Sound as a Discipline, the Discipline of Sound

Before we had the technology to record, play back, and manipulate sound, people used writing to represent sound. Some of these written works took a scientific and philosophical approach, contributing to the discipline of acoustics, while others were more concerned with the emotional or even moral aspects of music and sound. Even reference works such as dictionaries addressed sound, documenting and explaining the correct pronunciation of words.

Athanasius Kircher, a 17th-century Jesuit who wrote on topics ranging from science to linguistics, technology and religion, made important contributions to scientific knowledge. He imagined, and in some cases drew and even built, experiments to prove various scientific hypotheses. In his work on sound, Phonurgia Nova, Kircher proposed ways to transmit and amplify sound in a variety of situations, including underground and in large outdoor areas such as courtyards.

The Great Abuse of Music , an early 18th-century work, criticizes virtually every form of musical expression except for church music. It considered secular music to be objectionable because of the contents of its lyrics, its inferior musicality, and its appeal to the “lower elements” of society. According to the author, enjoying a popular ballad was the first stop on a slippery slope that would lead to complete moral ruin.

Before the advent of online pronouncing dictionaries, printed dictionaries included pronunciation of entries as well as their definitions. Noah Webster’s Dictionary of the American Language (1828) promoted standardized pronunciations according to American accents and simplified spellings. Some publications, such as the famous lexicographer William Craigie’s “The Pronunciation of English,” were devoted primarily to instructing readers on “proper” pronunciation, a project in keeping with a long tradition of attempting to impose standardized (or “accent-free”) English pronunciation.

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