Thoughts From The Normal: Hidden Sounds In Quiet Places

I pushed a button on the bottom of the fan, and a steady purr filled the room. The pitch changed slightly but rhythmically as the head of the fan swiveled to and fro. I poured a cup of tea and began typing. The clickety-clack of the keys has become so ingrained in my daily existence that it seems to fade in and out of awareness; a steady procession often interrupted by a furious darker pitched backspace noise, and then quickly resumed. I get up, take off my jacket, walk around and think about what I want to say. I comb my hair and wash my hands and settle on an idea: perhaps it was not so much of a series of lies as it was a series of partial truths, I think to myself. I flip through a copy of Faust–where was the line I was thinking of?–art is long indeed, I think as I search. I read the paragraph I have written and consider how to continue weaving this story while playing a few simple notes on the ukulele. A door closes somewhere in the hallway; humanity is alive and abuzz.

The sounds I have chosen are very ordinary sounds; soft tones and hums that pass by nearly unheard. These are the sounds of my daily existence; the washing of hands, the pouring of tea, the soft hum of the fan–background noises, small and invisible. It is not the music or the voices that fill my existence, the things that I consciously listen to that I have recorded–I have recorded things that are steady, that are rarely focused upon, but life would feel eerie and empty in their absence. Michel Chion would classify this as causal listening–not the sort of listening that has to do with decoding language or analyzing the sound’s traits, but rather the sort of listening that occurs because objects and movement cause noise. These noises compliment the visual world, tell us what is happening in the moment. They are so intricately woven into our existence that we scarcely pay them any heed, yet they are central to the way we experience living. We hear “the sound produced by a particular unique object” (Chion 48) in the purest sense.

These sounds do not exist isolated in our imagination; they give us a profound sense of comfort. The noise of the fan in the background is “a restoration of rhythm [which] stands for situations being in control” (Bijsterveld 153). These sounds, though seemingly random at first glance, are incredibly ordered; the man walks at a steady pace, the fan moves mechanically, the comb moves consistently–there is a pattern, perhaps undetectable to an outsider, but easily detectable to someone familiar with this routine. Indeed, these sounds work to create a sense of familiarity, of non-randomness and control that puts the mind at ease and makes one feel at home. These are not the sounds of chaos; they are the sounds of an individual normality.

Creating this playlist illustrated the plethora of sound in the quiet. Since “the sense of hearing cannot be closed off at will” (Schafer 102), we hear regardless of source or personal relevance. I enjoy this aspect, personally; I feel this sensory experience as a source of comfort and control over the home environment. The sounds constitute an experience so close to existence itself that it is difficult to imagine their absence.

Perhaps that’s what this is all about, I thought as the fan droned on to my left: telling a story where the most important things are the things so natural that we never even notice them.

You can listen to my recordings here.  

Works Cited:

Chion, Michel. “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 48-53. Print.

Bijsterveld, Karin. “Listening to Machines.” The Sound Studies Reader. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 152-167. Print.

Schafer, R. Murray. “The Soundscape.” The Sound Studies Reader. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 95-103. Print.