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http://ocw.mit.edu 21A.360J / STS.065J / CMS.710J The Anthropology of Sound
March 5, 2008 In the twelfth book of the Odyssey, Circe the sorceress warns Odysseus of the perils that await him on the
long journey home. The first of these obstacles is an encounter with the beguiling Sirens, dangerous
seductresses who lure sailors to their death with their enchanting song:
Square in your ship's path are Seirênês, crying
beauty to bewitch men…
keep well to seaward; plug your oarsmen's ears
with beeswax kneaded soft; none of the rest
should hear that song.
But if you wish to listen...
Odysseus, overcome by curiosity, prepares to meet the challenge of the Sirens:
a massive cake of beeswax into bits
and rolled them in my hands until they softened.
(48-61, 208-210) Homer's engaging narrative has, over the centuries, been unusually stimulative of the poetic imagination.
The story also inspired the French engineer and physicist Baron Charles Cagniard de la Tour, when in 1819
he selected a name—the Syren—for the acoustic instrument of his invention, a vox mechanica that
generated and measured the frequencies of musical tones. Cagniard de la Tour's syren was the forerunner of
the modern electronic siren, which today is installed on countless thousands of emergency vehicles around
In this essay, I explore the anthropological phenomenon of the siren, from its eighteenth century
genesis as a scientific instrument to its contemporary manifestation as a ubiquitous form of public warning
and address. The siren plays a vocal role in cultural patterns so deeply embedded that they almost seem
second nature—excellent motivation, from an anthropological standpoint, for taking of the measure of the
phenomenon. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz says, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of
significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs” (Geertz 5). How is the sound of the siren
part of this web? R. Murray Schafer and Steven Feld, in their examinations of auditory culture The
Soundscape and A Rainforest Acoustemology, have helped us to understand the way that sound, at least as
much as other forms of human engagement, is deeply expressive and reflective of culture. What exactly is
it that makes a siren “a sound that matters”? (Schafer 12). How does the sound of siren affect human
behavior? How can we understand the rich symbolism the sound has accumulated for us? I begin by tracing the history and meaning of the sound of the siren (the siren of myth >> the siren of
instrumentation >> the siren as public address), and by analyzing the institutional infrastructures that the
construct of the siren presupposes. These include a highly rational social organization that values particular
notions of law, order, and the public wellbeing; the existence of political and economic infrastructures of
emergency response; and most importantly, a responsive, hearing public. These are the keynotes of a
modern society. Within this context, the sound of the siren is the sound of power; in responding to its
voicings, citizens demonstrate their obedience to its authority. If sounds are syntax through which
individuals express their relations to the community, then the siren is the sound of civil obedience. And so
very naturally, the sounds of the siren have emerged as elements of artistic production and musical
composition, where they are often reconstituted as voices of civil dis-obedience.
In analyzing the historical and contemporary American soundscape and the siren’s role within it, we gain
insight into the ways that modern societies are constructed with sound. The ultimate goal is to construct an
acoustemology of contemporary society through the sound of the siren, a pervasive technology of public
address. Deep listening to the siren reveals the multiple layers of meaning embedded in its voice. The siren in history
The syren of classical mythology was “one of several fabulous monsters, part woman, part bird” who were
supposed to lure sailors to destruction with their enchanted voices (OED). In 1819, the French physicist
Baron Charles Cagniard de la Tour, after improving upon Scottish physicist John Robison's earlier design,
described his new Syren, an enchanting acoustic instrument which was capable of generating and
measuring musical tones of varying frequencies (Kenyon, wiki siren). The Syren consisted of a rotating
disc, pierced with holes, which interrupted a stream of pressurized air, causing fluctuations in its flow. Such
waves of pressure, of periodically compressed and rarefied air, are in fact the physical basis of sound; the
rate at which the air pressure fluctuated (i.e. the rotation rate of the disc) defining the pitch (frequency) of
the tone produced (Kenyon, wiki siren). In 1820, the Annual Register, a British historical chronicle
published annually since 1758, announced “The Syren, a new Acoustical Instrument... In consequence of
this property of being sonorous in the water the instrument has been called the Syren” (OED). The Baron's
syren was soon followed by more complex forms, including German physicist Hermann Helmholtz's
ingenious double sirène of 1860, which he used to illustrate interference and beat phenomena (Kenyon).
By 1879, an analogous instrument, built on a similar principle but of a larger size, was being used on
steam ships for issuing signals and fog warnings. The ship’s siren was driven by steam or compressed air,
which was forced through a fixed flat disc fitted to the throat of a long trumpet (OED). As electricity
became available early in the twentieth century, the first electromechanical fire sirens were produced. (Fire
volunteers had previously been summoned by the ringing of a bell) (wiki siren). Two early manufacturers
of fire sirens were Federal Signal and Sterling Siren; both began production of fire sirens between 1900 and
Sirens were employed as motor horns until about 1915, when their use was limited to police and fire
vehicles (NYT Rules). It was in 1933 that New York City automobile and taxicab drivers were first
required to “draw up to the curb and come to a halt” at the sound of police siren—a regulation made
because police cars “had incurred a number of accidents as a result of obstruction by traffic when speeding
to answer a call”. Three months previously, police cars had been equipped with “extra-loud sirens”, which,
unfortunately, had failed to reduce the number of accidents. (NYT Autos Must Halt).
