The Naturalization of Built Environments: Two Case Studies

Historians have, in the last decade or so, expanded their approach to the past to include sensory experiences.  Sounds and ways of listening to them—what people heard, what sounds had meaning to them—have been established as an important way to understand the past (Johnson 1995; Picker 2003; Smith 2000; Sterne 2003; Thompson 2002).  The senses are at, indeed form the very foundation of, the unstable intersection of nature and culture (Jay 2011).  Specific ways of listening were and are in service of specific understandings of nature.

Through a brief discussion of two case studies, I examine how individuals’ conception of their environment related to their aural perception of it.  The first case study was an early effort by the Edison Company to train consumers’ aural perceptions.  The second is an exploration of post-war sound recordings of both the natural environment and the built environment.  Through these case studies, I explore the consequences of introducing new sound objects and new forms of listening for understandings of nature in built environments. 


Case 1: The Edison-Carnegie Music Research Program

In 1914, the Edison Company, seeing value in large-scale marketing schemes aimed at cultivating new forms of listening in the public, launched a program of what they alternately termed demonstration recitals, tone tests, and Re-Creation recitals.  These performances took place in Edison shops, private homes, and community gathering spaces.  Demonstrators (overseen by the Edison Company), sometimes assisted by Edison recording artists, would instruct the audience on the proper operation of the device.  They also instructed the audience on what to listen for, emphasizing the quality and fidelity of sound generated by the Edison machine. These demonstration recitals were a means of training listeners to receive the phonograph’s sound in a very specific way. The audiences were taught to be experts on sound fidelity (Thompson 1995). Further, they were trained to be experts at a new kind of listening. They could separate music from noise and to ignore, possibly not even hear, the latter.

Building on the success of the demonstration recitals, the Edison Company approached Walter Van Dyke Bingham, director of the Division of Applied Psychology at the Carnegie Institute of Technology.  Bingham’s functionalist approach to psychology is evident in his researches on the motor effects of music and eventual belief that they could be measured and universalized.  The Edison-Carnegie Music Research Program was given $10,000 and a set of Edison Re-Creation records to study “the psychological reactions which definite forms of music produce in the human mind” (November 3, 1919 letter, Walter Van Dyke Bingham Collection).  Among other activities the Research Program performed a series of lab experiments in which individuals practiced in “introspection” (a self-witnessing technique in experimental psychology at the time) gave their emotional responses to various Re-Creation records.  The results of these experiments were then used to develop the Mood Change Chart.

The Mood Change Chart was a form to be filled out during a Mood Change Test in an Edison shop, the privacy of one’s own living room, or at the Mood Change Parties the Edison Company encouraged (William Maxwell Files).  The listener indicated the time of day, the weather, and their location.  They then could choose from a set of options to answer “What kind of music did you feel like hearing?” and “What was your mood immediately preceding test?”  The listener was then asked to indicate the “Re-Creation [record] causing such change” along with blanks to write in their mood change from “______ to ______.”  The Mood Change Test could be performed three times per form.  Listeners were asked to include additional comments on the back, sign the chart, and either turn it in at an Edison shop or mail to the Edison Laboratories.

The public was encouraged to take the Mood Change Test as part of a grand and innovative experiment by Mr. Edison.  This reinforced the established marketing program that promoted Edison phonographs as the product of the inventor’s scientific incubator.  The Mood Change Test was indeed a grand experiment.  27,000 filled-out Mood Change Charts were returned to Bingham for analysis.  Not only was the Edison-Carnegie Music Research Program able to gather massive amounts of data on the public’s listening practices, but the Mood Change Test also primed participants to think about music in terms of its effects.  Filling out the Mood Change Chart reinforced Bingham’s mechanical understanding of music, that it caused motor and mood effects. 

An analysis of the returned Mood Change Charts culminated in the publication of Mood Music: A compilation of 112 Edison Re-Creations according to what they will do for you, a short promotional booklet distributed at Edison shops.  The booklet included an introduction summarizing Edison’s innovations in sound recording as well as a discussion of the Edison-Carnegie Music Research Program’s work by Bingham.  Mood Music was organized around the twelve mood-effects of music.  A brief description of each mood was given and then a list of ten to twelve Edison Re-Creation records, complete with their catalog number and price, to elicit this mood was offered.  Sometimes a before-and-after image illustrated the motor and mood effects of a properly selected Re-Creation.1  Readers/listeners were encouraged to “see what music can be made to do for you” (Mood Music, 10).

We can read the efforts of the Edison-Carnegie Music Research Program to be one of defining and standardizing private listening.  Further, these efforts fostered in listeners—through the process of filling out the Mood Change Chart, purchasing music with the aim of “making it work for [them]”—a new understanding of the role of music as a functional one.  Music could affect body and mood.  A related consequence was the establishment of private, individual space as a place for self-improvement through deliberate listening to the sounds of the built environment.


Case 2: Environmental Sound Records

We might think of the sound records that proliferated during the 1950s and 1960s as a further reflection of the functional role of sound—in this case improvement of the mind.  There was, of course, since the beginning of the consumer music industry, a significant market for educational records.  I would argue, however, that the environmental sound records of the 1950s and 1960s, were direct descendants of the early bird song records of the 1930s explicitly developed for ear-training and to further specific scientific goals.

In 1931, Arthur Allen’s ornithological laboratory at Cornell University developed a technique for recording bird vocalizations onto Movietone film.  The film recordings were translated into plots of vibrational frequency over time (sonograms) as well as transferred onto phonograph records for replay.  The records were used both to archive disappearing sounds of declining species and for ear training in preparation for fieldwork.  As a consequence, they reinforced existing taxonomic systems (Mundy 2009) and a laboratory aesthetic of sterile sound (Bruyninckx 2011).  These sound recordings were also soon distributed as accompaniments to field guides and through radio shows.  They introduced listeners to never before heard sounds, a soundscape beyond their backyards, albeit one in which birds were reduced to their sound, separated from it in both time and space.

