REVIEW: Sounds of Modern History

Book Review:
Sounds of Modern History: Auditory Cultures in 19th and 20th Century Europe
Edited by Daniel Morat (Berghahn Books, 2014)


As a historian who studies the history of deafness, I am fascinated with the experiences and histories of sound and auditory perception. Sounds have become so ubiquitous to daily living that it seems only in the absence or abundance of it are we aware of its presence. Since the 1990s, there’s been a tremendous growth in studies examining the presence of sound, and how we listen and respond to aurality, as part of a larger trend towards the history of senses, where visual history remains dominant.

Sounds of Modern History embarks on a path to explore what roles sound and aurality play in the coming of modernity. This collection of thirteen essays edited by Daniel Morat, heavily relies on the influence of Jonathan Sterne’s work, particularly his claim that “[s]ound is an artifact of the messy and political human sphere” and that hearing is as much a cultural capacity as it is a bodily and physical phenomenon. The essays, largely contributions from scholars in German history, focuses on the period between 1850 and 1950 to examine the dimensions of modernity through the emergence and distribution of new sound technologies, industrialization, urbanization, political radicalization, the emergence of mass culture and consumer society. As Mark M. Smith points out in his historiography essay,

Almost without exception, sound studies situates its subject historically and, in the process, highlights the way that history, time, place, and context shaped changing, and sometimes competing, meanings of sound, noise, and silence. There is no better way to profile this understanding than to compare and contrast those meanings, not only over time but through space.
This collection thus serves to merge sound history as a field and habit of inquiry, not only to add “texture, meaning, and depth” to the history we are already familiar with, but to open up “new storylines,” provide new explanations to historical problems, and disclose previously unknown historical connections, through the source of sounds (or lack thereof). The book is divided into seven parts: (1) Sound History in Perspective; (2) Literature, Science, and Sound Technologies in the Nineteenth Century; (3) Sound Objects as Artifacts of Attention; (4) Music Listening in the Laboratory and in the Concert Hall; (5) The Sounds of World War I; (6) Auditory Cultures in the Interwar Period; (7) The Sounds of World War II.


The papers in the second section looks at how technological changes of aurality in the nineteenth century were part of a broader culture of analyzing and manipulating auditory experiences, rather than the cause of a shift in aurality. John M. Picker’s essay, “English Beat” The Stethoscopic Era’s Sonic Traces,” relies on several spoken word recordings of English authors in the 1880s to analyze the history of close listening, which began not with the phonograph, but with the stethoscope. Close listening gave birth to a new form of hypersensitive hearers who identified to a speaking body, which Victorian listeners applied towards deepening their relationships between poets such as Edgar Allan Poe and George Elliot, and their voices, both literal and figurative (22). An interesting aspect of this paper is that close listening also enabled listeners to hear the voices of dead literary figures, as a form of poet worship and resurrection, as exemplified by the “indecent séance” held at the first anniversary of Robert Browning’s funeral (35). As I read this essay, I was immediately drawn to the cultural obsession with musicians of the past, the voices of the dead, and our need to resurrect them, through new technologies, as was with that of rapper Tupac, or of Alexander Graham Bell’s 1885 wax-and-cardboard disc recording.


Edison Company agent Colonel George Gouraud (left) being interviewed by an unidentified journalist from the Pall Mall Gazette, with the Phonograph recording the meeting, July 1888 (British Library Sound Archives)


Anthony Enns’ essay, “The Human Telephone: Physiology, Neurology, and Sound Technology,” examines the mechanistic understanding of auditory perception. He retraces the ways in which developments of late nineteenth century sound technologies, such as the phonoautograph and audiometer, relied scientific studies of physiology, otology, and neurology (48). As studies produced new understandings of the ear as a technical apparatus for converting sounds into electrical impulses, a new epistemological shift emerged, revealing that “the ear not only functioned as a technological apparatus, but it was also capable of registering material effects in the absence of a perceiving subject” (48).  Stefan Gauß, on the other, traces the history of “phono-objects” to the history of industrial manufacture, marketing, and musicians. “Listening to the Horn: On the Cultural History of the Phonograph and the Gramophone,” examines the epistemic interest in connections between material and immaterial culture in Germany during 1900-1940 through the recording industry. As phonographs and gramophones became international phenomenon, the German recording industry emerged as part of a “new economy” prior to 1914, becoming a world market leader and dominant exporter of recordings (78). However, Gauß argues that even though improved technical innovations increased the potential of clearer listening of the phonograph, the technology actually had no part of the growth in recording sectors, as there were technical improvements in the gramophone records as well (79)—a cultural emphasis on listening and preserving records was just as influential.

