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Foreword: Noise and Sound in the Eighteenth Century

Avant-propos: Bruits et sons au dix-huitième siècle
Isabelle Bour

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1The relation between noise and sound in the long eighteenth century is not one which has been much studied up to now. One obvious reason is that there are no sound archives for that period. Only musical scores provide an accurate record of sounds heard then. Further, what we would nowadays characterise as a noise rather than a sound might have been perceived differently two or three centuries ago. Indeed, the idea of noise is a cultural construct ; the definition of a noise may vary over long historical periods, as it may over the span of one day: a busker’s trumpet is likely to be perceived as sound at midday but as noise at midnight. That same trumpet will be acceptable in the setting of a market square, but not outside the home of an ailing person.

2A defining trait of noise now is that it "is something that one is subject, submitted or subjected to" (Hegarty 4). But in the eighteenth century the word "noise" was sometimes used about sounds both pleasant and unpleasant (Cockayne 111). That is to say, "noise" only makes sense in relation to a definition of "sound". Joseph Haydn (or Leopold Mozart—attribution varies) manifested this difference in his Toy Symphony, in which the euphonic sounds of canonical music contrast with the jarring noises of children’s toys.

3While the state of science in the Enlightenment made it difficult to describe noises or sounds in a mathematically accurate fashion, that is to say, to gain much knowledge of acoustics, the senses, which enabled perception, were objects of philosophical inquiry. Francis Bacon’s inductive method for the new science found philosophical expression in John Locke’s empiricist epistemology such as expounded in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). In this work, Locke took most of his examples from visual perceptions. Similarly, in the field of aesthetics, theory elaborated considerably on Horace’s Ut pictura poesis and, when reflection broadened, in works on the Sister Arts, conceptualisation was either Aristotelian – analysing the arts in terms of mimesis – or tried to distance itself from Aristotle by relativising the importance of imitation in the arts. Be that as it may, the key sense remained sight. The idea of taste was central to the construction of a modern aesthetics, but mainly in its metaphorical sense, the physical sense of taste not being much investigated as such. The traditional hierarchy of the senses was not challenged either by the vogue for Sensibility in the second half of the eighteenth century, a vogue which increased interest in the workings of the nervous system.

4Scholarship has reflected this hierarchy of the senses, so that there is only one book-length study of noise in the long eighteenth century, which also takes in smell: that is Emily Cockayne’s groundbreaking study Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England 1600-1770, published in 2007. Mike Goldsmith’s Discord: The Story of Sound (2012) has a chapter on the eighteenth century, but Goldsmith relies heavily on earlier scholarship. As for Paul Hegarty’s Noise/Music: A History (2010), as suggested by its title, its main focus is music, especially of the modern period.

5This collection of essays by an international team of authors aims at investigating the interrelation of noise and sound in philosophical theory, in music and in literature. The collection opens with an essay by Hélène Cussac, entitled "Vital Dynamism of the Voice in Diderot". Cussac begins by explaining that Denis Diderot’s interest in sound was uncommon among French philosophes. The nature of the links among the various senses as Diderot saw it was articulated in texts that were simultaneously works of literature and of philosophy. Diderot focuses on non-verbal sounds made by human beings, specifically inarticulate screams and sighs. In Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau’s Nephew), he explores the limits of language, an awareness of which leads to the practice of pantomime. One important factor restricting the efficacy of language is the animality of passion. The power of rational language is also disrupted by very different emotions merging – the funny and the pathetic, for instance, laughter thus becoming concomitant with tears. Le Neveu de Rameau also evinces the influence of Italian opera on Diderot’s thinking, as, for him, interest in sound goes hand in hand with interest in music and in the nature of dissonance.

6Laura Davies’s essay "Boswell in London: An Eighteenth-Century Soundscape" broadens the aural focus to the soundscape which, with Emily Thompson, she defines as "simultaneously a physical environment and a way of perceiving that environment". Like his friend Samuel Johnson in his 1755 Dictionary, James Boswell did not really distinguish between "noise" and "sound" as lexemes. However, he was struck by the dizzying loudness of London when he first visited the capital, and he felt that he was a stranger twice over when he arrived there – as a man from the provinces and as a Scot; he felt overwhelmed, awed and self-conscious because he stood out, both on account of his accent and on account of his boisterousness. He took elocution lessons with Thomas Sheridan, the most famous teacher of elocution in his day and tried to learn how to speak softly, modelling himself on Addison’s Spectator, in order to look at the visible world rather than exist mostly in an audible one. The multifarious loudness of London thus confronted him with his own aural specificities and contributed to his remedial self-fashioning.

