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The best books on Sound

recommended by Caspar Henderson

A Book of Noises: Notes on the Auraculous by Caspar Henderson


A Book of Noises: Notes on the Auraculous
by Caspar Henderson


Sound encodes incredible amounts of information—not only words, music, and other audible forms of communication, but complex spatial data too. Caspar Henderson, author of the 'auraculous' new essay collection The Book of Noises, selects five of the best books on sound, from the buzzing of bees to the ghostly whisper of the aurora.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

A Book of Noises: Notes on the Auraculous by Caspar Henderson


A Book of Noises: Notes on the Auraculous
by Caspar Henderson

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Thank you for selecting five of the best books on sound. For clarity, perhaps you would quickly outline exactly what sound is before we continue.

I’m not a physicist or an acoustician, but a rough layman’s definition could start with this: sound is a vibration through matter. It’s a wave passing through molecules and jiggling them as it goes. But that’s not all. Sound is also the perception of those waves by a living being with a sensory apparatus that can detect them. The sensory apparatus may be a pair of ears, but it can also be something else!

What motivated you to write A Book of Noises, and what is it about?

When I was a small child we used to visit my grandparents in a small village in Hampshire on weekends. On Sunday mornings the peels of church bells would echo off the steep hillsides surrounding the village and you would be surrounded by this extraordinary sound. That may be where it started for me. I’ve also had an intense—perhaps excessively intense—love of various forms of music since my teens.

A few years ago while I was working on a book about the sense of wonder, I was entranced by the sound of thousands of birds flying overhead, and I realised that for all my love of sound and music there was a lot I did not actually know. A Book of Noises arose from that realisation. It’s a brief tour through the nature of sound and music, and a visit to the sound worlds of space, the non-living Earth, non-human life, and humanity.

At the start of The Book of Noises, you give an interesting response to the question: If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no-one there to hear it, does it still make a sound? Maybe you’d talk us through your reasoning here.

There are two answers. The first is: well, duh, yes! The second is: well, duh, no! If there is a vibration in a medium such as air, that is sound. But then of course, if there’s no one there to hear it, does that matter?

As you wrote, “sound as we usually think of it is an experience of a sentient being.”

Indeed. I think that when people ask the question about the tree falling in the forest, what they are often really asking—perhaps without realising it—is: what is the world without me in it? That’s a challenge we all wrestle with at some point.

Was this a technical book to research?

There were places where it got a bit crunchy, a bit technical. But, you know, I’m an amateur—I hope in a good sense, of being an enthusiast and lover of knowledge. And I think if you lean into difficulty, you find that things unwrap and unfold for you and you discover new things. It’s a book that grew out of a sense of wonder, and I hope that comes across.

The first of the books that made your reading list on sound is The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. It’s by Bernie Krause, an American musician and soundscape ecologist. What a fascinating job title. Could you tell us more?

Sure. As you say, Bernie Krause has had quite a career. He’s 85 now, and started his working life as a recording engineer and musician. He played Moog synthesiser on the Monkees’ song ‘Star Collector’ in 1967, but from the end of the 1970s he turned increasingly to recording sounds in the natural environment.

Krause has become an influential figure in the world of soundscape ecology—the practice of using the best equipment available to record the sounds of the natural world, sometimes to use for artistic purposes but mainly for scientific purposes, to understand what’s going on. And, of course, trying to protect it.

“While I was working on a book about the sense of wonder, I was entranced by the sound of thousands of birds flying overhead”

Kruase’s been recording in the same places since the 1980s, and there’s a diminution and degrading of the natural sound environment as species have diminished or been eliminated altogether. He has made an important contribution to documenting that change, and The Great Animal Orchestra is an excellent introduction to his work.

As a by-the-way, for anyone in or travelling to San Francisco, there’s an exhibition based on the book, with many of Krause’s recordings being played in these big spaces with beautiful accompanying visuals. So if you are anywhere near the Exploratorium up until 15 October, get there and have a listen.

Shall we look at the next of the best books on sound? This is Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World by Nina Kraus. She examines the link between sound and the human brain. Would you talk us through it?

Sure. So this book does get a bit crunchy, a bit difficult to chew on in places. It’s a work by a neuroscientist, written for the general public. Nina Kraus highlights some great starting points for somebody approaching this field. One of them is the extraordinary resolution and speed with which we hear. Auditory neurons, the cells in the brain that are processing sound from the ears, make calculations within thousandths of a second. And this gives us the ability to discriminate—to get a resolution on sound much greater than we have with images. Our brains are just extraordinary at processing sound. That’s just a starting point—one way to think about the miracle of hearing.

We are all familiar with these funny looking dimpled flaps on the sides of our heads, these ‘pinnae’. And we may know about the eardrum, and the very small bones behind it that vibrate, and a little snail-like organ called the cochlea. Inside it are tiny hairs in there, which move in the liquid inside. So that’s hearing, but of course it’s only part of it. There is also a lot that goes on in the brain. There are around 86 billion neurons in the human brain, and a huge significant proportion of them—far more than you might think—are allocated to normal hearing. It’s an incredibly complex process with feedback and feed-forward. We don’t just hear sounds, we deeply engage with them. And this book is a great place to start, although it is a bit of a hard read in places.

