I always knew what time it was without having to look at my watch. But there was no carillon–just a pre-recorded selection that rotated through a series of hymns, and I’d be willing to bet that the clock didn’t have a bell, either.

It’s not just doorbells with no bells, either. We have clocks in our house that tick, even though there’s nothing mechanical inside that says they have to. In college, my father gave me a talking alarm clock that crowed like a rooster. We’re programmed to associate roosters with the crack of dawn, but as more of us move away from a life that includes the real feathery thing, we get our cockadoodle-doo’s from tiny speakers instead.

My brother Mike was a linguist in the Navy, and he came home from one overseas trip with an alarm clock that played the Muslim call to prayer. This clock was even louder than my rooster, and every time I heard it, I couldn’t help but envision teeming streets in some city, speakers atop poles at the corners, the sheer volume of sound from all that humanity overwhelming the senses. There’s nothing like it in the U.S.

I’ve even been to someone’s house where, when you knocked on the door, the sound of a big dog barking greeted you. This person had no dog. But if you just came to the door and didn’t know this, you’d think he did. Until, of course, you paid attention enough to notice that the barking never moved anywhere, like an excited dog running around.

There is concern among blind people about the new hybrid cars. They are very quiet when the gas engine isn’t engaged, and if we can’t hear them coming when we’re crossing streets, it could potentially be pretty dangerous. So there are proposals to have the companies install some sound-making device to alert pedestrians when one of these “quiet cars” is approaching. So we may one day have cars that don’t sound like cars but, like that cash register that started this whole mental excursion, are programmed to play the sound we’ve grown so accustomed to hearing that it’s practically hard-wired into our DNA now.

As our world becomes more and more mechanized, what sounds are we losing? How many kids holding a carton of milk have actually heard a cow moo in the flesh? How many people have listened to the racket made by a chicken laying an egg? (They sound so joyful and yet so desperately sore at the same time–how do they do that!)

We live on a busy road, and the traffic is pretty constant. But surrounded as we are by woods, since the road passes through the Pine Bush Preserve, we still get all the birds, tree-rustlings, wind, insects and other wonderful sounds of nature. Personally, I don’t think I would want to live anywhere I couldn’t hear those things, though being in a city would solve a lot of transportation problems for me as a non-driver.

I use technology every day to compose. I have a musical keyboard hooked up to this computer, and I use software to produce all the sounds of the instruments in my pieces. But I try to make the results as realistic as possible. In a piece for four guitars, for instance, I’ve been known to make each one start a tiny fraction of a second after the other three, so they’re not quite exactly synchronized. The computer is great because it will mathematically correct what’s been recorded, if you want it to, so it is perfectly aligned in rhythm. But human beings, even the most rhythmically gifted among us, aren’t this precise.

My greatest compliment comes when someone hearing something I’ve created wants to know who played all those instruments and gets this incredulous look when they learn they all came out of a little office on the first floor of my house. To me, there’s nothing worse than “canned” music–music that sounds so artificial that it’s like aural Cheez Whiz.

And when I’ve pushed enough buttons and crunched enough numbers to almost drive me crazy, I can go into the next room, sit down at a totally non-electric keyboard, pause to get my bearings, and then immerse myself in the sound of an instrument that has been bringing pleasure and expression to millions for the past three hundred years. The construction has changed as materials have advanced, but the basic structure and sound haven’t changed beyond recognition.

Even if we lose electricity and I can’t use the computer, the piano is always waiting for me.

Explore posts in the same categories: Blindness, music, piano

2 Comments on “Listening for History”

  1. From another point of view we are all aspects of sound. I guess that most people know that the sound associated or resonating from the Universe is OHM. I’ve read from a few sources and believe that each subfrequency or point of view has a personal sound associated or emitting from it. We broadcast our own song. I like that. I also heard once that our DNA may be analogous to an entire symphony.

    Thanks for posting such interesting work.

  2. halfnotes Says:


    Sorry for the long spell of quiet–life can get pretty busy, and blogging isn’t my main activity!

    Anyway, I’ve also read that the universe rings with the aftereffects of the Big Bang and the note that it rings at is a B-flat. Then there’s the whole fascinating subject of the overtone series, so that, if I really want to create music that resonates deep within listeners, not only do I work from inspiration and heart, but these scientific ideals come into play.

    Since 2006, I’ve been creating individual portraits in song of people–no words, just music. I’ve learned a lot and grown a lot by doing this, and it’s been really fascinating to listen as the music has grown and I’ve grown with it.

    Thanks for visiting; I should be writing a bit more often now, but don’t hold your breath!

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