The Tone of Our Times: Sound, Sense, Economy, and Ecology - Frances Dyson. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014


by Vincent Meelberg

How does an era sound? While this is not a new question, as scholars such as Emily Thompson (2002) and Karin Bijsterveld (2008) have already addressed this issue as far as the (early) twentieth century is concerned, Frances Dyson approaches the relationship between the sound and the era we live in from a different angle. Not by focusing on sound in a narrow sense of the word, but by exploring the notion of tone instead. According to Dyson, a tone is neither

[…] musical nor linguistic nor even strictly sonic, since it is constituted as much by images as sounds. But its omnipresence and surveillance capabilities create a background hum, an audio-visual ambience that has assumed a similar status to the once-theological attribution of these operations. The “look” and tone of, for instance, the politician’s speech has assumed critical importance within the context of ambient media, as it can be registered in passing, its meaning transmitted within an instant. It operates as an iconic sound/image flashed in a glance, a form of shorthand delivery only possible within ubiquitous media. The model for this kind of audio-visual penetration is sound - more specifically, tone. (2014: 41)

Tone transcends the purely sonic, Dyson argues, and therefore this concept may be better able to articulate the sound, or perhaps more accurately, the atmosphere, of an era.

In the introduction of her book Dyson explains that our current era ins one of crisis, both economic and ecological. These crises of eco, as she calls it, can best be read through five forms of sonority: sound, tone, music, voice, and noise (2014: 13), where tone is the common characteristic of all these forms. Tone is multifaceted, it is both abstract and material, and this is the main reason it can act as a common characteristic of these forms of sonority:

[T]he concept of tone has always enjoyed both an abstraction and a certain materiality. Its differentiation from a note, its oscillation between the materiality of sound and the structure of music, can be seen in the multiple meanings that “tone” suggests. We think for instance of vocal tone, the tone of the situation, atmosphere (as in “atmos”), etc., as something beyond specification, both a sound and a meaning, that cannot be translated into language, but yet it is fully understandable. The nuanced nature ascribed to tone arises, one could almost say directly, from this ontological tug of war between the individual unit, the One, and the multiple. (5)

In order to explore the concept of tone, in Chapters 1, “Endless Praise and Sweet Dissonance,” and 2, “Acclamation,” Dyson provides a “history” of tone, starting with Pythagoras and music. She stresses that tone is relational: the concept of tone contributes to music insofar as it denotes a relationship between notes. The tone is foundational for music and for the entity of the note. This does not mean, however, that tone is tied to a particular pitch or timbre. Instead, tone is purely relational, and not a “thing,” in contrast to for instance pitch and duration, which can be considered discrete units rather than continuums (22). Tone has a similar function beyond music, too: 

[T]he tone intermingles with and operates on behalf of religious and then later secular governance, in much the same way that the concept of tone defines musical relations and therefore what is music, but is not itself music. As sound, tone is always multiple, yet as pitch, tone is unitary; as sound wave, tone is continuous, while as frequency, it is intervallic and numerical. Aesthetically, tone seems to reinvigorate the romantic and sublime perception of music. Discursively, tone relies upon a distinction between periodic and aperiodic frequencies, musical signal and nonmusical noise, and this distinction is definitive in both music and information theory. Metaphysically, tone dissolves any neat distinction between particle and wave, instant and duration. (24)

Because of its relational character, tone can act as an agent - an operator - in the creation of harmony, both musical and otherwise. Tone has become a nonmaterial element in the production of harmony, and, in the case of musical harmony, music itself “[…] was now a result of the ‘mysterious’ workings or arrangement (economy) of single notes, rather than the notes themselves” (30). It is the relationship between entities that make up the identity, or tone, of a phenomenon, rather than the entities themselves.

In Chapter 3, “Infinite - Noise,” Dyson discusses how the distinction between music, harmony, and noise has blurred in contemporary culture. As a result of musical developments in the late-nineteenth century and after, the notion of what is music expanded: “The emphasis on frequency and vibration obliterated the distinction between musical and nonmusical sounds and, with it, the argument for harmony as inherently rational” (48). Dyson concludes that the history of tone, starting from the discretization and mathematization of music, via the musicalization of any sound, to the aesthetization of noise, has led to what she calls “[…] the desacrilization of the divine and the end of acclamation” (69). God is dead, yet anything can be worshipped now, including consumerism.

Chapter 4, “Disaffected Voice,” shifts the focus from sound, music, and noise to voice and its tone. The tone of a voice can be very telling, Dyson explains: “While generally associated with the production of language, the sound of the voice also reveals the physical and, by inference, emotional state of the speaker as, for instance, being in a state of anger, nervousness, mirth, congestion, or psychosis” (72). A voice does not only communicate via language, but also through the way it sounds, or perhaps more accurately, how it feels, as tone of voice can be felt as much as it can be heard. Poetry exemplifies this, for poetry is “[…] the entry of tone into language, both as a ‘musicalization’ and a literal call to the set or element that cannot be named, which is the non-set of sound. It presents ‘tone’ as a meaning, carried through the voice, that cannot be contained within language, and sound as a material/spatial phenomenon, as that which cannot be contained within the immaterial non-place of calculation” (96). The meaning of poetry is not primarily generated by the meaning of the words a poem consists of, but because of the tone it carries.