A siren-based system for warning British civilians of an aircraft-based enemy attack was developed in
London in 1938, and air raid sirens first sounded warnings in London in September 1939. Air raid sirens
became an almost daily part of life—keynote sounds—in London during the height of the Blitz (BBC). In
1940 the Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey wrote “We have a kind of a cellar that we are to go to when the
siren sounds” (OED). Air raid warning systems were developed and tested in the United States during the
1940's and 50's (NYT multiple), but were never put into actual use. After the end of the Cold War,
American air raid siren systems increasingly fell into disuse or were converted to tornado warnings (wiki),
and the air raid siren became a chronotopic sound, one that maps time in space. In the public imagination, 2 its wail is intimately linked with WWII London. Today, electronic sirens employ oscillators and
modulators to synthesize siren-like tones which are amplified and broadcast through external speakers; they
are ubiquitous on modern emergency vehicles. The siren in the soundscape
Like the sounds of water and birds in the rainforest (Feld 225), the sounds of police, fire, and emergency
sirens permeate the body of the modern city. Because sirens are signal sounds, they must rise above the
keynotes of the metropolitan soundscape: outdoors, the internal combustion engine (Schafer 82); indoors,
the sounds of HVAC and the 60 Hz hum. The sound of the siren, therefore, must distinguish itself both in
character—in being the antithesis of a “flat line sound” (Schafer 79)—and in intensity, in simply being
louder than most everything else. Modern-day sirens have a characteristic wailing oscillation that centers
around 440 Hz, and exert sound pressures on the order of 110 to 120 dBA, intensities on the scale of
thunder and lightning, “the most feared forces in nature” (Schafer 25). The sound of the air raid siren,
which can reach pressures of a literally ear-splitting 138 dBA, lies far outside the scale of human
soundmaking. It is a truly mighty noise that “bridges the gulf between men and the gods” (Schafer 25).
If the sounds of emergency sirens map the metropolitan soundscape—emplacing origins and
terminations, localizing comings and goings and centers of human activity—they also feature prominently
in rural and regional soundscapes as well, where they alert listeners to fires, emergencies, and natural
disasters such as hurricanes, tornados, and tsunamis. Lastly, the sounds of sirens are conspicuous features
of geopolitical soundscapes; the sounds of air raid and civil defense sirens penetrating, reflecting, and
unifying the bodies of entire nations and geographic regions. The sounds of air raid sirens, like the sounds
of war and religion, are truly eschatological in scale (Schafer 50, see ).
In every soundscape in which it voices—metropolitan, regional, and geopolitical—the sound of the siren
is centripetal (Schafer 54, 56). Like a clock or bell, a siren regulates and unifies a community. But sirens,
unlike clocks and bells, cannot simply be heard. Sirens carry the harmonics of deference, and must be
localized, attended to, listened to. Sirens, because they powerfully alter our behavior, become human
agents, sonic architects of the modern social order. An audiocultural inheritance
Most of us probably cannot remember when, as very young children, we began to learn about sirens—or
have even considered the idea of that we needed to learn about sirens. Sirens, and the right way to behave
with to them, were simply something we…always knew. Anthropology teaches us that such apparently
commonsense responses are often fruitful subjects for cultural critique. A social phenomenon that cannot
be explained is a social phenomenon of great power. We first learn about sirens very early in life; ample
evidence can be found in the picture books enjoyed by the young (Fig. 1). Compelling arrays of emergency
vehicles and responses, in fact, figure quite prominently in much popular children's literature (Fig. 2). If
anthropology’s task is to “make the strange familiar, the familiar strange” the rich symbolism of the siren
seems fair game. What is it that makes the siren “a sound that matters”? The siren as experience
How does the siren figure in the sonic ecology of the modern city? The siren is a loud sound, a
technological sound (Schafer 73), an imperialistic sound (Schafer 77), a plaintive sound. Its sound rises
bravely, inexorably above the aural congestion (Schafer 71) of the lo-fi post-Industrial Revolutionary city
soundscape, making itself heard night and day. Unlike other urban noises such as bells, honks, yells, and
. I propose a broad aural category, "eSchaferotological sound", to denote any auditory phenomenon that might be linked, however
causally or casually, to the perceived post-Industrial Revolutionary decline of all human civilization. Also see anostalgia, paradise
lost. 3 whistles, the sound of the siren cannot simply be ignored. The ear must actively grab the sound of the siren
from its sonic environment (Schwartz 487). This auditory extraction—the first step in the appropriate social
response to the sound—is no simple perceptual task, and the auditor, especially if he is in motion himself,
often experiences significant anxiety and confusion as he endeavors, in all earnestness, to locate the source
of the sound. His confusion may persist for many harrowing seconds—especially if more than one siren is
sounding—and can only be completely relieved when the sight of the siren and vehicle provides clear
(visual) evidence of its location and vector. Audiospatial confusion resolved, the requirement for further
action now becomes clear. Those unfortunate citizens who stand in the path of the oncoming siren must,
immediately, yield full right-of-way, freezing like rabbits in full sight of a hungry predator. The tension
mounts as the siren approaches; the auditor winces and bows his head. Then the emergency vehicle passes,
uneventfully, and the sociospatial rift it created is quickly annealed. The auditory participants, returned to
their routine, may feel comforted by their own safety and good fortune, and indulge in the guilty pleasures
of schadenfreude. The siren has thus enacted a sonic transformation-catharsis of its hearing public; an
auditory experience which as shared ritual intimacy serves to strengthen the social fabric of the community.