The post-war years witnessed a massive increase in environmental sound recordings.  Though we might seek to divide these sounds into “natural” and “human made,” a quick perusal of the language on record jackets reveals a common language of curiosity about new sounds and desire to preserve vanishing sounds (both natural and human made). The 1952 Sounds of the Sea, Vol.1, presented never-before-heard sounds of the ocean and the animals in it recorded by the Naval Research Laboratory.  The jacket breathlessly noted: “To think of fishes making noises, holding conversations, so to speak, warning each other or courting each other, as we think of birds singing to each other, is an idea which seems as strange as it well can be.” (Coates 1952, 2)  There was an anthropocentrism present, both in the characterization of animal behavior and the lack of awareness of the human-made media necessary to experience these sounds at all, to transform fish sounds into human sounds.  The record was also clearly the product of curiosity about this new sonic world and likely motored further interest. Subsequent records of desert animals, insects, the jungle, and more fulfilled similar roles.

Another example: The 1956 Sounds of Steam Locomotives, No.1 record was the first of several made by train enthusiast Vinton Wight in an effort to preserve the disappearing steam locomotive.  Wight found that each steam engine had a specific, individual sound, what he considered to be a personality.  He described the “stack music” of the locomotive as a symphony of sorts, changing tone and timbre with the weight of its load (Wight 1956, 3).  The jacket included descriptions and photographs for each track, each a different locomotive.  Not unlike the records produced by the Cornell ornithological laboratory, Sounds of Steam Locomotives advanced a specific taxonomy and sought to preserve disappearing sounds.

The 1964 Sounds of the Office record is a bit of a mystery.  The jacket itself includes little text other than a description of the sound-generating device on each track.  All but the last tracks were devoted to the isolated sound of a single office machine.  The last track documented the office soundscape, with all machines running together in full cacophony.  Again like the bird sound recordings, we can hear the sterile laboratory aesthetic of, say, the electric typewriter isolated from its office soundscape.  Sounds of the Office likely also fulfilled a curiosity among listeners, granting them access to the sonic world of white-collar work, and perhaps also archiving such sounds for posterity.


Some Conclusions

I highlighted in the first case study the (attempted) cultivation of a listening practice by the Edison-Carnegie Music Research Program in which a listener would seek out specific sounds in the hopes of affecting his or her own body and mood.  One consequence of this effort was a growing understanding of music among the public as functional, a technology that could be put to “work for you.”  In the second case study, I showed through a quick gloss over a variety of environmental sound recordings a common curiosity among listeners about sonic worlds beyond their direct lived experiences and a desire to preserve vanishing and potentially extinct sounds. 

The listening to sounds of nature in built spaces was normalized through the intersection of practices and products highlighted in these two case studies.  To approach a listening experience as a means of altering ones’ current state (mind or body) allowed for openness to new sonic worlds, perhaps even a responsibility or ethical obligation to listen. The normalization of nature sounds in built spaces was aided by the simultaneous interest in human-made sounds.  Novel sounds were interchangeable. Because all sounds were abstracted from their sources (times, places, organisms, machines), all were equivalent sonic curiosities, all worthy of preservation.

Additionally tucked in here—perhaps only possible because of this equivalence—was the development of another new form of listening, one that was sensitive to a vanishing sonic world.  Listening to vanishing sounds somehow preserved them. Further, this new form of listening took fledgling form in the 1930s, a full three decades before the environmental movement. Perhaps we can invert this normalization of nature through sound in built environments.  Instead we should understand the post-war proliferation of nature sounds as the naturalization of built environments and the culmination of several decades of new listening practices and products that fueled a growing awareness of the fleetingness of sounds in nature, of nature’s increasing silence.



Walter Van Dyke Bingham Collection, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, Carnegie Mellon University.

Bruyninckx, Joeri. “Sound Sterile: Making Scientific Field Recordings in Ornithology.” In The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, edited by Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, 127–150. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Coates, C. W. “Introduction and Notes.” Sounds of the Sea, Vol. 1: Underwater Sounds of Biological Origin. Folkways Records, 1952.

Hui, Alexandra. “Lost: Thomas Edison’s Mood Music Found: New Ways of Listening.” Endeavor 38 (2014): 139–142.

Jay, Martin. “In the Realm of the Senses: An Introduction.” The American Historical Review 116 (2011): 207–215.

Johnson, James. Listening in Paris: A Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

William Maxwell Files, Thomas Edison National Historic Park.

Mood Music: A compilation of 112 Edison Re-Creations according to what they will do for you. Thomas Edison Inc., 1921.

Mundy, Rachel. “Birdsong and the Image of Evolution.” Society and Animals 17 (2009): 206-223.

Picker, John. Victorian Soundscapes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Smith, Mark. Listening to Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Thompson, Emily. “Machines, Music, and the Quest for Fidelity: Marketing the Edison Phonograph in America, 1877-1925.” The Musical Quarterly 71 (1995): 131-171.

—————. The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002.

Wight, Vinton. Liner notes to Sounds of Steam Locomotives, No.1: Stack Music Sampler; or Steam, Steel and Action. Folkways Records, 1956.


Under the mood effect of “Peace of Mind,” for example, was an image of a woman collapsed on a sofa surrounded by various purchases, exhausted by a day of shopping.  An inset image shows her then alert, sitting on a chair by her phonograph, “soothed and refreshed by music”  (Mood Music, 12).  I discuss Mood Music much more extensively in my 2014 article, “Lost: Thomas Edison’s Mood Music Found: New Ways of Listening.”


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