Why Ancient Noise? Or Sound vs Noise

I was asked by friend why I refer to ancient sounds as noise and why this blog is titled Ancient Noise. Although they are two different questions, they come out of a shared understanding about the Roman world as perceived by the Romans (predominately through their  architecture and literature). My own work on architectural acoustics argues that Roman construction, design and use of buildings was minimally concerned with ‘sound proofing’. The Romans did not have the knowledge, or means, of sound measurement or sound isolation. They could tell you something was loud, quite, annoying, pleasant etc. but they could not isolate sound the way we do today. They could, and did, make judgements about the sounds they heard around them but there was no standardised readings of the physics of sound.

The modern ability to measure sound pressure levels (a measure of intensity) is a resent development, which was furthered by the realization that sounds at certain levels could be harmful. Once the connection between sounds and health was made noise became a problem. Noise is, therefore, unwanted sounds. Hence the vast array of law concerning noise control and standardised noise levels.

I have no disagreement with this definition of noise. Unwanted sounds are noises. But for the Romans, who were unable to isolate sounds, both good and bad, noise is one of the primary sources for sounds that we have. We have complaints about all kinds of noises. Trumpets, carts, sellers yelling, people crying, weightlifters grunting and on and on. My interest in everyday rhythms means that I focus on these noises and the architecture that shaped them. It is the unwanted sounds that offer insight into the daily interactions, which produced those same sounds. In my work, all sounds can be classified as noise, since the Romans had no way, other than running off to an uninhabited area (which would still be filled with noises), to close out the sounds and noises around them. Hence Ancient Noise.

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