The siren is thus endowed with a social ability, almost unparalleled in contemporary secular life, of
altering in the space of a moment the behavior of an entire community. Paul Stoller, in Sound in Songhay
Possession, shows us how sounds relay power. Like the cries of the godji, the siren is a force that literally
moves people. Although individual citizens may or may not attend to the personal tragedy attached the
sound of a siren, they must attend to the demand for increased awareness and deference. The voice of the
siren is thus much larger than the sound itself. The siren is a code all modern participants understand
(Schafer 47); the symbolic meaning of the siren lies in its ability to alter our behavior on a cultural scale. Auditory cartographies
The sounds of the siren, in the way that they absorb and reflect from the surfaces of the modern metropolis,
share many characteristics with the sounds of the tropical rainforest described by Steven Feld in his poetic
cartography of the Kaluli tribe of Papua New Guinea. In the tropical rainforest, “acoustic revelatory
presence is always in tension with visual hidden presence”; or to put it more simply, things in the rainforest
are often heard, but not seen. In the rainforest, height and depth are easily confused, and upward feels like
outward, making sounds difficult to locate. The modern city, like the rainforest, abbreviates the facility for
seeing and hearing (Schafer 43), and auditory presence seems to dominate the visual: things in the city are
often heard, but not seen. City sounds echo and reflect off the geometric planes of tall buildings, making
outward feel like upward; the fluid and ambiguous relations between the city’s spatial and temporal
dimensions make individual sounds in the city (especially moving sounds) extremely difficult to locate.
For the Kaluli, “the sensory tension between the seen and heard, the hidden and reveled, is poeticized in
the synesthetic metaphor lift-up-over-sounding. The auditory environment of the modern city might, in
turn, be poeticized by the popular term surround-sound, a name the audiophile attaches to the technological
attempt to reproduce the effect. The surround-sound of the city, e.g. the experience of multiple sirens
sounding, is like lift-up-over sound: “in synchrony but out of phase”, “not in unison but simultaneous” and
“cacophonous”. The surround-sound of the modern metropolis, like the lift-up-over-sound of the tropical
rainforest, is dense, multilayered, overlapping.
A call to community
As discussed above, sirens are centripetal sounds, unifying and regulating the community. In fact the siren,
as the voicing of a community, plays an essential role in the very creation of the community, in the very
formation of a public identity. The reciprocal relationship between voicing and identity (Feld 226)—in
which voicing authorizes identity, and an identity, in turn, authorizes voice—implies that a public voicing
(like a siren) can help to create a public identity (like a state), and that the two entities mutually reinforce
each other. The community hears itself in the voicing of the siren; the act of attending to the siren voices
the community's collective identity. 4 A siren is thus a thing that cultivates the very notion of a public (and of a public soundscape: see 
below). A siren is a “we-thing”, and as a “we-thing”, it is deeply implicated in the relationships between
members of a community. For in defining the very notion of “we”, we run into the problem of “them”. If
we are the public, what (or who) then, is the public enemy? Fires, injuries, natural disasters, to be sure, but
what about liminal and distal portions of the body public itself? Young people, dark people, people who act
different? At the same time the sound of the siren works to define a community, paradoxically, it also
fragments it. An inside makes an outside, a public makes a private. So a community is heterogeneous in its
attitude to the siren—some sense comfort, others threat—and, to a lesser extent, heterogeneous in its
response to the siren: some comply, others resist. Different subcultures experience the sound of a siren
differently. A public address system addresses not one, but many publics. The siren song of modernity
The siren and the state
In his 1977 work The Soundscape, Murray Schafer elucidates the intimate relationship between sound
and the state: “The general acoustic environment of a society”, he says, “can be read as an indicator of
social conditions which produce it, and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society”
(Schafer 7). As part of a complex cultural response to states of emergency, the construct of the emergency
siren presupposes a multiplicity of institutional infrastructures: sophisticated systems for the detecting and
responding to injuries, fires, crimes, and civic emergencies; telecommunications infrastructures; medical
care and criminal justice systems; and a wide array of complex technologies to populate these systems. Not
to mention an economic infrastructure to support the emergency regime.
