“Them! Don’t listen properly, do they?” – Stan Shunpike
OK fellow Potterheads, let’s play a game. I know you have read all seven volumes repeatedly. You know all the characters and plot lines, even the ones they left out of the movies (where is PEEVES?!?!?) But let’s see if you have “listened properly” while reading about Harry Potter’s adventures. This is not about the audio books, as good as Jim Dale and Stephen Fry are. This is not about movie sound effects either, although hurray Foley artists! This is about the sound world that J. K. Rowling writes into the books themselves.
What follows is a sequential list of sounds from a scene in one of the Harry Potter books. The only clues here are sounds Rowling actually mentions (plain type) and sounds clearly suggested by the text (italic type). Can you tell where we are, just from the sounds? Can you identify the scene, just from the sounds?
(A light breeze through leaves)
(A discharge of sparks from wands)
(footsteps on unpaved path)
A cloak trailing over dead leaves and fading away after a few seconds
Hooves on a grassy clearing
Movement among trees
Someone crashing through undergrowth
Rustling of leaves
The crunching noise of someone moving
A slithering sound
A terrible scream
More galloping hooves (and heavy breathing)
Hoof pawing the ground
(more hoof sounds and movement through trees)
Rustling of trees
If you recognize the setting as a forest (in this case, the Forbidden Forest at Hogwarts), you are right on target. If you identified the scene as Harry’s first trip into the Forbidden Forest in Sorcerer’s Stone, where he encounters Quirrel/Voldemort and is rescued by Firenze, you get full marks (See Chapter 15, “The Forbidden Forest”, if you want to refresh your memory). If you had no success, perhaps you are one of Them that Stan speaks of so contemptuously. How about in real life?
Most places have distinctive visual markers that we often describe as a landscape. Most places also have distinctive audio markers that we can think of as a soundscape. “Soundscape” has been around as a coined term for about fifty years. A number of musicians and audio ecologists have fleshed out the term in various ways. We can think of it as all the audio events that are being generated in a particular ecosystem.
Of course, humans can’t hear all of them. My dog, Robbie, can hear higher frequencies than I can, so the neighborhood soundscape is different for him than it is for me.
Long before the term was coined, humans were living in, interacting with and contributing to soundscapes. A lot of traditional music making was designed to be part of the local soundscape. Being aware of the soundscape was critically important for survival and often still is. What is that sound in the trees? Something I can eat or something that can eat me? Is that just a truck backfiring or is it something more dangerous? The soundscapes in our lives give us much to think about and I’ve listed a couple great references at the end if you want to explore the concept further. But let’s keep our attention on Rowling for now.
Here is the soundscape from another scene as Rowling describes it. No guessing game this time. This is the scene from Chapter 1 of Order of the Phoenix in which Harry and his cousin Dudley are attacked by Dementors. I will offer a few comments as we go.
Before we start, let’s note that we can often recognize a soundscape even if we hear sounds in random order. To make sense of a dramatic scene, the ordered sequence is often crucial. Take the sounds from our first example and put them in random order and you would probably still recognize a forest soundscape. But it would be much more difficult to name the specific scene. The order in which we hear sounds often influences the meaning we attach to them. OK. Here we go.
Footsteps (muffled, on pavement)
Harry and Dudley have just stepped into a side alley. Our first scene also began with a description of footsteps. In the Forest scene, the footsteps are understood to be on an unpaved forest path, perhaps with some fallen leaves. The footsteps here are on pavement. The imagined sound of footsteps helps keep the setting in mind. In the Silver Doe scene from Deathly Hallows, footsteps are used again. At the beginning of that sequence, the Doe’s silent footsteps are contrasted with Harry’s footsteps crunching in the snow.
The whisper of trees
This is a very effective aural sketch of a deceptively peaceful suburban soundscape. Some sounds are so site specific and recognizable that they can be thought of as an aural landmark, or “soundmark” (think Big Ben tolling the time in London).
Rowling is an absolute master at using soundscape and silence to prepare important moments. Even if we are not consciously listening to the soundscape around us, if things suddenly go silent, we notice. We actually become extra alert. What has changed? Why has it changed? Our mind starts searching for some kind of signal. I grew up on the edge of tornado alley. My Granny used to say that if the storm suddenly goes very quiet and still, it’s time to run to the cellar.
Long, hoarse, rattling breaths
If we have read earlier volumes of the series, we know what this “soundsignal” means. But here it is happening in an unexpected context. When we hear significant sounds out of context, in an unexpected soundscape, it can be disorienting and Harry’s initial reaction reflects this beautifully. I know what they are, but what are they doing here?
(A thrown punch connecting)
(A falling body and wand)
Footsteps, stumbling against a fence
Actions are described here, but we are left to imagine some of the sounds. Perhaps Harry can’t even hear them. Dementors want their victims to feel isolated and silence is a very effective weapon for them. In his panic, Dudley has hit Harry who has fallen to the ground and lost his grip on his wand. Are we meant to imagine the sounds or does the silence continue until we hear Dudley’s futile efforts to escape? It’s a wonderful invitation from the author for us to use our imaginations to help create the soundscape of the scene.
