Cacophony, dissonance…the sound and the fury

Okay, it’s a fancy word…cacophony. I looked up the origin. It’s from the Greek, kakophōnos, which means sound or voice.

I find it sad that our world is so filled with noise these days. It’s hard to get to anything resembling silence — even in the privacy of our own heads. But, the other side of that is that I am grateful for my hearing. For my ability to hear things pleasant and things necessary for my survival — sirens, brakes, thunder.

A couple of nights back, we had a prolonged thunderstorm blow through. The dog, well, she doesn’t like thunder and lightning much. So, we had the 1 am bark-a-thon for two hours. We tried the “Temple Grandin” squeeze method. We tried the crate with a big towel over the top to diminish the flashes of light…However, that didn’t work for her.

What she heard is a true curiosity to me. I have no idea what a dog’s hearing range is. I know it is greater than ours and takes in higher frequencies. I wonder what it would be like to have such acute senses as dogs — hearing, smell, sight? (To tell the truth, I don’t think taste rates up very high with dogs. If it’s food, I think they eat it. Cats, on the other hand, are foodies. It had damn well better taste good.) I think dogs must get to hear amazing things we can only guess at.

That episode had me pretty tired the following night, and I sleep very hard. I thought nothing could possibly wake me. Until 3 am. A bird was singing. At 3 am! It was not a bird of prey like an owl or hawk. Nor was it a mourning dove — a species which is quite plentiful in these parts.

The song was sweet and light. I had some frustration at this unexpected intrusion, but I lay awake for a while considering the strangeness of hearing a songbird at 3 am. I wondered what there was to celebrate at this unholy hour? I had no doubt that there was something. I’m not sure it matters if I knew then or know now. What I know is that there was something so out-of-place about all of this that it made me realize what a strange and rather bizarre gift this was. The bird was joyous. Even at 3 am. Even in the dark…possibly with owls close at hand coveting baby birds and eggs. Perhaps, like the saying, “Faith is a bird that sings in the night.”

What is joyous about sound? The trite things I have heard before are “a baby’s laugh,” or “a running stream.” I like those too, but I was looking for something that was more of a stretch. Something we don’t think about because it’s so routine or something we don’t think about because it is so long ago forgotten.

When I think of something routine, it’s the sound of tires on the highway. Where I live, we cover lots of miles in any one week. It may be back and forth to work or it may be on open road. But that sound of steel-belted tires rolling over highways is distinct — particularly when you travel across a bridge and hear the familiar thumping sound of road and tire meeting. I understand from engineers that the sound tires make on the pavement is caused by the pushing out of air from between the tire and the pavement when the tire rolls over it. It’s almost a hissing sound. I like this sound because it appeals to the part of me that always wants to be out going someplace — to some corner of the world I haven’t visited or another corner that I return to time and again because I find it comforting. And sometimes “someplace” isn’t a place at all…it’s the road going on and on and taking me through fields of millet or sorghum or pastures of cattle and cactus. When these moments merge with my conscience, I am overcome with a deep sense of satisfaction, of belonging and of understanding.

Similarly, the sound I have not heard in so long is, in one way, a sound I hear hundreds of times a year. When I stop and consider it, I wonder if it will be a lost sound sometime soon. It is the sound — sometimes far and sometimes near — of the Missouri-Pacific railroad cutting through corners of our town/city. Years ago, when I owned a house, I would hear the train come somewhat near around 5 am. I knew some who hated it. But, for me, it was a lonesome sound with a story behind it. Perhaps it was the story of the role that train had played in the lives of those who lived here fifty years earlier. Sometimes, I imagined what it was for hobos to ride the rails in the Great Depression. While I recognize that the life of a hobo was probably not something that most aspired to, I’ve always had a gypsy-longing for a chance to be a hobo for a few days and see if it had any allure. And the sound of the train’s horn always brings me back to that image of independent people refusing to be tied down to a place or a permanent responsibility, or alternatively, very much wanting to be tied down but unable to exist that way because of circumstances.

These sounds give me a much more rooted sense of being joyful than the artificial ringing of my cell phone or the beeping of a backhoe digging up ground for a swimming pool in the yard two doors down. Train and tire sounds do not feel mechanical, here-today-gone-tomorrow. They seem interwoven into the texture of our lives. And then I wonder if those younger than I will think cell phone rings and digging backhoes sound more real than something else that will be new and fresh in their universe.

Sound. Sound and joy. What do you love the most that you hear? Here is my short list of other sounds that make me feel content, giggly or struck with wonder.

  • clucking chickens
  • cicadas talking the night away
  • men’s voices speaking low
  • lullabies
  • languorous Spanish
  • whistling (tunes, that is)
  • harmonicas, accordions, mandolins, banjos, oboes
  • a cappella singing
  • laughter that is so hard the person is gasping for breath
  • the keening of a coyote
  • a 21-gun salute
  • thunder
  • folk songs
  • whispered words of endearment

In all things I wish you peace.

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5 comments on “Cacophony, dissonance…the sound and the fury

  1. Ahhhhhhhh. Lovely. Sigh. The satisfaction of sound. I love your list of sounds. I love the lonely sound of the train. But I had not thought about the sound of tires – the call of the open road. Sometimes it calls and calls to me. Other sounds that I look forward to hearing are:
    > the wind
    > and along those same lines, all my wind chimes, especially my bamboo one that has low melodious chords
    > rain
    > the ceiling fan turning on a hot day
    > and those metal drums that they play in Jamaica

    Thanks for the list. It made me stop and listen . . .

    • michele says:

      Your comment about “it calls and calls to me,” reminds me of the end of a Larry McMurtry book called, “Some can Whistle.” Although it was classic McMurtry in its tragedy and comedy mix, it always gives me a lump in my throat. The key character and narrator is talking about his granddaughter (whom he raised) who calls him from Paris to tell him how her studies are going. “Jesse called and called; she called and called. Less and less could I follow what she was telling me–France was making her precise just as age was making me vague–but as her smart French poured it into my ear, I began to float back in memory…”

      So, the road calls to us, honey. But then, it always has. Laredo, Tulsa, Steamboat, Santa Fe and all the places we have yet to go. Make a list, sweetheart. So much left to see…Old Faithful, Charleston, Savannah, Tucson, San Francisco, Area 54, Roswell…okay…just making sure you were paying attention… 🙂

  2. claraagt says:

    Michele, that was beautiful. We are oftentimes oblivious to the multitude of sounds around us. Thanks for reminding us of just how blessed we are to have the ability to hear all the sounds in our worlds, especially the ones that bring us joy.

    You’re an awesome writer!

  3. rharwick says:

    This is a lovely post, though it strikes me that you are in fact looking for a different word from “cacophony.” “Cacophony” means more than just sound or voice. Its a combination of two Greek words, kakos and phone. Kakos is an adjective meaning bad, evil, or ugly. So it’s kake + phone = bad, evil, ugly sound/voice. The opposite would be kale + phone = good, beautiful sound/voice, a “calophony” if you will (although that word does not really exist in English, alas.)

  4. Martha Angel says:

    tho’ I am struggling to enjoy living here in southern Illinois, I have enjoyed (experienced joy) listening to the symphony of nature at sunset.

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