A siren is thus a hallmark of a highly rational, organized, and regulated society: a society that holds
particular, expansive notions of law and orderliness; a society which shares a certain conception of an
emergency, and a belief in a certain proscribed way of dealing with the threat. These characteristics are
hallmarks of a modern society, in the 19th-20th century sociological sense of the world (Helmreich
lecture). Modernity's obsessions lie with rationality and order, because rationality and order will help us to
understand--and to control--the world. In the context of emergency response, modernity asks: What level of
threat actually constitutes an emergency? In the face of emergency, what is the appropriate response of the
citizen? Of the community, of the state? In the background of an increasingly diverse and mobile society,
how can an acceptable uniformity of emergency response be achieved? Modern society attempts to define
responses to these questions, and to create structures and institutions that enable its response. But these
responses are contingent, just one of many possible configurations.
A standard emergency response
Murray Schafer sees the honoring of traffic codes as the hallmark of “societies that have experienced the
Industrial Revolution and mechanized warfare” (Schafer 83). Although this is a sweeping statement, the
early decades of the twentieth century did in fact see the increasing standardization of traffic codes and
emergency response, especially in metropolitan areas. In 1915, the use of sirens was restricted to fire and
police vehicles in New York City, part of a larger effort towards standardizing traffic codes (NYT Rules).
By 1937, Great Britain had developed a system that enabled citizens to dial a single three-digit telephone
number when reporting emergencies. The United States Congress considered the idea in 1958, and passed . In a very real sense, Cagniard de la Tour's siren laid the sonosymbolic groundwork for Job's iPod. Without a widespread notion of
a “public soundscape”, the “revolutionary” reversal of the soundscape promised by the iPod -- with its notion of “private sounds” and
“private soundscapes” -- would never have been possible. The iPod works to privatize the public soundscape; the siren works to
publify the private soundscape. So the two technologies are symbolic opposites, with opposing goals. 5 a legal mandate in 1967 (911 History). The development of the Emergency Broadcast System in 1963
represented another step towards the realization of an abstract vision of a safe society; EBS television test
messages were broadcast at least weekly during that period, and became part of the American cultural
fabric of the era:
This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. The broadcasters of your area, in voluntary cooperation with
the Federal, State and local authorities, have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an
emergency. If this had been an actual emergency, the Attention Signal you just heard would have been followed
by official information, news or instructions. This station (optional -- insert station call sign) serves the
(operational area name) area. This concludes this test of the Emergency Broadcast System. Efforts at strengthening and standardizing the system of emergency response were driven by a modern
democratic impulse: safety and security for all. The standardization of emergency response implied that an
increasingly mobile American public would enjoy the same level of civic safety and comfort anywhere in
the nation, and more importantly, would be aware of the appropriate response in the event of an emergency.
Like the sounds of late nineteenth-century symphony halls, the emergency soundscape of one American
town became more and more like the emergency soundscape of any other (Thompson). In standardizing the
soundscape of civic safety, control was key—the experience of the siren, like the symphony, was not meant
to be fun (Thompson 49).
The siren and the citizen
From an acoustic ecology we can learn how man behaves with sounds and how sounds affect and change
his behavior (Schafer 4). How has man behaved with the siren, and how has it affected and changed his
behavior? Over the course of the twentieth century, American citizens learned first to trust in, and then to
rely on, the sociocultural ideals symbolized by the sound of the siren: an abstract notion of an always-ready
infrastructure of succor and support, and benevolent protection against medical emergencies, crime, natural
disasters, and acts of war. As an infrastructure of emergency response developed, so did a willing (and
hearing) public. Both elements were necessary components of the meaning of the sound of the siren. Safe and secure?
The siren signaled not just modern society's ambition for order and rationality but a deep social desire: that
for physical and emotional security. Although the sound of the siren threatens momentarily, it comforts
existentially, because it signifies that the system is working. The desire for community safety and security
was perhaps no more conspicuous in the United States than in the decades surrounding WWII. This
distention of desire for public safety was paralleled by a fascinating increase in the sheer physical size and
decibel level of sirens manufactured during that era.
The phenomenon of the air raid siren began in Europe in 1938, with the development of the London air
raid warning system; the sounds of air raid warning systems became very familiar to those living in large
cities. The sirens were placed atop tall buildings, or poles if no suitable buildings could be found, and
produced two signals: the first a warning—a rising and falling note created by varying the power of the
siren—and the ‘all clear’—a single, continuous note (BBC).
