Power of Sound

Poster for the SALT Meet Me Anywhere event[Rob Rosenthal, host of the SALTcast, and Radio instructor at the SALT Institute for Doc Studies, begins each semester with a talk about…]

The Power of Sound

In the womb, our first connection to the outside world is through sound. Heartbeats. Voices.

When we’re born, our first impulse is to make sound.

Some creation myths say, in so many words, in the beginning there was sound.

Our voice starts deep within us and moves out into the world and into another person. Touch at a distance someone once said. And yes, sound enters us — all the time. We can’t help but hear. We don’t have earlids, as producer Jay Allison likes to say.

Our voice is a mixture of the air and our thoughts. They mingle together.

And this is a new thought to me. I’m still working on it. But, humans make sound. Think about it. We don’t make light. We don’t make taste. We don’t make touch, per se. Okay, I suppose you could aruge we make smells but that’s not something we fully control. But sound…we can create sound. We talk. We sing. We’re able to make noise with our bodies and because of our bodies — that’s how we’re constructed. That’s unique among the senses.

Have I gone off the deep end yet? No? Well try this.

Radio taps into something ancient. Something primal. Long before the printed word. Long before pictures and film. Waaay before Facebook, we communicated in sound. It’s all we had. We’ve been passing along information and telling stories sonically for about a bazillion years. At this point, it’s just how we’re wired. Radio plugs right into that.

With radio, the listener is a co-author. Radio engages the mind like a good book and we paint our own pictures. Television, which I know is an easy target, but for comparison, television tells you everything you need to know with its combination of pictures and sound. Radio lets you think.

Radios are inexpensive and ubiquitous — most homes have a good half dozen. You can be illiterate and ‘get’ radio.

There’s something magical about the radio. How the hell does sound get into that little box? If you talk to old school radio engineers, they’ll tell you the “M” in “F. M.” Stands for magic. I’ll let you guess what the “F” stands for. In fact, when radio was first discovered, it was thought that we tapped into a mysterious atmospheric element, the ether. I actually like to believe that’s true.

There’s probably no greater authority on the power of sound, voice, and radio than the late oral historian Studs Terkel. Here’s a quicky from Studs waxing on the power of one sound in particular — the human voice.

Studs Turkel being interviewedStuds Terkel, the late oral historian, from a 2005 interview recorded when a StoryCorps mobile booth visited his Chicago IL home.

“Studs Terkel” (1:48):

After graduation, a SALT student sent this email…

From: Natasha Haverty
To: SALT alums

Remember why Rob told us he did radio, and how your (I know mine did) blood started flowing stronger and faster as you began to realize that radio is this big, beautiful way to approach the world — not just some job, but a way to live? I know we all had individual reactions to what Rob said, and I don’t mean to assume I knew yours. But you do remember how we talked about our mother’s heartbeat and how that is our first experience of the world? I’m not doing a good job repeating what Rob said, but I think we all remember.

Well, in any case, my grandfather died a couple days ago. I wasn’t there in the hospital with him, but my mother and father were. Julio, my grandfather, was on a ventilator, and unconscious, and it was his time to go. As my parents and my grandmother and my uncle sat there for those many hours before he passed on, they talked, and cried, and also laughed. And at one point, the nurse told them something that my parents then told me tonight: hearing is the last sense to go.

After we’ve lost our vision because our eyelids can no longer open, after we’ve lost touch because blood pressure drops and blood gets reserved for the brain and the heart, there is still hearing. I did some feeble research about exactly why this is, and I guess it’s because our ears are so close to the brain, and as long as the brain has a blood supply so do the ears. What’s more, it doesn’t take any real physical exertion to hear (although for some, I guess it does to listen).

I’d heard about moms-to-be putting headphones over their bellies for their babies to hear music, I’d thought about the heartbeat greeting to the world, but I’d never known that all the Julios of the world, lying there asleep on their hospital bed in their final hours, could still hear laughter. Vox humana! Imagine all the nurses who, knowing this fact, decide to turn on the radio for the Julios in hospital rooms! So we’d better keep making radio for all of those guys’ sakes!

[The above post is an excerpted script (with permission) from the SALTcast episode “Studs, Natasha, and the Power of Sound.”]

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Comment (1)

I thoroughly enjoyed Rob Rosenthal’s segment on the Power of Sound / the Power of the Human Voice. The .mp3 and transcript are permanently cached on my harddrive in the ‘Everything Zen’ folder.

I have mused about my affinity to listen to stories told. I reckon it is embedded in our DNA. NPR/PRI have become the central fire in the village where stories are told. I would not be surprised to learn that listening to a good story, gazing on a spectacular landscape / image, listening to joyous music results in the release of some pleasure-related brain chemicals. RR’s thoughts on the topic provides a partial answer.

I await a discourse on how collecting and producing a radio documentary on “humanity’s dark side” effects the messenger, the producer. Eg. SC ‘standing next to the Devil . . . walking down the road to Hell’ in Cambodia, CA reporting accounts from the ‘Downwinder Diaries’, BG&SC producing the audio from ‘Winter Soldiers’ project. ? At what cost is ‘the truth told’ ?

Comment added by Jack R. Box on 04.21.09

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