But, of course, it is not just that sound is intrinsically easier to construe as painful; it is also that we manipulate our acoustic environment, and that of the other living things with which we share space.
Among humans, the earliest instruments of organized sound-making were the voice and the hands, and then perhaps came lithic implements—handaxes, choppers, scrapers, the core-and-flake artifacts of the Acheulean industries, whose horizon spanned more than a million years from the earliest dispersals of Homo erectus out of East Africa through the appearance of archaic humans in the sapiens and neandertal clades. In A Million Years of Music, Tomlinson sketches an Acheulean “taskscape” in which the percussive sounds of flake production reinforced the cooperative character of lithic manufacture and food preparation, providing a tactus, a metrical pulse, tink tink tink—something for individuals to entrain to. At a later date, enclosures bordered by exposed rock surfaces came to serve as resonators, channeling the anthropogenic sound created within them. These spaces acquired special significance, perhaps as places for carrying out increase rituals, something attested in the rock art that is prominently associated with highly resonant sites But it was the control of proteinaceous materials—bone, antler, wood, reed, hide, hair, nerves, and, at length, silk—that most radically transformed the human capacity to produce time-bounded—episodic—acoustic environments.
With protein-based materials, humans could create a wider range of resonators: wider in pitch range, in timbral characteristics (overtone series, spectral envelope), and wider and suppler in the range of affordances these resonators offered for controlling pitch, dynamics, timbre, and the attack-decay-sustain-release envelope. With the emergence of organic resonators—bone aerophones such as those found in eastern and western Eurasia from 30,000 years ago—we can begin to imagine, however tenuously, made sound in the way we think of it today
The capacity to create episodic acoustic environments is focally implicated in the capacity to reliably induce the marked states of being that have been ubiquitous in the history of medicine down to the present (think of eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, or ASMR, to give two contemporary examples). By now we understand—a bit—how driving rhythms, whether on the Acheulean taskscape or in a gym or dance club, work to create states of heightened absorption and suggestibility—trance—in the individual and kinesthetic entrainment—Durkheim’s “collective effervescence”—in the group But driving rhythms are just one dimension of how we shape our acoustic environment. The role of others, particularly manipulations of timbre, in shaping motor vigilance and mood remain poorly understood
The shift to a biosphere dominated by anthropophony—human-generated sound—represents a change potentially farther-reaching than the introduction of ubiquitous artificial light. It is easy to point to urbanization as the main vector of change in the modal acoustic environment for humans and our cohabitant species But urbanization is just part of the story. We are also witnessing—more than witnessing, causing—a dramatic, global turnover in biome structure, from forest mosaic to open scrub and agricultural land If you think of the Earth’s surface as a resonator, it is not just that we are introducing new sounds into the resonator. We are also remaking the resonator itself, and remaking it, by and large, in the direction of greater reflectance and greater spectral spread. We are creating environments more conducive to the high-frequency broadband sound sometimes called urban drone. Does this mean we are all at risk for long-term threshold elevation—a kind of numbing effect, an attenuation of our capacity to pick out low-intensity sounds in these frequency bands, which might contribute to tinnitus? Who knows. It’s plausible as a hypothesis, but the long-term effects of ongoing exposure to broadband sound below the threshold of pain are poorly understood and difficult to model in the laboratory In order to study them in the world we would need a much more precise vocabulary for describing the painful qualities of sound, something more than “The noise is the pain.
At this point, the standard move would be for me to say that, in fact, there is no difference of kind between anthropophony and other kinds of biophony, nor, indeed, between biophony and geophony (sounds of wind, water, etc.)—that is, to point out the brittleness of efforts to split off culture from nature. But I’m not interested in differences of kind. I’m interested in differences of degree. And once we start asking about differences of degree, we can formulate testable claims about grade shifts between the qualities of different kinds of sounds. By grade shift, I mean this: imagine a scatter plot with a regression line summarizing the trend between the two dimensions of the plot. Let’s say the points on the plot represent sounds, and the X dimension organizes those sounds according to some acoustic feature. It could be intensity. It could be fundamental frequency. It does not much matter. The Y dimension organizes the sounds according to how painful they are. Imagine whatever procedures you wish for assessing painfulness. So now, we have a slope relating painfulness to some characteristic of the sound. Some of the points on the plot represent sounds arising from human activity. Others represent sounds not arising from human activity. Again, if this seems too brittle, imagine not two categories but ten, a gradient of human causation. Now watch as points fade out, leaving only those with greater human causation. As the plot thins out, the regression line rises—across the board, sounds are more painful.
If this strikes you as crude and tendentious, of course it is. Lying awake at four in the morning, I am struck by how my own tinnitus—unilateral left, my one hearing ear, usually a reedy whistling at about 10,000 Hz—resembles the chirping of insects on Hiroki Sasajima’s Colony (2012) Hiroki’s work exemplifies a subgenre of ambient music where the sound consists in minimally processed field recordings and part of the pleasure of listening comes from picking out where the artist has diverged from the source material. Hiroki’s insect recordings were made with recording devices left out overnight in weatherproof enclosures in places with little to no human-generated sound If you lie on the floor with your eyes closed, listening, you could imagine yourself to be lying in a clearing in a wilderness reserve, late at night. If these recordings resemble tinnitus, then clearly what is painful about tinnitus is not just its spectral envelope but also the context in which we experience it. And indeed, it is possible, with practice, to dissociate the sound of tinnitus from the pain of it, and this has been found to be more effective than other treatments (pharmacological, transcranial magnetic stimulation) that target the neurological dimensions of phantom sound directly
All the same, we had better start thinking more clearly about the relationship between sound and pain. We spend our lives bathed in sound, all of us—Deaf and hearing alike—when we are sleeping no less than when we are awake, we are alive to the ongoing vibratory fluctuations of pressure in the air, water, and viscous gels that make up our environment. Asphalt and glass, wood and rubber, polycarbonate and steel, earth and stone, the tissues of our bodies and those of other living things, all of them vibrate, and we take these vibrations in, through the finely innervated skin surfaces of our toes and fingers, the plantar and palmar surfaces of our feet and hands, our legs, trunk, and back, through the proprioceptive stretch receptors of our ligaments, tendons, and fasciae, the baroreceptors of our arteries and veins, the gravity receptors of our inner ears, and, among the hearing, the specialized acoustic receptors of the cochlea. Sound is pervasive and inescapable, it is integral to how we experience the world and to how we ascribe value to different environments, it mediates our experience of stress and relaxation, fatigue and alertness, pain and pleasure. And yet, to date we have practically no language for talking about the justice or injustice of different kinds of acoustic environments, nor for talking about how different ways of experiencing sound shape and are shaped by power, inequality, and violence.