top of page

The ambiguity of sound

Anatoly Ryasov writes about the fallacy of the unambiguity of animal sounds, from the book 'Barely Audible Rumble. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Sound' (translated from Russian):

'By the way, it would be a mistake to think that the multi-valuedness of sounds is exclusively human related. At first glance, this is not the case with animals, and every audible signal is much more tightly bound to a meaning. For example, a whining dog can be considered an expression of pain or fear, while barking is a sign of displeasure and aggression. Of course we can think of a situation in which a distressed dog is fearful and fighting back at the same time, so the corresponding sounds overlap, but even in this superimposition of growling and squealing we can identify certain feelings and associated sounds. However, if we listen to these growls and whimpers in more detail, we find, first, that the borders of transition from one signal to another are not always definable, and secondly, both barking and squealing have many subspecies used by dogs in very different situations, sometimes not less meaningful than human cries. And thirdly, even the same sounds (or at least those seeming to biologists and their measuring tools) are produced by animals on very different occasions. A dog whimpering may well indicate impatience, or a yapping sound indicative of joy. In red foxes, for example, a very similar 'series of barks' may indicate a call to mate or, during the breeding season, a strictness towards a pup. In turn, the sounds made by elephants still defy clear categorisation: a very similar roar can be heard both on the occasion of a family reunion and on the death of parents or children. Contrary to common misconceptions, animal aural communication is so intricately polyfunctional that its study can hardly ever be considered fully complete'

And vice versa, on turning music into an unambiguous signal (ibid):

'Schaeffer writes about a car horn signal, which can be interpreted in different ways depending on whether the car belongs to an irate taxi driver or the driver of a wedding cortege. But an opposite example could be given: at some point phone manufacturers started talking about enriching human sound culture and monotonous sounds should give way to polyphonic sounds. However, as soon as music began to fulfil the function of the telephone ringer, the opposite happened: it was relegated to the level of a simple signal and ceased to be perceived as the work of a composer, and the first meaning of that sound, displacing all others, was the incoming call. Background tunes in lifts and toilets are perceived in a similar way, and they do not often attract fascinated listeners (if musicologists and sociologists are excluded, of course). Amazingly, even a sound structure as complex as music can act as a signal, rigidly bound to a single meaning. For example, to this day a march is perceived by most listeners primarily as an accompaniment to military drill. At the same time, this singularity of sound can prove existentially significant - the hero of André Gide's The Counterfeiters does not dare to shoot himself because he realises that the last thing he will hear will be the sound of the shot, which will completely kill his desire to sink into death as a dream and the ultimate peace'
3 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Suppose you want to bring down the area

William Burroughs prophesies Twitter more than 30 years before it was invented: suppose you want to bring down the area go in and record all the ugliest stupidest dialogue the most discordant sound tr

The past never gives us direct access to the past

'Nevertheless, Early Music is potentially this kind of performance practice or listening experience which doesn't believe in the so-called original, authentic experience of the contemporary moment, bu

Ukraine

I keep hearing the same argument in the West regarding Ukraine's problematic past, both the second world war and a more recent one. As if it justifies the atrocities Russia is committing in Ukraine's

Comentários


bottom of page