Reclaiming the Esthetics of Pure Sound

In an age when literacy is a necessary tool for survival, without which you can not navigate to the right bathroom, fill out forms for a driver's license, or get any sort of job above the menial level, we have a right to speak of Universal Literacy as the equipment of any member of Society. We deplore people who are illiterate as un-educatable, backward and culturally deprived, assuming that the twin abilities of Reading and Writing will ensure by themselves a safe place in an often unsafe world. We note high rates of literacy as a function of the advanced and economically secure countries, and assume that a person who is illiterate is somehow stupid if not "culturally disadvantaged".

Since Gutenberg and the post-Renaissance world which invested its best thought in the safe medium of the printed word, we have become so used to the idea of a Print Culture that the warnings of Marshall MacLuhan a generation ago no longer seem startling. In transition from print-on-paper to electronic data coded in hidden numbers, which only appear as "print" on a computer monitor, we have not shifted the emphasis on written words at all, merely moving from paper to micro-fiche to word-processed documents and finally to the Internet. Some would say the Internet finally has given us a graphic world, but the graphics are still illustrations and the material which counts is in the old print-culture on way or another.

But there are losses in the process of becoming literate. We trust words on paper where precision counts, in our legal documents and in the small print under contracts. As English has become the World Language for practical purposes in science and in business, we rely on what is written in English much more than what is said in a variety of international pronunciations and accents. Words have become signs, much like the Chinese characters which give information without being tied to a local pronunciation, even to a local language.

There is a loss, which is becoming insensitive to the base-level of Language, resident in the brain to operate through the speech and hearing organs, working with information coded in Sounds. The most basic characteristic of being human is the ability to speak, to communicate by the complex coding of a few dozen speech-sounds, to build elaborate superstructures of thought on the basis of communication.

Much of this can be done without sound, but there are two area in which sound is absolutely indispensable:

First, we learn language from early childhood as sound, and unless we participate early in the sound-learning process we fail to develop the intricacies of thought for which our brains are designed. The portions of the brain which deal with sound as decipherable code are quite specific; when damaged by trauma or disease, they leave us helpless in an unintelligible world.

Second, speech-sounds are more than a mode of communication, they are as much a part of our emotional makeup as music, that other ground-level characteristic of being Human. When speaking ceases to be an interesting and inviting activity, when language becomes a monotone reproduction of written materials, we lose a great deal of the sheer joy of living. Breathing the air, walking out in the world with a sense of body movement and motion, and speaking in the flow of words with a sense of pleasure and exhilaration --- these are things none of us should have to live without.


As we become more and more tuned to words as visual phenomena, as sets of signs or characters which represent chunks of meaning, we lose first the appreciation of sheer sound as sound. Losing the habit of speaking, we lose one of the avenues of invention, the mysterious process by which a set of inchoate words rolls itself out in real-time into a well formed and interesting "sentence".

A Sentence is an Idea, not a grammatical construct (the Latin sententia means just "idea"). Without a fluid flow of words into groups and finally into thoughts, we become static, stiff and formal even with ourselves. Telling a story to a child, construing up a poem which somehow flows out of a set of experiences or daydreams, these are part of our human nature. But more and more we find people who cannot invent interesting stories, tell interesting experiences in an imaginative manner, or speak before a group without a fully written-out score. In music it is often the same, the concert pianist who cannot play a note without a score on the piano stand, having lost his own voice in continually "reading" the voice of someone else.

Unfortunately, when we proclaim a movement to Stamp Out Illiteracy, we move in the direction of stamping our a certain amount of our natural spontaneity. In many parts of the under-developed world there are wonderful tellers of tales, reciters of oral poetry composed on the spot, recounters of ancient bardic compositions spoken down for centuries through countless generations. I know a man who is scarcely literate beyond signing his name and reading a few simple direction on paper, but he has a wonderful sense of speech. His choice of words is amazing, far beyond what many educated persons would use, because he enjoys words and savors them while speaking. He can become spellbound by his own trail of sentences, weaving a path between what he is thinking ahead of himself, while touching base with a friend who is trying to follow the tortuous path of his wording.

