The Symbolism of Sound

Imagine the sound of shoes striking the pavement, along with sounds of the busy city in the background. Like a rich stew, the unique mixture of background noises slowly reduce to a simmer from a rapid boil. The sound of footsteps increase in pace with an unmistakable reverberation, while the person's quickened breathing can be heard as if they were standing right next to you. Sounds played by members of an alley orchestra begin to brush by your ears – a cat meowing, a garbage can lid hitting the ground, and water drops dripping on metal.

As you imagine or hear the sounds in your mind, what pictures do you see from your memory movie archives and what did you feel at that very moment?

Our sense of hearing is really incredible. Nature designed ears to pick-up vibrations. Even more awesome, our brains, in the quickest instance, translate these vibrations into life's infinite sounds.

At that moment, we're able to make the “what's next” decisions about these sounds. We may begin to tap one foot to an enjoyable rhythm or get ready to flee, as our heart rate increases, in light of imminent danger. We may smile because a sound is amusing or we might frown because a sound is part of a cacophony.

While sounds don't occupy physical space, they do set-up an address in the sonic spectrum. For example, an audio engineer mixing a piece of music has to be certain that the mix is balanced. This means the high frequencies (glass bell), mid frequencies (speaking voice) and low frequencies (bass drum) are sitting properly in their respective places. In this instance, we can refer to sounds as sound objects.

Like objects and images, sounds can carry untold amounts of symbolism. For instance, the sounds of a jackhammer, bulldozer, and large trucks conjure images of construction. At the same time, unconsciously, we may think of progress, newness, or even the old “Men At Work” signs.

Because of what these sounds are associated with, we don't actually have to see these things for the images to replay like an audiovisual quilt stitched together in our minds.

When sounds are combined with music, the effect on the mind is astounding! Just try watching a movie with the sound muted. The imagery may still be stunning, but it won't be nearly as compelling.

There are five audio clips below. Take a moment to listen to each one. Before you start listening, find a comfortable position and grab your headphones or earbuds!

After playing each audio clip, note of any images or feelings that came to mind.

Did you judge the sounds as good or bad? If so, why? Were there any sounds that you really enjoyed? Were there any sounds that you disliked? Did any sounds bring back particular memories?

Remember to be mindful of the sounds around you. Challenge yourself to truly hear them. Notice how they affect you and the world around you.