Trying to Be Heard: Our Quest for Louder Instruments

Have acoustic musical instruments been designed to produce more sound as an expression of an innate human desire to be heard?(Photo: daveoratox (Flickr))
Have acoustic musical instruments been designed to produce more sound as an expression of an innate human desire to be heard?(Photo: daveoratox (Flickr))

In our modern, industrialized world, we’ve seen all kinds of proliferation: military, financial (inflation), academic (grade inflation) and culinary (“super size”), to name just a few.

A blogger at NewMusicBox.org recently pointed out that music also has been puffed up as, through history, instruments have been constructed to produce more sound. Call it acoustic inflation, if you like.

Whatever label you choose to stick on the phenomenon, blogger Dan Visconti suggests that humans have built louder and louder musical instruments through the ages as, in part, an expression of our primal need to be heard:

Of course the development of musical instruments is also about the quest for uniformity of production and increased accuracy, among other things; yet it strikes me that no other quality drove such radical change in the form and function of instruments as this urge to crank the amp up to eleven. That says a lot about us as a species—namely, that humans have an irrepressible desire to be heard and also to experience music at a sufficient dynamic that it can be felt in a visceral sense.

Read this way, the crescendo in the size and sound of the orchestra through the 1800s and the sometimes ear-blistering volume at modern-day concerts of popular music can be viewed almost as musical versions of the primal scream: I make noise, therefore I am.

I wonder how universal this louder-is-better phenomenon is. Some cultures seem louder than others. And there’s the issue of reverse psychology: want to be heard? Don’t screech and bark; instead, speak softly and make them listen.

What do you think? Are we hardwired instinctively to hear and be heard? Or is there some other (anthropological? cultural?) explanation for why Western musical instruments have been designed to be louder?

Read more:  The Quest for Volume (New Music Box)

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