There was a time when the world was much more like this. I am not thinking of the Demosthenes and Ciceros and Congressional Debaters of the last century, but of ordinary people who enjoyed talking and listening as a creative art. They didn't call it creative, it was for them just the natural state of being alive, which they indicated by talking. Some today are even caught talking to their dog, who may not grasp the meaning, but he certainly follows and enjoys the activity of his master. There is pleasure in sound!

On the other side, what do I make of a student to whom I have been reading a passage of fine poetry? I ask what he thinks of it, he says he would understand it better if he could see it on the page. In fact he missed the whole thing, he was completely dis-tuned from oral perception, and had become a creature of the Eye rather than of the Ear. But it is the Ear which makes the blind so perceptive and often spiritually deep, while those who are deaf from childhood have a much harder row to hoe.

Nothing in the Eye can match the ability of the ear to hear a symphony orchestra playing, idenfitying both the timbres of the horns, and well as the voice leading line of the cello --- at the same time. The eye is remarkable for the accuracy of the foveal sensory area, which enables us to pinpoint dots and characters exactly. But the ear has double functions of wide-range pickup while at the same time the ability to focus in on momentary detail of sound. It is a multi-level, multi-function organ indeed.


The speech-sounds as used in daily communication can be thought of a "carriers" or the information envelope, which is discarded as non-critical while the message unfolds. It is perhaps like eating an ear of sweet-corn from the garden in summertime. It tastes so good and fresh, dripping with butter and lightly sprinkled with salt, those golden buds bursting with taste ----- that is the message. What we have stripped off from the total envelope is awareness of the cob, of the sheaf of leaves, let along the stalk in the garden standing as tall as the eater, and roots and earth. None if this is "significant" when we speak of "corn" in summertime, but as soon as you stop to appreciate the quality of what you are munching, the rest comes back into a better focus.

Or consider AM radio broadcast, with its amplitude modulation superimposed on a high frequency "carrier signal", which never comes into your consciousness, but is responsible for the transmission. Or even that lingering awareness of having heard something interesting. Was it in the newspaper, or on TV, or someone told you.....? The message remains, the vehicle is completely gone, and that is in the nature of ordinary living and thinking.

But when we deal with a poem or a piece of music, when we strip off the acoustic "carrier", we lose what may be half of the message. One man whistles the tune of Beethoven's Fifth and says he loves Classical music, another tells you about King Lear's trouble with his daughters, a great story! But missing the fabric, they both lose the essential value of the artistry, the thing that makes the difference between the "work of art" and the outline in the HyMarx College cram series.

Poems are constructs of sounds which are woven together into complex poetic fabrics, which are a little like coins, with a figure on one side (the art work) and the denomination on the other (the signified value). You have to have both side to make a coin, but you see them with different perceptions in turn. The back side of an oriental handmade carpet shows the design and patterns perfectly if you are after the design. But when you turn it right side up, you see the whole piece as a work of art. Going one step further, thinking about a piece of machine made fabric, you can see the Idea and the Layout if you know how to read the dots and holes in the paper master of a Jacquard loom, but you have no real conception of the fabric.


I am leading to a very specific argument:
That sounds have esthetic qualities, both individually and in themselves and even more in the arrangements of their sequences. It is hard to explain the subtleties of orchestral sound to a person who is tone-deaf, and it is equally hard to persuade a student of poetry in a Literature Course that the printed words are only a shorthand representation of real sounds which move with energy in the air.

How did this deafness to the esthetics of sound come to be? It is certainly the huge emphasis which teachers for centuries have laid on the value and identity of written texts, as the sole and serious purveyors of real knowledge. We speak of something real as being "in black and white", while acoustic phenomena are momentary, vanishing instantly into the thin air. Examinations, grades, certificates and diplomas are written down, while opinion, ideas and notions are evanescent and maybe not to be taken too seriously.

This may be one of the major faults of our culture, one which places value on things of the Past committed to a finite form, while distrusting ideas which are shaping the Future, since they cannot be aread, documented, graded, and transferred ubiquitously into the social stream.


