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Another chance to hear a human history of sound and listening

David Hendy, Professor of Media and Cultural History at Sussex, travelled the world to research the stories, record sounds on location and sample the archives in an exploration of 100,000 years of human interaction with sound.

A BBC Radio series on the history of sound and listening, written and presented by a University of Sussex academic, is being repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra and BBC Sounds.

Noise: a Human History’ was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2013, with one reviewer describing it then as “the new History of the World in 100 Objects, but with sounds instead of things”.

Each of the 30 episodes is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra at 2.15pm every weekday (repeated at 2.15am), and is available on BBC Sounds as a download.

David Hendy, Professor of Media and Cultural History at Sussex, travelled the world to research the stories, record sounds on location and sample the archives in an exploration of 100,000 years of human interaction with sound, from the first prehistoric cave artists to the present day.

Professor Hendy says: “Sound is more than just acoustics. Noise, for example, is a sound that someone, somewhere, doesn’t want to hear. So noise gives us a route in to the story of human existence. It brings sound back to a human level – more of a felt experience and one that’s about power and struggle, life and death, pleasure and pain, the need to hear and be heard.”

The series, which was recorded on location in Europe, America, Asia and Africa, offers a global history of humanity by tracing the sounds we have made - and the ways in which we have listened - from prehistory to the present.

Each episode examines a different element of human experience, including:

  • the mystic power of sound reverberating in Neolithic burial chambers;
  • song, drums and silence traces the journey of slaves from Ghana to the New World;
  • the impact of the city, explored via the hubbub of ancient Rome to the massacre of noisy cats in pre-Revolutionary Paris and the clamour of industrialised London;
  • the horror of conflict, shown in the ear-splitting hell of WWI trenches, or in the profound poignancy of 9/11 victims’ voicemail messages to loved ones;
  • the importance of listening, as found in the story of Islam, ancient Hinduism and Buddhism;
  • the potency of music in work, play and prayer as experienced in the Muzak of the factory floor, the blues rhythms of the jazz speakeasy and the heavenly sound of a medieval cathedral’s “singing” angels.

In the series, which took a year to make, Professor Hendy included treasures from the British Library,  the BBC’s Natural History Unit and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, as well as private sound archives from across the world.

Some of the sounds were recorded on location especially for the programme to form 'soundscapes' that transport listeners to particular places and moments in time.

Extra clips – including rare recordings of Ghanian 'talking drums' and Korean shamanic rituals – are now available on the series website.

A book by David Hendy – Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening – is also available. To find out more about the making of the book and the series, go to the Making Noise blog.


Posted on behalf of: School of Media, Film and Music
Last updated: Tuesday, 21 May 2019


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