In the United States, air raid sirens of increasing size and intensity were developed and tested during the
1940's and early 1950's. 1952, during the Cold War era, saw the pinnacle of the siren’s auditory might: the
180HP V8-Hemi engine-powered Chrysler Air Raid Siren, which registered 138 dB at 100 feet
(Victorysiren.com). Known as the “Big Red”, the new Chrysler siren—the loudest ever produced—was six
feet tall, twelve feet long, and weighed 5500 pounds (see Figure). Air raid sirens had become true sky
noises, sound that could not be localized or contained (Schafer 86). Of architecture, Joseph Henry has said:
“It is only when a building expresses the dominant sentiment of the age, when a perfect adaptation to its
use is joined to harmony of proportions and an outward expression of its character, that it is entitled to our
admiration” (Thompson 28). Sirens, too, can express the dominant sentiment of their age, and the growth in
size and decibel level of sirens in production after WWII speaks volumes about the psyche of Cold War
American society. Listening back in time, we can hear the level of concern for American safety with
perfect clarity. 6 The Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950, which provided the Federal Civil Defense Administration with
the statutory authority for civil defense planning, sheltering, and evacuation, was as much a cultural
measure as a public safety measure. The intent was to stoke the fires of democracy and patriotism. In her
work The Soundscape of Modernity, historian Emily Thompson describes how romantic notions of the
ennobling nature of music became attached to the sound of the orchestral symphony in late nineteenth
century America (Thompson 46). In the same way, romantic notions about the ennobling nature of
democracy—and the blasphemy of communism—became attached to the sound of the air raid siren in the
decades following WWII. In taking the measure of an ideal symphony hall, that the desire to control sound
production was a manifestation of the modernist desire to control the audience (Thompson 46). Similarly,
the desire to create air raid networks was paired with the desire for an orderly civilian populace, and the
civilian populace's own desire for orderliness.
The nineteenth century, according to Thompson, saw the development of a musical culture that was
“almost religious in its intensity, in which listening became a way to worship” (Thompson 47). Campaigns
were undertaken to educate Americans to appreciate “great” music, and to approach it with humility and
respect (Thompson 48). Likewise, the years after WWII saw the development of a patriotic culture almost
religious in its intensity, in which doing one's civic duty became a way to worship; campaigns were
launched to educate Americans about patriotism and their new civic duties, which were to be approached
with humility and respect. Finally, if the new home for the Boston Symphony Orchestra “embodied a
romantic, even religious dedication to symphonic music that characterized elite culture in turn-of-thecentury America” (Thompson 14), the gargantuan Chrysler Air Raid Siren embodied a romantic, even
religious devotion to civil defense that characterized post-WWII America.
The many parallels between two such unlikely phenomena as the development of architectural acoustics
and the establishment of air raid siren networks simply illustrate the degree to which both phenomena were
outgrowths of the modern project. If acoustics became important because listening had become important,
so did air raid sirens become important because protecting us had became so important. By listening
carefully to the sound and meaning of the emergency siren, we can begin to comprehend the complex
conjunction of politics and public sentiment that constituted a phenomenon and a moment in America's
cultural history (Thompson 18). Civil obedience
Schafer points out that the German word horen, ‘to hear” is the root of gehoren, “to belong to”, and
gehorchen, “to obey”. We hear sound, we belong to sound, we obey sound (Schafer Open Ears 30). The
sound of the siren, as a sound that makes itself heard over other sounds, is endowed with an extra-ordinary
amount of power. Bruce Smith, in Tuning into London c. 1600, speaks of finding a syntax for sounds, of
discovering how people order sounds, and the ways they use them to position themselves in the world
(Smith 131). The sound of the siren is an imperative; in responding to the imperative, citizens demonstrate
their willing hearing, belonging, and subordination to its issuer—the civic authorities. The sound of the
siren is a syntax through which citizens place themselves relative to the authority of the state. In sounding
the siren, the state asserts itself over its domain. In responding to the authority of the siren, citizens
recognize it as a sound of civil obedience.
The politics of sirens
If the sound of the siren is the sound of power, its syntax of civil obedience, exactly who is entitled to
make a siren sound? The early decades of the twentieth century saw the increasing regulation of individuals
and institutions legally entitled to utilize the siren to impel others to stop, listen, and obey. The ship’s mate
and the motor car driver yielded to the policeman and the fireman, who in their turn yielded to the agents of
Civil Defense. In December 1941, the use of sirens in New York City was limited to fire trucks in order “to
reduce the confusion if an air raid signal should be given”. Police cars and ambulances were directed to use
gongs to clear traffic (NYT police sirens curbed). By 1950, the sirens on fire trucks had been banned as
well, in order “to avoid confusion with air raid alarms.” The ban on fire and police sirens was finally lifted
in 1953, after complaints that police and fire vehicles were frequently delayed in responding to calls 7 “because of an ‘apathetic spirit’ by civilian and vehicular traffic to the less imperative warning bells and
whistles.” (NYT Fire and Police to Return). Noisy relations
Where might the sound of the siren fall on the continuum between sound and noise? That would depend on
which particular acoustic ecologist or soundscape scholar you happened to ask. For R. Murray Schafer,
noise is sound “we have learned to ignore” (Schafer 4). If our ability to ignore the sound of a siren is a
function of our position relative to it, our conception of the siren as sound or noise must be mobile as well.