I am going to refer you to a very basic visual layout of some basic sounds which occur in English and several other languages. (There are many other sounds and also allophones which we can ignore for the moment.) I have laid these out in a ring around the VOWELS which are the musical syllable-carriers of words, since the sounds of the outside ring are modifiers for the clear-sounding music of the vowels.

Perhaps a word about the production of these sounds is in order before we consider them further:

VOWELS are musical sounds with about an octave range or less, the range being determined by the speaker's age, sex and personal sonic equipment. The vowels carry the sound of most words, although there are exceptions like :"Psst!"

The LIQUIDS which include /r/ and /l/ are very variable in many languages. In English they are produced by the vocal bands (cords) vibrating while the tongue modulates the hum of the bands against the roof of the mouth /r/ or laterally against the side teeth /l/.

The NASALS include the even longer and more sonorous /m/ and /n/ sounds. In the case of /m/ we have a purr in the cords, while the lips are closed tight, so the mouth cavity is a resonant chamber. The sound is strong but muffled. The other nasal /n/ closes the mouth by raising the tongue against the palate, so the open nasal cavity becomes the effective resonator.

The CONSONANTS work to stop off vowel sounds in very particular and characteristic ways, some like /p/ /t/ and/k/ snapping off the vowel's musiclality at the lips, while other like /b/ /d/ /g/ accompany this closing-off with a purr from the vocal cords. These sounds are very short, quite transitory, and stand as abrupt moments in a sequence of vowel musicality.

The AIR SOUNDS sometimes called Fricatives are produced by the passage of breath up from the trachea through the mouth and given a special treatment at the middle and front of the mouth. These range from an open flow of /h/ to the tight /f/ with lower lip against upper teeth, an up-tight sound indeed! The wider /s/ sound is thin, but persistent, often with a threatening snake-like feeling.

Now take a look at the layout in synoptic view.

Circle of Sounds


Despite what I have been saying about seeing vs. hearing, we are heavily dependent on Sight as human beings, some have suggested that 85 percent of our inputs are visual, although the value of these inputs may be far different. But it can be useful to try to see or "visualize" the sounds we have been discussing, and that brings us to a remarkable piece of equipment called the Sound Spectrograph.

The Spectrograph was designed toward the middle of the 20 th. century, as a machine which would write a picture of a sound on a moving strip of paper under pens, in 300 cycle tuned bands, oscillating when activated by sound. We are familiar with the use of Spectrograms in the analysis of whale and dolphin sounds, which lie in large part outside out hearing range and require a machine to register them at all.

In l945 a group at the Bell Laboratories set up an elaborate program to train a group of several deaf adults to "read" moving spectrograms as they were being displayed on a monitor, as a substitute for hearing. A full account of this endeavor was published in a book as "Visible Speech" in l947, with fine recorded spectrograms of basic sounds in words and phrases, clearly printed as illustrations throughout the book. In fact it was soon seen that the effort to capture flowing images of sounds visually was too hard to learn even for highly intelligent and motivated persons, and the project was abandoned. Since then the Sound Spectrogram, which is a complex and costly piece of machinery, was relegated to research and scientific documentation of difficult sounds.

I perceived many years ago that spectrograms could be the very tool we needed to help my students penetrate into what I thought of as "the intimate nature of sounds". The research team had also devised a system on Manual Symbols which can be drawn with a few stroke of the pencil, to describe sounds in sequence in words and phrases.

manual symbols

I found it enlightening as an introduction to sounds, use of the actual spectrograms as examples, and especially the Manual Symbols as a way of discussing complex sound-arrangements.. We further pursued this line of investigation by drawing on foot wide paper rolls our "interpretations" of the sounds as graphed lines in various colors, beneath a line of written text from a poem, and discovered a wealth of interior-designery which a casual reader of the poem might never suspect. I called this kind of interpretation"Form Analysis" and taught a course in this for many years.