7Valérie Capdeville’s contribution, "Noise and Sound Reconciled: How London Clubs Shaped Conversation into a Social Art" provides the cultural background for understanding that belated self-fashioning. Clubs were meant to avoid the emptiness of high society conversations, deplored by Boswell but also by many foreign visitors. Shallow chatter was supposed to be replaced by a rational conversation which refined men’s social skills and turned them into polished members of society. In clubs, conversation became more and more structured, combining a lesser degree of formality and "sparkle" than in France with a fondness for serious argument. Club conversation was also more regulated and rational than coffee-house talk, which Boswell gave an account of in his Journal, as Laura Davies explains. Indeed, Boswell exemplifies the moulding role of clubs: he became an acceptable member for a club once he managed to limit his noise level by speaking softly, imitating others in that, and simultaneously learning to avoid entertaining but vulgar topics.

8After that first cluster of articles which deal with social interaction and a polite conversation which is often challenged by non-verbal signs, three essays focus on music. Music in the eighteenth century mostly meant vocal music, but the outcome of the protracted debate on imitation and expression was the growing autonomy of instrumental music. In a wide-ranging essay, "The Impossible Temptation of Noise in Late Eighteenth-Century Music", Pierre Dubois explains that the standard conception of music saw it as reducible to melody and harmony, and thus exclusive of anything painful, whether it be passions or sounds. To James Beattie, music was seen as linked to the very constitution of man: he considered that the first musical instrument was the human voice and that sounds that the voice could not utter without straining should be excluded from music, whether vocal or instrumental. In opera, the instrumental accompaniment was supposed to express the same emotions as the words. And since music had to be pleasant, as all theorists agreed, some emotions, such as malice, cruelty, envy, must be excluded from its scope. David Hartley’s associationism, as expounded in Observations on Man, his Frame, his Duty, and his Expectations (1749), stated that very loud noises were disagreeable because they « agitated » the eardrums too much. His scientific explanation thus supported the dominant aesthetic discourse. But the aesthetics of the sublime considered both natural and artificial objects and their effect. By partly shifting interest from the object perceived to the receiver, and to the role of awe and terror in aesthetic emotion, it opened the door to the imitation of natural noises in musical discourse.

9Pierre Degott, in "‘Not Handel’s sweet music more pleases the ear than…’: the Music of Sound in Fielding and Joseph Reed’s Tom Jones", shows how this dialectics of natural noise and artificial music was adumbrated about the middle of the century. Starting from the debate on imitation and expression in music, which saw the analogical principle between certain musical sounds and certain mental affections rejected, this article suggests that there might be a different kind of analogy at work, between the "chaotic" sounds of everyday life and the organised sounds of music used in a metaphorical system in which noises and sounds are orchestrated into a musical score. Degott also shows how the playwright Joseph Reed used arias from miscellaneous sources to characterise the young lovers, who have embraced the new Hanoverian dynasty, by associating them with opera seria by Johann Adolph Hasse, a German composer, while Squire Western sings an old English song, to indicate his dislike of the new rule. In preserving the "dichotomy between the natural noises and sounds of English life and the supposedly lofty accents" of Italian opera, which was regarded by many as slightly exogenous, Reed remained faithful to Fielding and his ambivalent attitude to modern aesthetics and modern politics.

10Dubois’s and Degott’s essays dovetail in a stimulating fashion. "Sublime" music uses the sounds of everyday life to challenge the ruling notion of harmony, to push back the boundaries of the acceptable or, more importantly, to make the point that expression involves highlighting the noise in sound, the matter of sound rather than its supposed imitative content.

11In his novels, Fielding uses references to noise, uses sounds from everyday life to characterise some individuals, by suggesting, humorously, that a few of them are not fully human, and that the noises they produce are beyond words. He thus also creates aural descriptions of his characters, which complement the visual portraits. That (metaphorical) aural level is based on analogy. But, while the use of noise in music directs attention to the limits of imitation and harmony in music, in Fielding’s fiction inarticulate noises make a point about the limits of human language and create a second "text" made of animal-like sounds — which, of course, are still expressed through words. In both cases, what is highlighted is expression and expressiveness, though in Fielding it is obtained through analogy. The novelist, theorists of music and musicians all exploit the potential of cacophonousness, though Fielding cannot escape language, any more than Diderot can.