According to Dyson, speech synthesis has, at least until recently, always sounded synthetic, exactly because it lacked a tone of voice that could communicate emotions and affections. Since the development of affective computing, however, things have changed and the tone of computer voices are becoming better at convincingly mimicking the tone of human voices. While this may contribute to positive experiences while interacting with computer systems, this development may at the same time result in a society where genuine emotion is no longer needed or even desired: “If the quest for true emotions risks encouraging the simulation of emotions rather than their direct experience, affective computing itself as a field of research risks interposing the same ambivalent dynamics of belief that the attribution of emotions to machines elicits. For if it is enough that computers mimic rather than experience emotions, perhaps this holds true for humans as well?” (84)

In the final two chapter of her book, “Resonance, Anechoicea, and Noisy Speech” and “The Racket,” Dyson discusses the tone of contemporary culture and society in more detail. This culture is characterized by what she calls “anechoica,” the repression of the “natural” atmosphere, in favor of a “dry” space that can be designed by the individual listener. The way people generally listen to music nowadays, via earbuds connected to their phones, is a case in point. Yet, apart from isolating themselves from the atmospheres around them, this way of listening is a reduced experience, as Dyson explains:

[S]ound as vibrating energy, carried by air and atmosphere, is a phenomenon both heard and felt. Reduce the atmosphere, create a “dry” space, and the experience of resonance is necessarily truncated. The “dry” atmosphere, approaching the “dead” space of the recording studio, is filled with similarly dry voices, recorded in locations chosen for their lack of ambient sound, their freedom from the interruptions of noise. (119)

Freedom from noise comes at a price: being isolated from the atmosphere of everyday life. Yet, this is consistent with the manner in which natural atmospheres are generally considered in today’s culture: as a collection of unwanted noises that need to be contained. Not only by isolating oneself via earbuds, but also by containing noises architecturally. This, Dyson asserts, has political and economic consequences: “Enclosing noise architecturally is also a way of concentrating it socially, politically, and economically. Contained within four walls, this noise reverberates and reflects within itself, producing its own amplification and blurring its constitutive parts” (124).

Anechoica is also generated in other ways, for instance by devices such as air-conditioners: “[A]ir-conditioning […][is] a perfect illustration of the ‘anechoica’ under discussion, producing what Peter Healy describes as a form ‘thermal monotony’ that has become standardized across the developed world” (111–112). The monotonous, continuous sound produced by air-conditioners masks other sounds, and in this sense this sound has become the soundtrack, the tone, of our culture.

In the conclusion, “Echoes of Eco,” Dyson reiterates the analytic and explanatory qualities sound, and by extension tone, has:

Sound, as I have argued, offers a way to negotiate the “unthought” and the unspoken, to develop other vocabularies and other forms of political, economic, and social organization. Sound’s ephemeral and atmospheric nature is, like the environment, something that circulates outside of exchange, and refocuses attention on the space and environment of the subject rather than the subject per se. The aural opens avenues toward an understanding that is arational, that evokes a grain (or rather tone) of thought and an aesthetics of listening that, I would argue, offers some entry into the dilemma of how to hear the world and in hearing, also be able to act, with the aim and existential condition of the “in-common.” From here, it might be possible to move toward a shared sensibility, a “communism of the senses” that builds sense, the common, and common sense simultaneously. (149)

Sound and tone are ways to arrive at an understanding of society that transcends the merely rational. For Dyson this is crucial, as this allows her to discuss economic issues such as debt in ways that, according to Dyson, are not possible otherwise. 

I have to admit that I found the parts that addressed economy and debt rather less interesting, and the relation that she makes between tone, noise, and financial systems less convincing. Her main argument, however, that tone enables the articulation of alternative, productive interpretations of society and culture, does convince and deserves further exploration. At the end of the conclusion, Dyson implicitly suggests one possible avenue that could be explored, when she returns to the notion of corporeality: “[C]orporeal communication allows for different forms of both listening and sensing, for modalities that are far more sophisticated than any form of interactive, affective, or immersive platform” (151). Perhaps the concept of corporeal tone, which can be heard as well as felt, may be a possible way to further explore our contemporary culture. Maybe, the tone of our time at the same time is the tone of our bodies.


Bijsterveld, Karin (2008). Mechanical Sound. Technology, Culture and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Thompson, Emily (2002). The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933. Cambridge: MIT Press.