The Hum

Posted in 2013 The Gnovis Blog


The hum of our electronics is so constant and pervasive that we don’t hear it anymore. It has become “invisible,” like power lines and pavement. So much of what exists we fail to consciously recognize. And we aren’t necessarily worse off for not noticing, but these invisible things might have very real consequences. I recently listed to an interview of an Atlantic Monthly writer named Toby Lester. One day he had become very conscious of the noises around him, emanating from his electronic devices. At home it was his refrigerator and his microwave, at work his heater and computer.

Take a moment right now to listen to the hums around you. Where are they coming from? Your lamp? Your laptop? Your television? Each of these noises has a pitch. And each of these pitches has a feeling.
“There does seem to be a relationship between the kind of electricity a sound produces and how we feel about that sound,” claims the host of the NPR show RadioLab on their 2007 show called Musical Language. Just because we are not consciously aware of the sounds we are hearing, doesn’t mean we are not neurologically reacting to those sounds. And if these electronic hums that we listen to all day produce sounds that our brains react to in a negative way, perhaps the bad moods that we find ourselves in do in fact have an external culprit.
In 1913, Igor Stravinsky premiered his new symphony, the Rite of Spring, in Paris. Up until then, most wealthy Europeans were used to the beautiful, romantic music of the 19th century, but all of a sudden they were hit with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, its harsh, disorderly, dissonant sounds were completely shocking.
The attendees rioted. The well-heeled patrons of the Champs Élysées Theatre were not prepared for such chaotic, hostile noises, and sharp, twitchy movements from the dancers, and they were not accepting of the pagan themes ballet. And so they rioted.
“We find that cords, musical cords, that are typically judged to be dissonant, elicit these wild fluctuations in brain activity,” says neurologist Yonatan Fishman in an interview on NPR’s RadioLab. In his article “Consonance and Dissonance of Musical Chords” in the Journal of Neurophysiology, Fishman writes that “Musical consonance/dissonance is culturally determined, as evidenced by its variation across cultures and historical periods. In contrast, judgments of sensory consonance/dissonance are culturally invariant and largely independent of musical training.” In essence, people’s reaction to sounds are affected by their cultures, but our reactions to sensory disorder are common across culture.
In his article Secondhand Music, Lester writes that “The musical mode considered least dissonant (and thus most standard) in our Western tradition is the major mode, which is often equated with positive emotions, such as happiness, triumph, and love.” He emphasizes the need for musical resolution in order for us to feel relaxed and comfortable with sounds. This resolution is what is lacking with the noises emitted by our electronics. Think of the ring tone versus the busy tone, Lester argues. The ring tone is a consonant noise, with a reassuring resolution to the sound. The busy tone, on the other hand, is a dissonant sound that creates a feeling of unresolved tension, leading us to hang up quickly.
I can’t help but wonder if these underlying, “invisible” dissonant noises all around us, disorderly, unresolved noises that we have a naturally negative neurological reaction to, have something to do with the depression and edginess that so many of us feel these days. It seems that being able to identify an external stimuli for our bad moods, one that has gone unnoticed everyday, would be a powerful thing. Rather than assuming there is something internally wrong, something we have to fix about our brains, maybe we just have to turn off the technology for awhile and provide our brains with a little peace from the constant unresolved tension of the electronic hum.
Fishman, Y. I., Volkov, I. O., Noh, M. D., Garell, P. C., Bakken, H., Arezzo, J. C., Howard, M. A., and Steinschneider, M. (2001). Consonance and Dissonance of Musical Chords: Neural Correlates in Auditory Cortex of Monkeys and Humans. Journal of Neurophysiology, 86:2761-2788.
Lester, T. (1997). Secondhand music: The chance harmonies of everyday sounds may mean more than we think. The Atlantic.

Camille Koué is pursuing her master’s degree in Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University. She is focused on the intersection of technology, infrastructure and design and the effects these domains have on human behavior, civic engagement and community development. A native of Oakland, Calif., she graduated from American University with degrees in Visual Media, Justice and Spanish Language.