I’d also recommend Making Space: How the Brain Knows Where Things Are by Jennifer Groh. This book, which goes beyond hearing to the other senses, is very clear in its approach. Groh is very good on hearing and the profound connections between hearing and moving. They have a common evolutionary origin. The ears arose from organs designed to perceive gravity and find an organism’s place in space, with the goal of achieving movement.

I hadn’t realised until I was recording an audiobook quite how much spatial information you can glean from audio. Even if you record the same person speaking the same words, the layout of the room around them will completely alter the sound recorded. And listening to the different recordings will immediately give you a sense of what sort of room the speaker might have been in. It’s a very powerful tool.

Yes, you pick up enormous amounts of information. We process that all the time. It’s actually amazing that humans can walk and chew gum at the same time! But, seriously, we tend to underestimate hearing. Writing my book has been an enriching process, and I appreciate this a lot more.

Absolutely. The third book you’ve chosen to recommend is another nonfiction book that looks at the history of music from its earliest known days to the present. This is Michael Spitzer’s The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth. It was published in 2021.

This is one of the best single-volume books about the history of music and how humans engage with music that I’ve come across. It has a great combination of range and concision. There’s just so much to learn from it about the nature of music from the earliest archaeological evidence and written records right up to the present day.

It’s about the extraordinary nature of music, which engages more of our brain than perhaps almost any other human activity: processing, movement, emotion… There’s a magical phrase from Thomas Browne, the seventeenth century physician: he said music is “an Hieroglyphicall and shadowed lesson of the whole world.” I think Spitzer’s book does a great job of taking us a little further on that journey of understanding.

Right. Because the appeal of music seems to be universal across all human peoples, right?

Yes, although there are some musicologists who will put up a warning sign here. ‘Music’ is a concept that is common to virtually every Western society, we all have a word that means roughly the same thing, but there are cultures where, for example, music and, for example, dance are seldom if ever separate from one another and there isn’t a distinct word for ‘music’ alone. This again reminds us that music is movement. But one can become unhelpfully pedantic with definitions. I don’t think there is any known culture that doesn’t have what we would think of as music, even if we might find it hard to relate to. I mean, I have a friend who just cannot stand classical Chinese opera. He finds it very challenging to listen to.

It’s a very specific sound. It seems reasonable that some forms of music are culturally specific, or at least a developed taste—like whisky or olives. Your fourth sound book is a really interesting choice. This is a novel by Thomas Mann, published in 1947, Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend. It’s a reworking of the Faust legend. Would you tell us more?

Sure. I read this decades ago when I was student, and then when I was preparing for this interview saw it had already been recommended on Five Books by Alex Ross. He describes the book brilliantly.

He said it was “one of the most intense reading experiences of my life.”

Yes, it’s extraordinary. It’s set in Germany in the early decades of the 20th century. Adrian Leverkühn is this fictional German composer who has a likeness to Arnold Schoenberg in that he develops a 12-tone system. He also makes a deal with the demon Mephistopheles—to create wonderful music for a certain time before being taken off, like Faust in the legend, to a horrible fate.

Thomas Mann was one of the pre-eminent figures in German culture in the first half of the twentieth century, and an outspoken opponent of Fascism. He wrote the book while he was in exile in California during the culmination of what, if we’re fortunate, will remain the greatest mass crimes in European history. So that’s implicit in the book, which as a novel has many levels. Mann was famously described as “the ironic German.” There’s a lot of complexity there.

It is a challenging book to read. Having looked at it again for this interview I wonder if it is already receding into history. Not to sound like an old geezer, but I wonder if younger people, particularly, may find it hard to read. But I think it is at least worth being aware of.

There’s a deeply unsettling passage where Leverkühn is visited by the demon Mephistopheles. Obviously that has resonance with what happened with the Nazis in Germany, but it still resonates today. This might be a stretch, but I’ll suggest it: we’re in this moment now, for example with artificial intelligence, where the power of the new technology and the ‘voices’ that things like ChatGPT synthesise may lead people down very dark pathways. As the American columnist Ezra Klein wrote back in the spring of 2023, this is an act of summoning:

The coders casting these spells have no idea what will stumble through the portal. What is oddest, in my conversations with them, is that they speak of this freely. These are not naifs who believe their call can be heard only by angels. They believe they might summon demons. They are calling anyway.

So that’s one resonance with where we are in time. Briefly, the other thing is that one of the culminating works of this fictional composer is an oratorio based on the life of Faust, and it’s a ‘taking back’ of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s like the negative; the despairing cancelation of all the hope of, for example, the last movement of the Ninth, which is a hymn to joy, freedom, and universal brotherhood. But, remarkably, at the very end of it is a sense that in music not all is lost. Mann writes:

But the tone, which is no more, for which as it hangs there vibrating in the silence, only the soul still listens, and which was the dying note of sorrow — is no longer that, its meaning change, it stands as a light in the night.

