Sound and Safe: A History of Listening Behind the Wheel - Karin Bijsterveld, Eefje Cleophas, Stefan Krebs, Gijs Mom. Oxford University Press, 2014

By Marcel Cobussen

Part of the book Sound and Safe I’ve read in my car. Don’t worry: my wife was driving! My kids were “silently” “WhatsApping” or playing “Minecraft” on the back seats. We’ve already had our regular dispute about the radio: should it be on a commercial station (kids), on news and traffic information (my wife), or just stay turned off (me). I won, this time. The car, a hybrid, zooms smoothly on the Dutch highways – that is, past meadows, stretches of commercial buildings, and sound barriers – until an alarming sound attracts the attention of all four. We’ve heard it before, but this time it is definitely much louder: squeaking brake discs. “Next week we should take it to the mechanic; it’s getting worse and worse.” “Yes, you’re right, but fortunately this defect is not really dangerous; at least, that’s what the mechanic told us.”

This short story, which actually happened yesterday, encompasses a few major topics of Sound and Safe. One of these is a historical overview of how car owners react or should react to worrying and disturbing engine sounds. The authors identify a transition from what they call “diagnostic listening” to “monitory listening”; whereas the former refers to determining what is wrong, the latter focuses on whether something is wrong (p. 76). Said differently, historical research shows a gradual process of delistening to the engine; where the first car drivers were provided with a manual in which all kinds of engine sounds were described, thereby offering them the opportunity to listen “diagnostically”, already from the late 1930s on it became customary to leave this kind of listening to the exclusive expertise of mechanics, and the drivers were asked to only register unusual sounds. 

This freed up the ears and attention for listening to new sounds, in particular the sounds of the car radio, first introduced in the 1930s. In one chapter the authors describe how the functions of the car’s sound installation (the radio was followed by e.g. CD- and mp3-players) changed over the years, from drowning out the engine’s noise, to mood regulation and providing traffic information, to present-day “acoustic cocooning” through self-chosen music combined with “sonic connecting” through social media and hands-free phoning (p. 170).

The third item mentioned in my story, to which a whole chapter in the book is dedicated, are the genesis and development of sound barriers, mainly resulting from changing governmental anti-noise policies in the 1970s (from the reduction of noise to protection against noise). However, what has served the ear here – screening people who live near highways from too much noise pollution – has had a negative effect on drivers’ eyes (visual pollution), threatening the so-called cinematic drive, a deprivation for which they could only find compensation within their cars through radio and stereo sets (p. 109). 

Reading the book, my thoughts sometimes digress. No, not digress; through reading, my thoughts are inspired to encounter events not mentioned in the book. Max Neuhaus’s Drive in Music from 1967, for example, an installation consisting of seven radio transmitters located on a highway that could be listened to while driving down the road and tuning into a specific radio frequency. Or a more or less similar work by Dutch artist Moniek Toebosch, Engelen/Angels from 1994. The assignment was to create a contemporary shelter on a dike in the northern part of The Netherlands. Toebosch thought of the car as that shelter and wanted to create a “heavenly residence” by broadcasting Angel music that drivers could tune into. Each time they would hear a different “angel”, sometimes very fragile and remote, sometimes lonely and plaintive, sometimes extremely cheerful.

What has already become clear from other studies on cars and sounds (e.g. the articles by Michael Bull) is that two aspects are especially important: car drivers are aiming for a huge amount of control and freedom. Sounds of the engine, of doors, wipers, blinkers, etc. as well as traffic information help them to be in control of their machines and the situations they find themselves in. Simultaneously, the car is often regarded as the last bastion of privacy and relaxation, the only place where you can play the music you want as loud as you want (that is, when you are alone in your car). The book thus narrates the histories of shielding the car’s interior acoustic space from outside noises and of filling this space with the sounds of audio equipment and auditory signals (p. 7), thereby securing and enhancing a driver’s control and freedom.

Sound and Safe is not only a succinct description of the task car producers set for themselves nor just the title of the book; it could also describe the book itself: historically accurate, informative, neatly organized, and detailed, an accomplished academic work by four outstanding Dutch scholars – in short, “sound and safe”. Personal opinions of the authors are absent, something I tend to regret. When discussing the ISO Working Group 42, an international conglomerate dealing with (the reduction of) car noises, I would have welcomed an intervention stating that thinking about noise pollution in decibels only is quite limiting: there are lots of irritating noises that are not that loud. Thrilling are the pages devoted to the controversy between Tim Ingold and David Howes concerning the best way to study the senses in culture (pp. 176-179). However, the authors of Sound and Safe have not really added much to this fundamental methodological discussion. Nevertheless, this is a book that should not be missing on the bookshelves of any student or scholar interested in sound studies.