Enroute to a picnic in the park, the siren on the oncoming fire truck would demand all our attention; its
voicing, at that moment, would constitute sound, not noise. Once we arrived at the park, however, we could
safely ignore the sound of a siren; its sound would, at some ill-defined moment, become reconstituted as
noise. In Schafer’s more extended Apollonian-Dionysian philosophical system, the siren might be cast as a
sort of chimeric dystopic-utopic auditory being: an imperialistic, unnatural, post-Industrial Revolutionary
sound, but the welcome agent of an orderly Apollonian soundscape, all the same.
Schafer might also place sirens in the special sonecologic category of Sacred Noises, which by virtue of
their association with divine power, have throughout history been “absent from the lists of proscripted
sounds which societies have from time to time drawn up” (Schafer 51). The siren, like the church bell, has
in fact been since its introduction relatively immune to anti-noise legislation, a hallmark of a modernizing
state (Thompson 126). In those cases where the sounds of sirens have been regulated, the goal has
generally been to limit their use to increasingly higher-ranking civic authorities (Schafer 67). “Wherever
noise is granted immunity from human intervention,” notes Schafer, “there will be found a seat of power”
(Schafer 76). After the Industrial Revolution, Sacred Noises, once the exclusive province of the church,
“sprang across to the profane world” and began to emanate from industrialists—and evidently, from
modern states. According to Schafer, the association of noise and power has never been broken in the
human imagination (Schafer 76). If the study of noise legislation reveals social attitudes (Schafer 67), when
(if ever?) have people resisted the noise of the siren? Will tomorrow's citizens resist the sound of the siren
in the future?
For Aden Evens, author of Sound Ideas, noise is deeply implicated in its relations with music. In order to
extend his philosophy to an analysis of the sound of the siren, I shall define the city soundscape as the sonic
universe, and the sound of the siren, the sound or music within it. For Evens, city noise is the inarticulate,
confused mass of vibration in which the sound of a siren relaxes and dissipates (Evens 14.5). Human
perception contracts the sound of the siren into sense, but the noise of the city is un-contracted. The noise
of the city binds the signal of the siren, serving as its medium, its baseline, the plane of relief against which
the siren stands out.
City noise is thus the reservoir of sense of the siren. The noise of the city is implicated (necessarily
interwoven with) the sound of the siren; the sound of the siren is explicated (made clear) by the noise of the
city. City noise is the reserve of sense that gives the siren its force. Just as the concert piano draws
expressive power from the force of the concert hall, the siren draws expressive power from the force of the
cityscape. The concert piano is a tool for shaping the sound of the concert hall; the siren is a tool for
shaping the city noise, contracting parts of it into perception. The hearer of the siren is like a sculptor who
attends at once to the siren and to the relaxed cityspace around him (Evens 16.7).
In a third philosophy of sound and noise, which draws on the ideas of Evens (with illuminations from
Lenoir), I imagine sound as conditioned by noise in the same way that sunlight is conditioned by stained
glass in the medieval cathedral. In the same way that wavelengths are subtracted from light as they pass
through stained glass, something of any sound is lost to the noise around it. Yet conditioned sound, like
conditioned light, has more meaning and vitality for the process. The sound of the siren is conditioned by
the noise of the city, and the sound of the city conditioned by the noise of the siren. The reciprocal
exchange between siren and city animates the body of the modern metropolis. 8 Ambivalence and resistance
In naming his acoustic invention, Baron Cagniard de la Tour is said to have been inspired by its property of
being sonorous under water, and by the singing quality of its voice. Hence, the Syren. But could Cagniard
de la Tour have “blindly” disregarded the complex metaphorical meaning of the Syren: she who sings
sweetly, but beguiles and deceives? Conscious or not, Cagniard de la Tour’s choice of the name was
certainly a prophetic one, for the metaphorical meaning of the Syren—which engages the binary poles of
attraction and repulsion, candor and deceit—is so neatly echoed in the ambiguous power of the modern
instrument. The siren of myth promises sex, then offers death; the siren as instrument promises security,
then serves oppression. Both sorts of sirens are the objects of deep cultural ambivalence, and both, the
muses of artistic inspiration.
Schafer (40) and Feld (225) have commented on the tendency of peoples to echo their soundscape in
their language and music. And so, from their earliest appearance in the soundscape, sirens have found their
way into works of art and music. Because the siren is so deeply embedded in relations of power, however,
the use of the sirens as elements of musical composition goes far beyond the mere echoing of the artist's
soundscape. Sirens in music are often the sounds of the resistance, a form of reverse sound imperialism.
This resistance may be directed towards dominant artistic conventions, e.g. the sirens of George Antheil’s
1924 Dada piece Ballet Mécanique or Edgard Varèse's 1929 Ionisation; hegemonic social or political
regimes; or the anxieties of modern life (Bob Dylan's 1965 Highway 61 Revisited and The Crystal
Method’s 1997 big beat Busy Child (track 3, also footnote ).
