Tweets and Hums

Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

T S Eliot

T S Eliot – Internet visionary?

Not the first time I have kicked off with an Eliot quotation – but this one, from Burnt Norton in The Four Quartets, seems to me to have more prescience than Eliot himself could ever have known; it suggests something of how the poet might have described the Internet, had he encountered it. It’s not just the mention of ‘this twittering world’ which stands out, but if you have combed through a few typical Internet forums – or tweets, for that matter – you may feel that ‘eructation of unhealthy souls’ aptly describes some of the content.

Well of course for a couple of years I have been adding my own thin reedy voice to the raging hubbub of the Internet; whether this blog could be described as a series of eructations, or what it might reveal about the health or otherwise of my soul, is for you to judge, dear reader. But I will admit that I have also indirectly contributed to some Internet content that many of us would prefer not to be there. My work, up until I retired three months ago, concerned the provision of services to help companies increase their profits from selling on the Internet. So I can’t pretend that my soul is perfectly untainted, involved as it has been in the grubby business of taking from your wallet, rather than adding to your mind.

But I can at any rate claim never to have tweeted myself. Maybe I’m just too ponderous and verbose to be able to squeeze any of my thoughts into 140 characters. I do have a twitter account, but only use it for listening to what others have to say. I can even boast three followers, one of whom, I was surprised to find, is a prominent poet. So I can only assume that these are refined people who appreciate the value of silence. Perhaps, thinking of Eliot, I am putting ‘the darkness’ back into ‘this twittering world.’

The Hum

But it’s really another sort of noise that I wanted to write about here, which also, by all accounts, ‘sweeps the gloomy hills of London’, as well as many other places. It  must have been two or three years ago – I’m not sure exactly when – that I noticed a sound that I could hear at night when I was in bed. It was a soft, low humming that sounded like a distant motor running – constant but pulsating slightly. It wasn’t one of those noises originating in the house; the central heating and the fridge both generate their sounds only intermittently, and this never seemed to stop, and in any case had a distinct timbre of its own. I didn’t hear it during the day, but in daytime there are many other sounds to drown it out. I assumed that it must be some sort of industrial process in the area, and didn’t give any more thought to it for a while.

Every so often I would lie there and wonder about it. There is little industrial activity in our area, and I hadn’t noticed any sounds coming from what small factories there are. Then one day a few months ago my daughter (to whom I hadn’t mentioned anything about this) passed on to me something a friend had told her, about a phenomenon known as ‘The Hum’. The friend, who lives in a city distant from us, hears this sound and has read about it on the Internet. It seemed to match up with what I was hearing.

The Hum map

Worlwide reports of the Hum –

So a quick bit of Internet research confirmed that it had been reported for at least the last 50 years or so in many parts of the world. But also, oddly, according to most accounts, that only some 2% of people actually hear it. And, even more oddly to me, that many lose sleep as a result, and suffer stress and mental illness. There are even claims of suicides caused by it, although I could find no more details about who these individuals were. I am surprised at all this because the Hum, if that’s what it is, certainly causes no problems for me. Most of us sleep in the presence of all sorts of background noises which we can habituate to, and are mostly not consciously aware of; for me this is just one more such sound. People who hear it are often referred to as ‘sufferers’ – but for me there’s no suffering involved, just mild curiosity.

It’s difficult to know what to make of the fact that only a minority of people hear the Hum at all. I seem to be the only member of my family who hears it; although I’ve now found that our next door neighbour does, and claims that it can prevent her sleeping.  All this suggests some kind of tinnitus – an internal effect generated by the brain or the auditory system. But in my case at least, I have satisfied myself that it is actually out there. Most people, including me, have some sort of noise in their heads – usually a high pitched ringing in the ears, as you can get after you have been exposed to very loud sounds – but much softer, and unnoticed unless you pay close attention to it. Tinnitus sufferers, of course, can have it much louder – distractingly so. But unlike those internal head-sounds, the Hum behaves like a noise in the environment; it appears to come from a direction (usually the window when indoors) and stopping the ears can block it.

If those who hear it are in a minority, perhaps there’s a clue here as to why it causes such distress in some. There may be a spectrum of sensitivity to this phenomenon – the majority unable to hear it at all; some, like me, just aware of it but undisturbed; and the few unlucky ones plagued and distressed. There is some evidence that most hearers are middle-aged or older, and it’s true that I never noticed it until a couple of years or so ago.

So where does it come from?

But the big question is, what is the source of this sound? I mentioned that it seems to come from the window, but if I lean out of the window I’m not sure I can hear it – it seems to be drowned by other ambient sounds (we live a mile and a half from a motorway). However one night recently I found myself awake in the small hours, when background noise is at a minimum. I went outside to listen and, yes, I could hear the Hum. The worldwide reports suggest that it’s not confined to certain localities; I was on holiday recently in Dorset, we’ll away from any towns or industry, and found that  I could hear it there also.