In a class format, we set ourselves an arbitrary decision to ignore "meaning" as it is usually thought of, by which I mean the connotated meanings of the poem. It is so usual to concentrate specifically on the themes, the idea or ideas, the origin of the poet's thought and the history within the parameters of Literature, that we decided to put this aside as if in a safe capsule, for consideration later. In modern literary studies it is often thought that Form is the sequence of sections and episodes, while the sub-structure of sound is noted as mere decoration, the ancillary honey on the lip of the castor-oil glass. There is nothing wrong with Meaning Analysis, so long as it is not seen as the whole aim and end in literature.

Corollary: In any serious poetry (or art-prose) there is about an equal division of value between Meaning and Form. But by Form I now mean the Micro-Structure of the sounds as an array of the physical, acoustic phenomena which carry the weight of the poem. If the rule is something like 50/50, then it is this second percentage which we must study much more intensively here.

There are certain effects which appear as soon as you work a bit on this kind of form-analysis, which is the micro-structure of sound.

1) The vowels when plotted out in sequence show movements which are clearly part of the author's intention. They can be illustrative of dark mood with the low vowels, or as tight and hard as the high-sounding fronted vowels. There are not only progressions from high to low and vice versa, there can be brutal changes of range which provide a distinct "meaning of sound" in themselves.

2) The way the vowels are modulated by the stop consonants is clear and striking. The closing-off of the music vowels with stoppages at various points in the resonant mouth enclosure is subtle, often hard to hear distinctly, but always something to watch. The stops tend to be hard and even brutal, and often match the meaning in subtle ways.

3) The Nasals and Liquids are rich, long lasting, heavy sounding sounds, which are used contrastively with wonderful effect. Used in a sequence they establish a rich and rumbling mood, but used contrastively than can produce a sudden bump against other sounds. These are sound you do not miss in your hearing.

4) The AIR sounds are weak, hissing and very interesting modulators on the delicate or even ominous side of the spectrum. They couple air passing up from the throat with narrow slits in the mouth-aperture which permit thin passages of air to pass out the close-held lips. What could be more appositive than these against the Nasals?


Now let me point you to an actual Spectrogram, which you can with a little effort "read" as a sequence of sounds melding into each other.


You see how fluidly each sound slides into the next, there are no hard separations like those of the characters in this sentence. All is in a flow and all is one form beginning to end. Furthermore an expert in this field would note that each sound center moves slightly up or down in the direction of the sound which it anticipates, so there are no exact boundaries or descriptions of sounds. Yet there are recognizable patterns in these spectrograms, just as there are recognizable patterns and identities to the sounds you hear in spoken language. The brain is as busy deciphering the sounds and assigning them roles in speech, as the spectrogram is busy trying to record sounds as the paper passes under the sound-agitated pens.


The purposes of this long and rather tortuous paper are to place a suitable emphasis on several points which are usually ignored or misunderstood:

First: Language is sound-based, and Art Language products must be grasped initially as constructed and composed of sounds.

Second: Meaning in the usual connotative sense, is fused and welded together with Sound, so that although each might seem to be complete in itself, they are mutually interdependent ipso facto.

Third: SOUND as Sound can serve to accompany the Meaning of Meaning (bad phrase, but you see what I "mean").

Fourth: The SOUND level can operate on its own as a separate layer of "meaning" aside from "Meaning". Tt can even be an entity unto itself.

Fifth: The SOUND layer can oppose the Meaning layer, in other words it can provide a way for the artist of words coming to possess two voices operating at the same time. This shows clearly in Vergil's "writing between the lines", a feature often noted in his work, sometimes called "having two voices"

Sixth: We need to define FORM in a new bipartite way:

Meaning can be described in a sequence of points involving ideas, thoughts, themes and effects. I would call this the Idea Level of Meaning.

A piece of word-art can only be carried by Sounds which are physical entities in a real-world setting. These have special qualities in themselves, as well as arrangements and sequences which can be described as constituting The Meaning of Form.

Having for centuries confined ourselves to the idea Level of Meaning or the Meaning of the Ideas, we can turn with a certain sense of relief to the new page on which is written the "Meaning of the Forms", expecting to find new perceptions and new ways into the interpretation of our often stiffly canonized literature of the Art of Words.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College