12The matter of when a harmonious sound becomes a painful noise was central to the controversy over castrati, which was particularly intense in Britain. Marianne Traven, in "Voicing the Third Gender the Castrato Voice and the Stigma of Emasculation in Eighteenth-Century Society", does not just rehearse that debate but discusses eighteenth-century records of castration and descriptions of the sound of the castrato voice. She and a team of acousticians have indeed attempted a digital reconstruction of a castrato voice, based on the anatomical characteristics of castrati. Traven moves on to discuss the gender-blurring intrinsic to the identity of castrati, a blurring which explains part of the anxiety they caused : castrati could pass off as women on stage and in the street. So sought after were they as opera singers in the first half of the century that some women pretended to be castrati to have a musical career. Ignorance about emasculation fed such wild beliefs as the notion that castrati were good lovers who could not cause a woman to become pregnant. Disaffection for Italian opera but also increasing dislike of the "unnaturalness" of castrated singers explain why they disappeared from opera in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. From being wildly admired their voices came to be considered ugly because man-made, as noises which managed to be both beyond nature and beyond acceptable art.

13The last two essays focus on literature, mostly of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. While the Augustans often connected the corruption of language and the supposed decline of literature, Gothic novelists were concerned with moral corruption, emblematically embodied in the Catholic countries of the Continent, in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. In Horace Walpole and William Beckford gothic effects are mostly visual, but for Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis in the 1790s sound is more important and carries moral connotations. In "the Contagion of Sound in the Gothic Novels of Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis and Charles Maturin", Angela Archambault argues that sound functions as a gothic body does: it is ungovernable. In Radcliffe’s novels disembodied sounds are explained away in a rational way, but in Lewis sound is often the boundary between the real and the surreal. Archambault reminds us that singing was seen by St Augustine as fostering the desire to hear heavenly harmonies ; she also adduces a 1781 Treatise on Bells by Abbé Thiers which reminds readers that church bells cause evil spirits to flee and angels to come and join in with prayers, thus adding to the purifying power of the Word. But what can be used for beneficial purposes can also be manipulated for evil ones, and the works of Radcliffe, Lewis and Maturin show how that happens within the gothic cloister. In doing this they capitalise on the anti-Catholicism which was still vigorous in their day. Maturin further uses a monastic time divided by bells into clearly defined, rigid segments to suggest that the harmonious sounds issuing from convents are really a screen for discord. Their rigidly structured time turns monks into pieces of clockwork. When Alonzo dreams that he is convicted by the Inquisition, bells relentlessly ring from the moment of the judgement to that of death at the stake. This last case emblematises the way all three novelists studied here pair sound mainly with abuse of power and the corruption of Catholicism.

14Finally, Claire Téchené’s learned piece, deepening the chronological and ideological perspective of the collection, focuses on natural sound. In « On the Use and Representations of sound in British pre-romantic and romantic poetry, or ‘On the Power of Sound’ », she shows how the fading of a world-picture inherited from antiquity, which endured through the Middle Ages into the XVIIth century, meant that interpretation of natural sounds and sights became unstable and variable in the XVIIIth century. Roughly until the Scientific Revolution nature had been seen as a sui generis creative power, or as a manifestation of God’s own power. This went hand in hand with the idea of a music of the spheres, of a correspondence between microcosm and macrocosm and with the belief in the « animation » of nature. With the collapse of this paradigm, the soundscape of nature became as fragmented as the landscape. After the gropings of the pre-romantics, the romantics came out of this fragmentation by locating creation in the poet himself, who through his unified perception of nature gave it unity. The observer of Newtonian science had turned visionary. Téchené makes her argument by combining a broad historical perspective and close studies which enforce her point by showing the congruence between the perception of nature and the rhetorical and stylistic features of pre-romantic and romantic poetry, especially that of Wordsworth and Coleridge, but also Charlotte Smith and Shelley.

15Taken together, these eight essays complicate our understanding of the perception of noise and sound in the eighteenth century. While terminology fluctuated, there was a semantic difference between "noise" and "sound" and investigation of the theme has brought up a number of paradoxes : the most flowery rhetoric sometimes counted as little more than meaningless chatter but, conversely, in the new aesthetics of the sublime, awesome noises could elevate the mind and extend the scope of man’s understanding of nature. Non-verbal sounds, as well as silence, were also what could give women a "voice". In social interaction between males, regional accent was felt to be just as damaging to the polishing of manners as the actual content of conversation, for which clubs were a kind of nursery. Ultimately, what counted as noise or alien sound contributed to the definition of English identity.

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Cockayne, Emily, Hubbub:Filth, Noise & Stench in England 1600-1770, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2007.

Goldsmith, Mike, Discord: The Story of Sound, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012.

Hegarty, Paul, Noise/Music: A History, New York and London, Continuum, 2010.

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Isabelle Bour, « Foreword: Noise and Sound in the Eighteenth Century »Études Épistémè [En ligne], 29 | 2016, mis en ligne le 20 juillet 2016, consulté le 21 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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