Monday, May 23, 2005

The 20th Century got Louder and Louder:

There were few cars and little loud music a hundred years ago. If you listen to pop music recordings even into the 1950’s, what you’ll hear is delicate compared to modern sound, including the early rock songs that were denounced (at the time) as loud and pounding. Society all around us has gotten louder too. It’s not just the power sound systems, but also the pervasive trucks and cars and machines.
In the early 1970’s music seemed to have gotten as loud as it could get, but it continued to increase in volume. What we might call “natural” sounds decay quickly after they are sounded; that is, with the exception of instruments like the organ, each sound is at its loudest at first, and then dies away. But electronically enhanced music need not decay. More and more, every sound played by a band just stayed there at its loudest until it stopped.
Classical music does not use this sort of electronic sound much, but even classical music got much louder in the last hundred years. Perhaps it had to, to get our attention in a loud century. Recordings have been preserved, and it’s easy to hear the trends.

Last night I was at a banquet dinner. Hundreds of people were all talking at once in an enormous room, and it seemed to me that I was having a typically 21st century LOUD experience. Then I asked myself: what happened a hundred years ago when you put 300 happy people into a big room? Did they make the same amount of noise? If they did, would it have seemed much louder and less natural to them than it does to us? Or did they somehow, because their civilization was different, talk more quietly or not all at once? Would I have been amazed to be at a similar banquet a hundred years ago?

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