Evolution of Acoustic Spaces and Communication: Then and Now

When thoughts of the past arise, the general trend that follows is a world imagined in a pall of silence. However, as sound studies grew in volume, this notion has been successfully challenged. Earcons, sonic events whose symbolic meaning rests upon repeated exposure help people connect the present the past providing context to the sound which means little in of itself. As an example, the reverberation of sound unique to cathedrals, would be earcons to regular churchgoers (Blesser, 2012). Furthermore, entire civilizations from various time periods were found to have a relatively sophisticated understanding of sonic properties. The Great Ball Court of the Mayans has a temple located at the end that was used during ceremonial practices such as sacrificing losers of the games to the gods. It has been noted that a whisper at one end could be heard from the other end. Combine those acoustics with resonance and you have a place ideal for rituals since the leader’s voice would reverberate throughout the general area, further adding to his stature and perceived power (Blesser, 2012). Stone cathedrals with extremely high ceilings that were created during the renaissance era possessed an unearthly amount of resonance that helped drive home the idea that god and his ‘house’ were all powerful and ubiquitous. Despite Mayan ball courts in South America and cathedrals across Europe are found in two distinct geographic areas with their own mix of cultures, similar sonic properties are noted in their architecture. Knowing this, I propose a question: How did aural architecture evolve over time, and more importantly, why did these transformations occur? I want to approach the second question with a variety of lenses to provide a well-rounded, complete answer. Ultimately, the answer to these questions will reveal the nature of communication between humans and the world along with implications for the future.

Bird’s eye view of Mayan Ball Court
Temple at the end of Mayan Ball Court

A significant issue that I confronted with my research is the highly speculative nature of using a historical context regardless of what perspective I adopt, there is no way to ascertain the motives of a people during their construction and modification of acoustic architecture. Even with the availability of written records, caution must be taken before giving those sources absolute credibility. Only academic scholars in older cultures could write down their experience of the architecture while noting the sonic properties that stood out. The actual craftsmen who constructed the space were illiterate, thus an apparent inconsistency presents itself (Blesser, 2007). More importantly, virtually all written records documenting aural architecture focus on the Western hemisphere, namely Europe. As such, my research lacks much information on the African, Middle Eastern, and Asian cultural influence on the evolution of aural architecture.

Establishing a time period to examine acoustic structures was a challenge:  I would have a limited number of structures to look at since different groups of people existed at specific points in time. Arcy-sur-Cure, a prehistoric cave in Burgundy, France still stands the passage of time. The Neolithic people of the New Stone Age who inhabited the cave do not unfortunately. Only signs that point to their knowledge of acoustic properties remain. That being said, I simply looked at a variety of acoustic spaces on a case by case analysis, looking at their history and condensing that to highlight the impetus behind their evolution.

David Hendy and Iegor Renzikoff in Arcy-sur-Cure

Although the Neolithic people possessed no knowledge of the concept of aural architecture, the caves they lived in are the earliest form on the concept. Although caves are usually thought of a quiet place, if you add even a few people, the place can become quite loud almost as if the cave is speaking to you. Professor David Hendy from the University of Sussex and musicologist, Iegor Reznikoff, explored the interior of Arcy-sur-Cure, one the many prehistoric caves located in Burgundy, France. Their initial observations included the clarity of moans or grumbles produced by Reznikoff and how the echoes seemed to build up one after the other creating a wall of sound, a quality similar to the reverberation of grand churches, cathedrals, and basilicas. This brought forth an important observation: places in the cave where sounds became different were marked with a red paste along with drawings on the walls. This indicates that the Neolithic people were aware of the change in acoustics. Hendy noted that other musicologists like Reznikoff conducted experiments in caves with no light and used their voices as echolocation. As they reached the point where sounds were different, the musicologists lit their torches, revealing drawings of animals and several negative handprints.  The  rock paintings found in Hieroglyph canyon are another example: they are located in exactly the same place where echoes are the strongest and travel the fastest. What could this mean? Inhabitants of these caves could hear the sounds of an approaching animal and prepare for safety or hunting. Even better is that they found specific places in geologic structures that would allow them to transmit messages loudest and farthest if the occasion arose. Most places associated with tons of echo are regarded as sacred, so suggesting that Neolithic people participated in rituals may not be a farfetched idea. These aforementioned ideas form the cornerstone of communication across time and serve as the foundation of the evolution of aural architecture.