Siren sounds in music represent neither sound nor noise, but activated creative elements. The house DJ
samples the sound of the police or air raid siren, reversing its power in order to amplify and electrify her
creative statement; Max Neuhaus’ 1980’s siren project seeks to reshape the soundscape of the city; The
Beastie Boys’ turntable tricks and Midfield General’s sampled sirens recall the close-range urban bustle.
The right to use the siren to move and motivate the public has always been in the hands of the artist. Acoustic inversions
Schafer draws our attention to a phenomenon I call an acoustic inversion, an instance in which shifts in the
perceptual habits of society cause auditory figure and ground to exchange roles (Schafer 98). Figure and
ground have, in fact, exchanged roles in the historical soundscape of the siren, but the effect was not the
result of shifts of perception, but of apocalyptic shifts in actual conditions. When the frequency of
emergency sirens (and so of emergencies) increases to the point at which the figure of the siren is
transformed into ground, we have achieved the acoustic inversion of the siren, otherwise known as war.
This horrifying conception, when siren's signal becomes keynote, recalls the sonic reality of WWII London,
or modern Baghdad. When the signal-to-noise ratio reaches 1, Schafer says, it is no longer possible to know
what, if anything, is to be listened to (Schafer 71). War is the ultimate lo-fi landscape. Deep history
Why did the sound of the siren, in particular, find a foothold as a sound of public address? What was it
about that particular sound—its plaintive, modulated note—that helped it to become an über-linguistic
signifier of civil obedience? (Erlmann 61). The world is filled with sounds: loud sounds, technological
sounds, imperialistic sounds, any of which might have fulfilled the prescribed social role. Was the siren
simply in the right place at the right time, a mass-produced sound-making electronic commodity, which
happened to find a home in the infrastructure of civic authority… and so atop emergency vehicles and
rooftops across the land?  The Crystal Method are said to have done their early musical production in an underground shelter referred to as “The Bomb
Shelter”. 9 It seems unlikely. Perhaps if we listen deeply to the sound of the siren, to its plangent, wavering
fundamentals and harmonics, we may find an answer (track 1). Clairaudience may help us to unear an
ancient sound, an ancestral form of public address, a sound that has lain claim to territory, reaffirmed social
bonds, and defined the space of the community from a thousand lonely ridgetops of time. From deep
memory, we may retrieve the howl of the wolf (track 2).
Schafer likens the sounds of police sirens to the alarm calls of birds (Schafer 33), but I do not concur.
Not only does sound of the siren—in frequency, timbre, and modulation—simply sound more like a howl
of the wolf, but the meaning and symbolism of the two vocalizations are neatly congruent. The howling of
wolves is believed to play multiple social functions: coordinating movements among pack mates,
strengthening the social bonds between them, and establishing the spatial boundaries of the pack (Mech).
The sound of the siren, too, coordinates the movements of citizens, strengthens the social bonds between
them, and establishes and defines the boundaries of the community. Both the howl and the siren are the
syntax through which individuals position and define themselves relative to their group.
Schafer notes that definition of space by acoustic means is much more ancient than the establishment of
property lines and fences (33). In the call of the wolf, he allows, “...we encounter a vocal ritual which
defines the territorial claim of the pack to an acoustic space---in just the same way as the hunter's horn lays
claim to the forest or the church bell to the parish” (39). And, so by extension, the siren lays claim to the
neighborhood, the precinct, and the nation-state, defining power and authority and right-of-way within it.
As wolves respond to the howl of the alpha-male, modern citizens respond to the vocalizations of the state.
Hearing is touching at a distance (Schafer 11), and the wolf pack howls to stay in touch. Sirens, like howls,
touch the civil body over a distance.
Canines instinctively recognize the sonosymbolic kinship between howl and siren, yet we are often
amused when neighborhood dogs howl at the sound of a passing fire truck. But it is we, not the dogs, who
fail to grasp the meaning of the event; we who must examine the meaning of our misinterpretation. In our
anthropocentrism, we see the howling of dogs as (mostly inadequate) imitations of the sound of the siren; it
is in fact our own species that routinely produces feeble imitations of the voicings of wolves.
The auditory congruence of howl and siren supports the general hypothesis that man echoes his
soundscape (Schafer 40, Feld 225), but in the instance of the siren, we find evidence for the symbolic
echoing of the soundscape. The mechanical howl has the same meaning and symbolic purpose as the
original. The reproduction echoes the original—in frequency, modulation, and timbre—and in symbolic
Was it mere coincidence that a mechanical howl came to serve as a signal in the dense city soundscape?
Certainly, a striking, penetrating sound was required. Ethologists tell us that lower-pitched, harmonically
simple tones like the howl carry best over long distances, that modulated tones are easier to localize (Mech
77). Schafer writes of modern society’s synthetic soundscape, in which natural sounds are becoming
increasingly unnatural, while man-made substitutes are providing the operative signals directing modern
life (Schafer 91). It is fascinating that our rational, modern state has chosen the haunting, almost
supernatural song of the wolf as the song of civil obedience. Listening for the future
Modern society becomes increasingly more diffuse, yet the siren still evokes a surprisingly unified cultural
response. But the authority of the siren, like all cultural constructs, is contingent, and may increasingly be
resisted and challenged in the future. 2007 saw the introduction of a new breed of siren: a siren that
rumbled the ground.
