Sound and Our Past


Sound entwines itself within our memory. Our adult selves are transported into emotional states from childhood through the exposure to sounds connected to past experiences.


Sound, like memory, is intangible yet it has the ability to haunt us. States of being rise through buried layers of personal history when exposed to soundmarks from the past. Although sound passes swiftly it leaves raw emotions floundering in its wake.

… and so it is for me.  Sitting by streams the gurgle of water unlocks a deeply hidden reservoir of childhood emotions.

As a child I grew up in a valley filled with farms, patches of forest, and trickling streams. In one sense it was quite ideal though as a queer youth it wasn’t without its problems. Verbal and physical homophobic harassment was something to endure on a daily basis and its shame was something to bury and keep silent about when at home. A sense of insecurity prevailed.

But there was a refuge. On the outer perimeter of my parent’s farm was a place where the anxiety of the school week could wash away. A stream flowed under the shade of trees which lined its bank. It was a space where I could sit alone allowing the week’s accumulation of fear to sail downstream. The sound of the stream allowed me to move beyond those experiences.

At the time I didn’t know that the sound of water was burying itself inside my subconscious, becoming an emotional memory, a personal soundmark. I sit by streams today and feel myself transported into the past. This familiar childhood sound provokes a confusion of sadness, anger, quietude. I walk away from streams feeling unsettled.

This is just one soundmark however there are so many more tugging at these barely hidden emotions from the past.  And so it is with us all.

Which sounds reverberate inside your personal history?

6 thoughts on “Sound and Our Past

  1. This is a fascinating piece JD.
    I have several sounds that have remained with me; they are as real today as they were when I first heard them and each summons up memories of the time I first heard them and the emotions attached to them.
    A particularly powerful one is the sound of a World War II Lancaster bomber coming into land at an airfield close to where I used to live. In those days, Lancaster bombers were still on regular flying duties and not museum pieces as they are today. I was a small boy and, as small boys do, I’d ventured through a hole in the airfield fence close to some trees and got myself closer than I should have done to the end of the runway without being spotted. Suddenly, a huge aircraft, or so it seemed to me, approached from behind me. I turned and saw it and was immediately paralysed by fear. I was absolutely certain that it was going to land right on top of me and that I was going to die right on the spot. But as it came lower and frighteningly closer, I heard the sound of what I later learned were four Merlin engines and their sound absolutely transfixed me. My fear, perhaps closer to sheer terror, ebbed away with the enchantment of the sound.
    That sound has lived with me ever since. If I think about that adventure I can hear the sound of the aircraft in my head instantly and, conversely, I cannot listen to the sound of a World War II Merlin engine without having total recall of my adventure. We know that some sounds can induce fear but in this case, for reasons that I can’t fully explain, sound was the perfect antidote to fear.


    1. Thanks for the story Des! I can just imagine how tempting a flimsy fence and an airfield would be … for people of all ages! I have an image like the famous scene from Empire of the Sun in my mind, though minus the bullets and internship camp. But nice to be transfixed by sound in such a positive way rather than allow it to overwhelm you, the start of a lifetime of listening?


  2. What a lovely though poignant story! Mine is much more prosaic than either yours or Des’s – I grew up in London, and for some reason the distant sound of a moped echoing through the streets of terraced houses reminds me of being a young child in the tree-house I made. The sounds was clearer because I was higher, and it was set against the sound of the sparrows.

    Now, sadly, you don’t get sparrows in London anymore, but in the town I live now there are some terraced streets, particularly where the ground drops away, and the same combination brings me back to that time.


  3. For me recently it’s lawnmowers. The sound of a rider mower at a distance brings me back to some barely-on-the-edge-of-consciousness memory of summers as a child. Someplace different from here. I recorded the lawnmower in the backyard of my parents’ old house before they moved last year as a kind of memento. I am glad there are people in the world who think similarly.


    1. That’s a funny coincidence as lawnmowers also remind me of the same thing. Hot summer mornings and late afternoons where the last thing you felt like doing was mowing the lawn. Yet I hear that sound nowadays and feel a wave of nostalgia.


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