It has been reported to be a mainly indoor phenomenon; but this may simply be that, being a low frequency sound, it penetrates walls and closed windows more readily than other background noise. Outside, it’s overwhelmed by other, mostly higher frequency, ambient sounds. My hunch is that it could be some sort of vibration originating from the earth below. This could mean that the walls of a building act as a soundboard, magnifying the sound within. The ground source theory is backed up by one recent report, claiming that it’s a seismic phenomenon originating from wave motion impacting the sea bed. This all sounds rather speculative, however, and the mention of 13 to 300 second bursts doesn’t fit with my experience of a constant background noise.

But I do feel that some sort of seismic explanation is the most plausible. It seems that, rather than a ‘twittering world’, we have a humming one. I’d be interested to see comments from anyone who experiences – or suffers from – the Hum. You can also register your experience with it on a website that collects such data: And of course, as always, there’s a Wikipedia article.

Words and Music

Commuting days until retirement: 360

Words and MusicThis piece was kicked off by some comments I heard from the poet Sean O’Brien on a recent radio programme. Speaking on the BBC’s Private Passions, where guests choose favourite music, and talking about Debussy, he said:

Poetry is always envious of music because that’s what poetry wants to be, whereas music has no need to be poetry. So [poets] are always following in the wake of music – but the two come quite close in sensibility here, it seems to me.

Discuss. Well, for me this immediately brought to mind a comment I once heard attributed to the composer Mendelssohn, to the effect that ‘music is not too vague for words, but too precise.’ So I went and did some Googling, and here’s the original quote:

People often complain that music is too ambiguous, that what they should think when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me, it is exactly the opposite, and not only with regard to an entire speech but also with individual words. These, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words. The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.

(Source: Wikiquote, where you can also see the original German.)

These two statements seem superficially similar – are they saying the same thing, from different standpoints? One difference, of course, is that O’Brien is specifically talking of poetry rather than words in general. In comparison with prose, poetry shares more of the characteristics of music: it employs rhythm, cadence, phrasing and repetition, and is frequently performed rather than read from the page; and music of course is virtually exclusively a performance art. So that’s a first thought about how poetry departs from the prosaic and finds itself approaching the territory inhabited by music.

But what is the precision which Mendelssohn insists is music’s preserve? It’s true that music is entirely bound up with the mathematics of sound frequency ratios in intervals between notes: it was this that gave Pythagoras and others their obsession with the mystique of numbers, in antiquity. A musician need not be grounded deeply in mathematical theory, but but he or she will always be intensely aware of the differing characters of musical intervals – as is anyone who enjoys music at all, if perhaps more indirectly.

I haven’t read a lot of theorising on this topic, but it seems to me that there is a strong link here with everyday speech. In my own language, as, I should imagine, in most others, pitch and phrasing indicate the emotional register of what you are saying, and hence an important element of the meaning. One can imagine this evolving from the less articulate cries of our ancestors, with an awareness of intervals of pitch developing as a method of communication, hence fostering group cohesion and Darwinian survival value. Indeed, in some languages, such as Chinese, intonation can be integral to the meaning of a word. And there’s scientific evidence of the closeness of music and language: here’s an example.

So, going back to Mendelssohn, it’s as if music has developed by abstracting certain elements from speech, leaving direct, referential meaning behind and evolving a vocabulary from pitch, timbre and the free-floating emotional states associated with them. Think for a moment of film music. It can be an interesting exercise, in the middle of a film or TV drama, to make yourself directly aware of the background music, and then imagine how your perception of what is happening would differ if it were absent. You come to realise that the music is often instructing you what to feel about a scene or a character, and it often connects with your emotions so directly that it doesn’t consciously occur to you that the feelings you experience are not your own spontaneous ones. And if you add to this the complex structures formed from key relationships and temporal development, which a professional musician would be particularly aware of, you can start to see what Mendelssohn was talking about.

The musical piece O’Brien was introducing was the ‘Dialogue between the wind and the sea’ from Debussy ‘s La Mer. In other words,a passage which seeks to evoke a visual and auditory scene, rather than simply exploring musical ideas and the emotions that arise directly from them. By contrast, we could imagine a description of such a scene in prose: to be effective the writer needs to choose the words whose meanings and associations come together in such a way that readers can recreate the sensory impressions, and and the subjective impact of the scene in their own minds. The music, on the other hand, can combine its direct emotional access with an auditory picture, in a highly effective way.