Churches. Cathedrals. Basilicas. It is no wonder that these structures were instrumental in the evolution of acoustics since religion and philosophy gave birth to them. As Rome converted to Christianity, basilicas throughout the land which were based upon Greek architecture became churches. Originally places of commerce and court proceedings,which reflect the ancient Greek belief that an infinity of ideas existed in one natural order, the early basilicas had open sides (Blesser,2012). During the renaissance era Europe, patrons began to display their amount of wealth by tasking their architects to modify religious structures connected to the church; outer walls now enclosed the space and supporting columns were moved inward. One would think the new churches were created for the sole purpose of augmented reverberation time. However, the resulting acoustic changes were unintended consequences of the need to visually close the interior off from the exterior and to express the wealth and political power of various families. Like cathedrals, basilicas were then able to produce great reverberation time essential to church services. This may had led to an increase in the number of converts (people switching to Christianity). Although the idea of creating places that reflected God’s heavenly attributes were deliberate, it appears that in some parts of Europe no consideration to acoustical design. In way, it seems as if these structures coincidentally amplified the sonic properties that made up the church’s persona.

S0089337 Basilica dedicated to Hera, 540-530 BC. Image licenced to Sue Edelen IMAGE QUEST by Sue Edelen Usage : - 4600 X 4600 pixels (A3) © Vanni / Art Resource

Basilica dedicated to Hera, 540-530 BC.
© Vanni / Art Resource

“The body is a temple.” This is metaphor that many will come across in their lifetime. Since the divine is usually though of omnipotent and omnipresent, our own bodies are in essence, sacred houses for the divine. Origins of this ancient concept trace back to India where temples represent the body of God the human body on macrocosmic and microcosmic planes respectively (Wolfe, 2002). Structurally, our bodies have undergone tremendous evolution; however, the question of how we use our bodies acoustically remains. One prominent way is through meditation. By allowing silence to pervade our mind, we can enter a state of deep relaxation undeterred by all outside influence, especially that of desire. Only through meditation does one achieve pure awareness unlimited in its pursuit of understanding the divine; it is in this state that a person faces inner reflection likable to internal dialogue. Enlightenment then occurs a result. Enclosed sacred spaces came from a need to block the distractions so people could engage in spiritual worship, and the ornate decorations served as visual cues to the numerous parables found in the scripture(s). The respect for silence preserves the idea of sanctity and the strategic placement of light sources reinforces the idea of the power of light in providing knowledge and wisdom (Wolfe, 2002). After adopting a perspective centered on mysticism, I can see that the possibilities within our own bodies to become one with the divine far outstrip the limited number of representations found in enclosed sacred spaces. In this sense, the outer spaces of churches, basilicas, etc. pale in comparison to inner space that is our bodies. Although communication is usually thought of an ongoing conversation between humans, animals, and nature, it can include internal dialogue where the most profound beliefs are discovered.

The human body as a typical south Indian Hindu Temple.
The human body as a typical south Indian Hindu Temple

One would think communication through nonverbal sounds would prove to be difficult. However, in Ghana, the people have found a tool that works in a tandem with their natural environment, the talking drum. The talking drum is a hollowed out tree trunk shaped like an hourglass structure. Messages are carried via a combination of high and low tones. The rhythms are transmitted into the air within a radius of 7 miles; it is possible for the messages to travel even farther if the villages relay the message to each other. In West Africa, the geography is primarily the rainforest. Visibility is an issue so communication is best done through sound. Unlike a telegraph signal, the talking drum tones mixed together form a language that allows for optimal communication among the people who live in the region. Slave traders and missionaries interpreted the talking drum to be calls for brawls and paganism; this supports the aforementioned notion that the talking drums conveyed a language that had to be learned. This clearly shows how the people of Ghana took the forest, a natural acoustic space and created a tool of communication that worked in tandem with the general space, providing communication which all members of the community could understand despite the complete lack of words.

Communication between living and nonliving organisms has been drastically affected by the transformation of acoustic spaces whether those changes were positive or negative. The few examples I have provided show how humans adapted to natural, societal and spiritual developments. I believe my research provides a solid foundation for future sound studies; instead of looking at the evolution of acoustic architecture, different kinds of communication and under what circumstances they come about could be investigated. Sound and its application in the arts besides music is another area of potential research. With my topic, future research on eastern culture and acoustic architecture associated with it would help clear the western bias and provide a well rounded narrative.


Mayan Ball Court Acoustics

Talking Drum Ensemble

Cathedrals: An Audio Archive Project by Pietro Riparbelli

Works Cited

Blesser, Barry, and Linda-Ruth Salter. 2007; 2006. Spaces Speak, Are you Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture. Illustration ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Blesser, Barry, Linda-Ruth Salter. 2012. “Ancient Acoustic Spaces.” In The Sound Studies Reader, edited by Jonathan Sterne 187- 196. 1st ed. Vol. 1. New York, Oxon: Routledge.

Hendy, David, dir. “Echoes In The Dark.” In Noise: A Human History. BBC. October 20, 2015.

Hendy, David, dir. “The Beat Of Drums.” In Noise: A Human History. BBC. October 21, 2015.

Wolfe, George. 2002. “Inner Space as Sacred Space: The Temple as Metaphor for the Mystical Experience.” Cross Currents, Fall, 400-411.

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