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3Qs: Technology and the power of sound

Greg Goodale

Words are often seen as pow­erful tools. But in his new book, “Sonic Per­sua­sion: Reading Sound in the Recorded Age,” Greg Goodale, assis­tant pro­fessor of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Studies, crit­i­cally ana­lyzes how a wide range of actual sounds — from U.S. pres­i­dents’ audio record­ings to car­toon sound­tracks — have been used as per­sua­sive devices, often pro­viding greater meaning to inter­pre­ta­tions of iden­tity, cul­ture and history.

1. When did politicians start realizing sounds could be used to persuade, and how did this idea evolve?

Around the turn of the 20th cen­tury, phono­graphs were becoming increas­ingly ubiq­ui­tous and appearing in many public places. The first polit­ical record­ings we have are from actors imi­tating Grover Cleve­land in 1892 and William McKinley in 1896, but Theodore Roo­sevelt was the first to truly dis­cover the power of sound. His pre­de­ces­sors were often overly elo­quent, stressed vowels, and paused between words because they spoke to large crowds. But Roo­sevelt under­stood his voice could be heard in people’s homes and saloons through the phonograph.

Later, Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt became the first great com­mu­ni­cator by real­izing the power of radio. When FDR says in his 1933 inau­gural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he pauses after “is,” cre­ating a ques­tion before he answers “fear itself” — under­standing the power of that moment for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans lis­tening intently.

2. From analyzing the persuasiveness of different sounds, did you discover any other influential figures?

Billie Hol­iday really mas­tered sound in the 1930s and changed the way singers sing, par­tic­u­larly through syn­co­pa­tion — or pur­pose­fully dis­rupting the rhythm. In her song, “Strange Fruit,” she turns words into their def­i­n­i­tions through reverse ono­matopoeia. She com­pacts the word “sudden” into a single sound, making it feel very sudden. With the word “fall,” her voice falls through the scale. She added an entirely new dimen­sion to music.

3. How have noise and other sounds been used as effective persuasive devices?

One example is the bomb-​​dropping sound when Wile E. Coyote falls in the “Road Runner” car­toons. The orig­inal falling noise was a variety of sounds, including dive-​​bombers and vio­lins descending the scale. But after the civil defense film, “Duck and Cover” came out in 1952, Chuck Jones, the cartoon’s pro­ducer, changed it to that of a bomb falling. In a strange way, it was a com­forting sound because Amer­i­cans were assumed to be the ones bombing others. “Duck and Cover” was training kids to be afraid. Jones was trying to remove that fear.

Also, the sound of trains — the loud­ness, the bells and whis­tles, the chug­ging — rep­re­sents indus­tri­al­iza­tion, and many authors wrote about this sound being dis­turbing. In reac­tion, the train becomes incor­po­rated in Amer­ican sound in the 1890s, notably in music to diminish the threat trains pose. In his 1940 song “Spe­cial Stream­line,” Bukka White turns the noise into music, making loco­mo­tive sounds com­forting — in par­tic­ular for the African Amer­ican audi­ence emi­grating out of the South to the North, many of whom had never heard this sound before.