We are constantly immersed in and affected by sound and vibration. In truly quiet areas you can even hear the sound of air molecules vibrating inside your ear canals or the noise of the fluid in your ears themselves. The world we live in is full of energy acting on matter — it’s as basic as life itself.
— Seth S. Horowitz, The Universal Sense
Sound has many forms — a simulacrum for intimacy, an intrusion, the byproduct of any object in motion. Despite this limitlessness, it is best to discuss sound in its simplest iteration, as a unit of expression.
Indeed, sound tells us so much. Describing a projectile test conducted at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Horowitz writes, “The ultrasonic microphone picked up a submillisecond whissssshhhh of the projectile’s flight right before impact. But rather than a thump and some gentle pattering. . . we heard an explosion of sound at the impact followed by almost a full minute of a sandstorm.”
From these sounds, Horowitz is then able to piece together an illustration of impact and aftermath — how atmospheric presence affects the trajectory and nature of collision. By extension, this information can then be applied to everything from astronomy to defense research.
This is true in everyday contexts as well. The whistle and groan of a railway tells us that the train is imminent. A blistering alarm signals that, yet another student, has overcooked their ramen. The wince in a voice, discomfort. The turn of a lock, that someone is home.
Clearly, sound has a habit of snitching on others; however, I’m more interested in what sound tells us about ourselves.
Language, of course, is a manipulation of sound. It lies on a spectrum somewhere between silence and the scream. These two extremes are blank checks — expressions of a kind of profound, absolute desperation. But language, language is the comfortable medium where we’re able to approximate meaning.
Still, if we scrutinize language itself, we see that it’s more than surface level. For instance, rising intonation indicates a question. The emphasis of words can be a determinant of meaning. In this way, the fine mechanics of language can be considered an exercise in bodily honesty.
As Paige Lewis wrote, “So often our bodies betray us, just look / at our feet, how they point to what we desire” (The American Poetry Review). Similarly, what we speak is nearly as important as the way we speak it.
All of this is to say that sound affects our lives profoundly which, of course, is a truth we’re all aware of. Unsurprisingly, few will claim that sound isn’t important — its level of importance is the actual point of contention.
If you’ve ever been 10 and played the game Would You Rather, you’ve probably been asked this: “If you could only keep one of these two senses, would you see or hear.”
This question is really what it all comes down to.
When forced to choose between sight and sound, many will choose the former; however, as both Horowitz and I will argue, the correct choice is and always has been sound.