I’ve talked about the remoteness of Mann’s novel from our times. But there are ways in which it remains highly relevant. A huge help for thinking about that relevance and those connections is Time’s Echo by Jeremy Eichler. This book, only published a few weeks ago, describes the context and creation of four great musical compositions in response to the atrocities of war and genocide in the early 20th century: ‘A Survivor from Warsaw’ by Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Metamorphosen’ by Richard Strauss, ‘The War Requiem’ by Benjamin Britten, and the Thirteenth Symphony, ‘Babi Yar,’ by Dimitri Shostakovich. Eichler is a superb writer and historian. His book is a towering achievement, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I hadn’t expected a novel to make your list, but I guess it’s a different way to approach writing about sound.

There are a few novelists and others who write very well about music. Mann is one. Proust is another. In À la recherche du temps perdu he imagines the work of a fictional composer—perhaps based on Fauré—and you can almost hear the music as he describes it. It isn’t easy to do, but it’s another way of engaging imaginatively with music or sound.

I think that brings us to our final text. This is The Sounds of Life: How Digital Technology Is Bringing Us Closer to the Worlds of Animals and Plants by Karen Bakker. This is another work of nonfiction that has won several awards.

Again, this does what it says on the tin. It’s a book about how new technology is opening up vast new areas of understanding. This folds us back to Bernie Krause. Karen Bakker, who died at a tragically young age earlier this year, was not an acoustic ecologist herself, but she was an outstanding scholar and an excellent writer, and it’s a very lively read that brings us back to the work of Bernie Krause and the rich field flourishing in the wake of his work and others’.

One of the examples that stood out for me in Karen’s book concerns the North Atlantic right whales. In the recent years these animals have been moving north because the warming oceans mean the fish they like to eat have moved north, and are now living in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. This a very busy shipping lane, and there have been a large number of ship strikes, with many whales dying.

In response, biologists have led the deployment of underwater, autonomous acoustic gliders — essentially submarine versions of aerial drones equipped with hydrophones — that can detect whale song and other sounds. When a whale is detected its location is transmitted to government officials, fishers and ships’ captains, and the area is closed for a time to most traffic. With a system of fines in place for contravention of the closures, fatalities fell from over fifty in 2019 to zero in 2020 and 2021.

Other exciting new ways to deploy acoustic technology in the service of conservation are described in the book, along with breakthroughs in the understanding and appreciation of the sound worlds of animals and other forms of life. This is, as I said, a rich field, and in addition to The Sounds of Life, I recommend Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction by David George Haskell. This is both a work of literature and science. There’s also An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong, which covers the whole range of animal senses but has superb chapters on sound and hearing in the animal kingdom. Yong is very good at talking to researchers at the cutting edge and describing their discoveries. Even more recently there’s a book called The Voices of Nature: How and Why Animals Communicate by Nicolas Mathevon. It is fascinating and delightful.

It does feel like something of a golden age of writing about sound. And your own book is a worthy addition to this genre. Kirkus described your own Book of Noises as “blending the rigor of a scientific mind with a lyrical appreciation of both the marvels of sound and the dualities of silence.”

Well, I just have enthusiasm. There’s a beautiful a line I came across a few days ago from Langston Hughes. Reviewing Notes of A Native Son by James Baldwin in the New York Times in 1958, he said that Baldwin “writes down to nobody, and he is trying very hard to write up to himself.”I don’t begin to compare to Baldwin, but in a small way what I’m hoping to do is learn, and improve, through writing, and share what I learn. My book consists of 48 essays, and most of them are pretty short. So at the end of a tiring day, you can read a little, enjoy it, and collapse into bed. I hope it’s as entertaining as it is serious.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

October 5, 2023

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Caspar Henderson

Caspar Henderson

Caspar Henderson is a writer, journalist and editor. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, Nature, New Scientist, the New York Review of Books and openDemocracy. He is a past recipient of an IUCN-Reuters award for best environmental reporting in Western Europe. His debut book, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, won the Roger Deakin Award from the Society of Authors and the Royal Society of Literature's Jerwood Prize. A New Map of Wonders followed in 2017. The Book of Noises is out now, published by Granta in the UK and the University of Chicago Press in the US.

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Caspar Henderson

Caspar Henderson

Caspar Henderson is a writer, journalist and editor. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, Nature, New Scientist, the New York Review of Books and openDemocracy. He is a past recipient of an IUCN-Reuters award for best environmental reporting in Western Europe. His debut book, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, won the Roger Deakin Award from the Society of Authors and the Royal Society of Literature's Jerwood Prize. A New Map of Wonders followed in 2017. The Book of Noises is out now, published by Granta in the UK and the University of Chicago Press in the US.