Rain Steam and Speed

Rain, Steam and Speed – J.M.W Turner (National Gallery, London)

I was trying to think of an equivalent in visual art, and and the painting that came to mind was this one, with its emphasis on the raw sensory feelings evoked by the scene, rather than a faithful (prosaic) portrayal. In his use of this technique, Turner was of course controversial in his time, and is now seen as a forerunner of the impressionist movement. Interestingly, what I didn’t know before Googling the painting was that he is also known to have influenced Debussy, who mentions him in his letters. Debussy was also sometimes spoken of as impressionist, but he hated this term being applied to his work, and here is a quote from one of those letters:

I am trying to do something different – an effect of reality… what the imbeciles call impressionism, a term which is as poorly used as possible, particularly by the critics, since they do not hesitate to apply it to Turner, the finest creator of mysterious effects in all the world of art.

I like to think that perhaps Debussy is also to some extent lining up with Mendelssohn here, and, beside his reference to Turner’s painting, maybe has in mind the unique form of access to our consciousness which music has, as opposed to other art forms. A portrayal in poetry would perhaps come somewhere between prose and music, given that poetry, as we’ve seen, borrows some of music’s tricks. I looked around for an example of a storm at sea in poetry: here’s a snippet from Swinburne, around the turn of the 20th century, describing a storm in the English Channel.

As a wild steed ramps in rebellion, and and rears till it swerves from a backward fall,
The strong ship struggled and reared, and her deck was upright as a sheer cliff’s wall.

In two lines here we have – besides two similes with one of them extended into a metaphor – alliteration, repetition and rhyme, all couched in an irregular, bucking rhythm which suggests the movement of the ship with the sea and wind. Much in common here, then, with a musical evocation of a storm. This I take to be part of what O’Brien means by poetry ‘wanting’ to be music, and being ‘close in sensibility’ in the example he was talking about.

But I don’t see how all this implies that we should somehow demote poetry to an inferior role. Yes, it’s true that words don’t so often trigger emotions as directly, by their sound alone, as does music – except perhaps in individual cases where someone has become sensitised to a word through experience. But the Swinburne passage is an example of poetry flexing the muscles which it alone possesses, in pursuit of its goal. And even when its direct purpose is not the evocation of a specific scene, the addition of the use of imagery to the auditory effects it commands can create a very compelling kind of ‘music’. A couple of instances that occur to me: first T. S. Eliot in Burnt Norton, from The Four Quartets.

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long-forgotten wars.

I’m vaguely aware that there all sorts of allusions in the poet’s mind which are beyond my awareness, but just at the level of the sound of the words combined with the immediate images they conjure, there is for me a magic about this which fastens itself in my mind, making it intensely enjoyable to repeat the words to myself, I just as a snatch of music can stick in the consciousness. Another example, from Dylan Thomas, known for his wayward and idiosyncratic use of language. This is the second stanza from Especially When the October Wind:

Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water’s speeches.

Again, I find pure pleasure in the play of sounds and images here, before ever considering what further meaning there may be. But what I also love about the whole poem (here is the poet reading it) is the way it is self-referential: while exploiting the power of words, it explicitly links language-words to  images – ‘vowelled beeches’ rhymed with ‘water’s speeches’. The poet himself is ‘shut in a tower of words’ .

But, returning to the comparison with music, there’s one obvious superficial difference between it and language, namely that language is generally ‘about’ something, but while music is not. But of course there are plenty of exceptions: music can be, at least in part, deliberately descriptive, as we saw with Debussy, he while poetry often does away with literal meaning to transform itself into a sort of word-music, as I’ve tried to show above. And another obvious point I haven’t made is that words and music are often – perhaps more often than not – yoked together in song. The voice itself can simultaneously be a musical instrument and a purveyor of meaning. And it may be that the music is recruited to add emotional resonance to the language – think opera or musical drama – or that the words serve to give the music a further dimension and personality, as often in popular music. In the light of his statement above, it’s interesting that Mendelssohn is famous particularly for his piano pieces entitled Songs Without Words. The oxymoron is a suggestive one, and he strongly resisted an attempt by a friend to put words to them.

But the question of what music itself is ‘about’ is a perplexing, and perhaps profound one. I am intending this post to be one approach to the philosophical question of how it’s possible for one thing to be ‘about’ another: the topic known as intentionality. In an interesting paper, Music and meaning, ambiguity and evolution, Ian Cross of the Cambridge Faculty of Music explores this question (1), referring to the fact that the associations and effects of a piece of music may differ between the performer and a listener, or between different listeners. Music has, as he puts it, ‘floating intentionality’. This reminds me of a debate that has taken place about the performance of early music. For authenticity in, say 16th century music, some claim, it’s essential that it is played on the instruments of the time. Their opponents retort that you won’t achieve that authenticity unless you have a 16th century audience as well.

Some might claim that most music is not ‘about’ anything but itself, or perhaps about the emotions it generates. I am not intending to come to any conclusion on that particular topic, but just to raise some questions in a fascinating area. In the next post I intend to approach this topic of intentionality from a completely different direction.

1. Cross, Ian: Music and meaning, ambiguity and evolution, in D. Miell, R. MacDonald & D. Hargreaves, Musical Communication, OUP, 2004.
You can read part of it here.