A sucking sound
This is one of the most terrifying soundsignals in the entire Potter series. We all have certain soundsignals in our lives that we dread. They may not signal something as horrifying as having your soul sucked out, but we know that unpleasantness of some kind is close at hand.
A rushing noise
Galloping hooves and a rushing, roaring sound
After some failed attempts, Harry has managed to summon his Patronus. Again, there is plenty of room here for the reader to imagine the specifics of these sounds. What do they sound like in your mind’s ear? It matters that these sounds are part of Harry, not the Dementors. This soundsignal means the Dementors will be swept away and that Dudley and Harry have been saved from a fate worse than death.
Rumble of cars
Loud, running footsteps
The Dementors are gone, the isolating silence has ended and the familiar suburban soundscape returns. Note that Rowling uses the same sounds here as at the beginning of the scene – footsteps, cars, rustling trees. But here the sounds are mentioned in reverse order from the beginning of the scene. It is as though the soundscape is resetting itself, one element at a time.
Panting and a clanking shopping bag
We hear Mrs. Figg before we see her, allowing us to wonder who it might be just for a little while. It’s a nicely constructed surprise to hear her, then see her and then find out that there is more to her than meets the eye (or ear).
If you want to try reading some of Harry Potter with your aural imagination running, here are a few other scenes and descriptions that are especially rewarding:
Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapter 9, “Grim Defeat”: A Quidditch match played in a raging thunderstorm and ended by a Dementor attack.
Goblet of Fire, Chapter 20, “The First Task”: The first task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, much of it only heard, not seen.
Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 7, “The Ministry of Magic”: Harry arrives at the Ministry of Magic for a disciplinary hearing, accompanied by Arthur Weasley. The Ministry has a very distinctive soundscape.
Deathly Hallows, Chapter 19, “The Silver Doe”: A winter scene including the Silver Doe Patronus, the recovery of the Sword of Gryfindor and a special voice.
Hogwarts, of course, has a beautifully rich and wonderfully developed soundscape. It is also quite musical. I will get into that in some depth in future installments. But one of the great blessings of the Hogwarts soundscape is the absence of electronic distractions. Would Harry have noticed the Basilisk rustling and mumbling through the pipes if he had been walking around wearing ear buds all the time?
Many sound ecologists have noted the degree to which our soundscapes have become saturated (I am tempted to say polluted) with machine sound, much of it designed to sell us something. Much of it is at a decibel level that will eventually damage our hearing. Amplified sound sometimes is even used aggressively as a weapon. Our natural response is to look for ways to mask or ignore it. But the end result is that we rarely listen deeply to anything. Even great music has become essentially sonic wallpaper for many of us.
Finding or creating a place where we can listen safely, attentively and deeply is rewarding on many levels. It reduces our isolation and reconnects us to the world around us. We hear our loved ones in a different way. We can begin to hear that small voice of inner wisdom that helps us to see the path ahead and keeps us from distractions and disorientation. It is in the stillness of Dobby’s graveside, accompanied only by the sound of the sea breeze and distant waves that Harry recognizes his way ahead. He accepts that his path is to find Horcruxes and avoids being distracted by a race for the Hallows.
As I write this, it is nearly mid-July. A Mockingbird in the neighborhood has added a car alarm to his song repertoire. He is clearly a bird who pays close attention to his local soundscape. I know that any evening now, I will step outside and the Katydids will be adding their sweet voices to the summer soundscape. Maybe I will grab a flute and try to have a duet with them.
The quote at the beginning? It’s from Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapter 3 and is part of Knight Bus conductor Stan Shunpike’s response when Harry asks why the Muggles don’t hear the bus roaring through their streets. “Them! They don’t listen properly, do they? Don’t look properly either. Never notice nuffink, they don’t”.
What magic are you missing out on just because you are not listening? What is being masked by the constant meaningless buzz of your various devices? How much advertising and other forms of manipulation are you letting in without even realizing it? What are you adding to the soundscape and are you doing so mindfully?
For further reading about attentive listening and soundscapes:
W. A. Mathieu / The Listening Book (Finding Your Own Music)
This is a book I use with my composition classes, but it’s not about jargon and technique, so no one needs to feel intimidated. The first section has a number of excellent suggestions for listening practice.
Bernie Krause / The Great Animal Orchestra
As a young man, the author produced recordings for The Doors and helped create the soundtrack for Apocolypse Now. He tired of the industry and moved towards environmental field recordings. This book is a fascinating introduction to the acoustics of ecosystems. The e-version comes with sound files that help to clarify the concepts.
You can also look for books, articles and YouTube videos from musician/philosopher R. Murray Schaeffer.
My thanks to the talented artists who made the beautiful images. I found all of them at "free image" sites. If I have used any of them inappropriately, my apologies to the artists.