The U.S. Marine Band recording a phonogram, 1891 (Library of Congress Sounds Division)

The U.S. Marine Band recording a phonogram, 1891 (Library of Congress Sounds Division)

International exhibitions became notable during the twentieth century for attracting audiences toward new technical achievements. In “Planes, Horns, and “Audio Hoods,” as Media of Attraction,” Christine Ehardt looks at how sound technologies at fairs, exhibitions, and theatres in Austria between 1883 and 1933 displayed new acoustic medias even without assessing their values for everyday life. Using images, articles, and official documents, Ehardt discovers that objects of sounds (especially headphones) became iconographic symbols for new acoustic media conceptions, enabling us to trace a cultural history of listening in an age of mechanical reproduction. In particular, Ehardt examines the history of the early auditory headset, tracing its place in live opera transmissions at Vienna’s 1883 International Exhibition, where it was known as Telephnhaube (“audiohood”) to its transformation as iconography of headphones in early radio.

The contributions of Alexandra E. Hui and Sven Oliver Muller examines the evolving forms of musical experience in context of a shifting listening culture. Hui’s paper, “From the Piano Pestilence to the Phonograph Solo” presents four case studies toward an understanding of how the “clatter” of practicing piano students were transformed and rendered non-threatening: the ways in which listening and experiences of music transformed through recording and replaying shifted with efforts to develop sounds that were better in tune with nationalist movements. Hui looks at Eduard Hanslick’s writings on piano-scourge, Carl Stumpf’s debates with Wilhelm Wundt over the role of music consciousness and criterion for proper listening, the use of the phonograph in ethnomusiciological field studies, and the Edison Company’s demonstration recital programs. A key point of Hui’s essay touches on the importance of musical training as a critically important skill for the scientific study of sound, as exemplified by the work of Hermann von Helmholtz and Ernst Mach (134). Although the ability to properly read, play, and hear science was believed an integral part for scientific experimentation, the Stumpf-Wundt debates placed this assumption under attack in the 1890s. Even selective deafness could be framed as a form of listening expertise. As Hui explains,

 The phonograph was first and foremost a commercial device. To cultivate a customer base, it was necessary for its purveyors to teach the public how to select from among the new sounds the phonograph generated—hearing some, not hearing others. In the long term, this ability contributed to the development of a new kind of hearing (141).  

Likewise, Muller’s paper, “The Invention of Silence,” provides a study of the listening habits of audiences in concert halls and opera houses, tracing these habits to social changes that occurred in the urban middle classes. The reception of music by audiences can explain more about the value of musical content and the power of music for social relations, than the music alone. Opera houses, concert halls, and other kinds of auditoriums functioned as meeting places for high and lowbrow audiences. Even as they were segregated places of social inequality, Muller argues that “the audience was regulated by certain social, cultural, and financial restrictions. Seating arrangements, clothes, codes of behaviour, and often even the ability and the permission to buy tickets, divided music lovers” (155). This social inequality reflected different cultural forms of listening—such as the emergence of silence during performances as “elite” citizens listened more closely during performances, a stark contrast to the cacophonous audiences surrounding a stage play. “Correct” music listening and other kinds of behaviour was not only a reflection of class status, but a form of social promotion visible through mannerism (165).

Students in Berlin cheer upon declaration of war, August 1914 (via)

Students in Berlin cheer upon declaration of war, August 1914 (via)

The noises of battles, marching songs, and cheers have been aspects of war history. Daniel Morat’s “Cheers, Songs, and Marching Sounds,” focuses on sounds as forms of acoustic mass mobilization, a form of political dynamics to rouse citizens to provide war support. Re-examining the Augusterlebnis (August experience), an idea that the outbreak of the first world war in August 1914 led to a wave of nationalistic enthusiasm for war, Morat argues the “spirit of 1914” was rather a result of military and bourgeois nationalist propaganda than a true reflection of widespread enthusiasm.  Collective singing, shouting, and even playing nationalist songs took center stage in self-mobilization; waltzes and light music were suspended in cafes and bars, replaced with patriotic pieces. The use of collective singing and shouting to express patriotic sentiment, such as Leid Der Deutschen or God Save the King was just as significant as visual symbols such as flags and portraits of the Kaiser in invoking nationalistic and enthusiastic support for war (185). Hansjakob Ziemer’s paper, “Listening on the Home Front,” also looks at the connection between listening practices and social interactions, examining how listeners used symphonic music to engage themselves in interpretive flexibility to find answers that the total war posed for them and their lives. Listening, Ziemer argues, could help individuals to manage and come to terms with their personal crises, to connect to others emotionally, such as through rituals of mourning. Listening to music, created an imagined community for people to deal with hardships of war, to create a projection space through which they could use to imagine the national community.

German soldiers being cheered in Lubeck during their advance to the front lines in 1914 during World War I (Wikipedia)

German soldiers being cheered in Lubeck during their advance to the front lines in 1914 during World War I (Wikipedia)

A family listening to a crystal radio, 1920s. From a 1922 advertisement for Freed-Eisemann radios in Radio World magazine. (Wikipedia)

A family listening to a crystal radio, 1920s. From a 1922 advertisement for Freed-Eisemann radios in Radio World magazine. (Wikipedia)

Alex Volmar’s paper, “In Storms of Steel: The Soundscape of World War I and its Impact on Auditory Media Culture during the Weimar Period,” analyzes how the “mobilization of the ear” was used to develop new listening technologies during trench warfare. The ear became a “military cognitive organ,” that required soldiers to continuously participate in active listening of the acoustic warscape; as a result, such close listening and familiarity with war sounds would later create significant mental trauma and physiological damage to the soldiers (228). The listening experiences of World War I soldiers during the battlefields thus profoundly affected their attitudes and adjustments to society after the war ended. However, soldiers also applied their listening techniques on the home front, transforming military listening techniques into civilian practices towards early radio cultures such as the “ham” radio. Carolyn Birdsall’s essay, “Sound Aesthetics and the Global Imagination in German Media Culture around 1930” employs the concept of “auditory imagination” to investigate how urban sounds and auditory experiences were rendered in interwar period Germany. Diagnostic listening, which was essential for soldiers in trench warfare to identify and categorize different types of sounds, underwent a process of democratization after the war, requiring soldiers to reapply the capabilities of their auditory perceptions and skills.

American troops during World War I using an acoustic locator, mounted on a wheeled platform to monitor distant sounds (U.S. National Archives).

American troops during World War I using an acoustic locator, mounted on a wheeled platform to monitor distant sounds (U.S. National Archives)

These new forms of listening techniques did not only have applications in the technology sector. James Mansell’s paper outlines how sounds and forms of “noise” could actually become contextualized as a public health crisis. In “Neurasthenia, Civilization, and the Sounds of Modern Life,” Mansell looks at war as a caesura in auditory cultures, examining how noise abatement activists and crusades against noise that emerged in the 1920s largely by medical experts, constructed important frameworks for investigating theories of nervousness. The cultural origins of noise abatement emerged at the intersection of medicine and literature, in which the idea of “neurasthenia,” was promoted by doctors and medical writers as a threat rooted in urban sounds that could potentially cause an epidemic of “nervousness” (279). As Mansell explains, neurasthenia, identified as the lack of nerve force necessary for cultural modernity, was perceived by doctors as an “overexposure to the discordant sounds of city life,” and was popularized as a counterpart to female hysteria:

[D]octors connected noise and neurasthenia, emphasizing that disturbing urban noises cause arrhythmic and unnatural vibrations to pass from the ear through the body’s nervous system to the brain. They argued, in other words, that noise leads to nervous illness because of its physical effects on the nervous system. This took the noise problem out of the realm of mere irritation and turned it into a question of physiological well-being. It allowed noise to be cast as a pathogen and as a drain on nervous energy (283).

The last essay, “The Silence of Amsterdam before and during World War II” by Annelies Jacobs, applies three different approaches to soundscapes of Amsterdam: ecology, semiotics, and the politics of urban sounds. These three perspectives allows Jacobs to investigate how silence noise had different meanings in Amsterdam under war conditions and the German occupation. The first perceptive focuses on the sources of sound in the environment of the observer; the second the meaning(s) attributed to sounds in a specific place and time; the third concentrates on the judgements and debates on sounds and their roles in power relations. These three perspectives allows us to judge how certain sounds—for instance, the sounds of airplanes—can have drastically different responses during peacetime and wartime. In addition, war not only changed responses to sounds, but also the soundscape itself. As Jacobs shows through a variety of diaries, residents had to deal with changes in disruption to normal city life, the battle sounds of war, and the increasing silence that signaled frightening outcomes.

Sounds of Modern History is a necessary read for any historian interested in the cultural history of aurality. I particularly appreciated how the collection struck a fair balance between histories of sound and of silence, suggesting important avenues for historians to investigate cultural, social, and political aspects of how sounds, silence, and technologies interacted to produce or transform citizens’ engagements with their environments. Additionally, as Mark Smith outlines in his essay, the expansion of sound studies into different and new positions of history will not only produce unique conceptual and empirical work incorporating auditory perspectives into historical and scholarly inquiry, but allow for a broad public engagement. Museums, in particular, stand to benefit the most, as curators often rely on historians of the senses on how historicize the senses and add to their spaces (19).

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