The Rumbler introduces a revolutionary new concept to audible warning. This system has the ability to
interact with 100/200-watt siren amplifiers and provide secondary, low frequency duplicate tones. Low 10 frequency tones have the distinct advantage of penetrating and shaking solid materials allowing
vehicle operators and nearby pedestrians to FEEL the sound waves, and perhaps even see their effects
through a shaking rearview mirror. (Illinois Fire)
If sirens, like works of architecture, are expressions of the dominant sentiment of the age, what is the
meaning of the Rumbler? What is the meaning of the city's increasing ability, through the use of
sophisticated video networks, to surveil its citizens in an historically unprecedented way—opening the door
for a brave new era of Urban Panopticism (Dochtermann). Do these phenomena represent the advances of
an increasingly controlling, aggressive state? Or are the shifts situated in the realm of the hearing public,
which in mounting an increased resistance to listening, drives the state to feel the need to “raise its voice”
to be heard? Perhaps the displacements are occurring on both sides. Civil obedience is a two-way dialog:
will the State and the Public of the future continue to hear each other as they have in the past? Perhaps we
can look to Homer's narrative for clues. After Odysseus’ successful encounter with the Sirens, the episode
concludes with these lines:
So all rowed on, until the Seirênês
dropped under the sea rim, and their singing
(252-4) Odysseus faced the challenge of the Sirens by stopping his men’s ears to the sound. If we would take the
measure of man, we would do well to attend to the sound of the siren. 11 Bibliography/Discography/Illustration Credits
“Air Raid Siren is Termed Success Despite Dead Spots.” New York Times. 27 May 1951.
“Approves Series of Rules for Traffic Regulation.” New York Times. 13 Jun 1915.
“Autos Must Halt at Curb When Police Sirens Sound.” New York Times. 16 Sep 1933.
“BBC - School Radio - World War 2,”
Ludwig Bemelmans, Madeline, (Viking Press, 1967).
“Big Bertha Air Raid Siren Undergoes a Voice Test.” Science News Letter. 23 May 1942.
Michael Bull and Les Back, The Auditory Culture Reader, First Edition (Berg Publishers, 2004).
“Chrysler air raid siren.” Victory Siren Foundation, Inc. <http://victorysiren.com/s/main.htm>
“Chrysler Air Raid Siren c. 1952.” <http://users.tpg.com.au/nielsent/sirenworld/php/data.php>
“City Cocks its Ears for Siren in Vain.” New York Times. 18 Dec 1941.
“Civil defense siren - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,”
“Composer Replaces Siren’s Wail with Melody and Meaning.” New York Times. 1 Apr 1989
Anton Dochtermann, “Metaphors of the contemporary city,” <http://www.math.tuberlin.de/~dochterm/city%20metaphors.htm.>
“Early Siren Design,” Anthony Burr/Charles Curtis. Physics and Metaphysics of Sound.
“Earsplitting Symphony, With the Maestro in Blue” New York Times, 15 Jun 2007.
“Emergency Broadcast System - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,”
Veit Erlmann, Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening and Modernity, English Ed (Berg Publishers,
Aden Evens, Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience (Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2005).
“Federal Signal Rumbler Siren | Police Sirens,” <http://www.ilfireandpoliceequip.com/rumbler_siren.htm.
“Federal Signal Thunderbolt Model 1003,” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thunderbolt_siren>
“Federal Siren model 2001 movie from Williamson, TN” <http://www.airraidsirens.com/.>
Steven Feld, “A Rainforest Acoustemology.” The Auditory Culture Reader, Ed. Michael Bull and Les
Back. First Edition (Berg Publishers, 2004). 223-229.
“Fire and Police Sirens to Return.” New York Times. 14 Jan 1953. 12 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (Basic Books, 1973). Stefan Helmreich, Silicon Second Nature: Culturing Artificial Life in a Digital World, (University of California Press, 2000).
Homer, The Odyssey, Robert Fitzgerald (New York; Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1998).
Lenoir, Timothy. Helmholtz and the Materialities of Communication. Osiris. 1994. 2(9):184-207.
“A Lonesome Howl” NOVA Online | Wild Wolves | What's in a Howl,”
David Mech and Luigi Boitani, Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation (University of Chicago
“On Guard Advertisement.” The American City. Jul 1953.
“Opinions Differ on Test of Siren.” New York Times. 5 Jul 1942.
“Police Sirens are Curbed Except for Air Raids.” New York Times. 28 Dec 1941.
Richard Scarry, Best Word Book Ever, (Golden Books, 1963).
R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape (Destiny Books, 1993).
---, “Open Ears.” The Auditory Culture Reader, Ed. Michael Bull and Les Back. First Edition (Berg
Publishers, 2004). 25-40.
Hillel Schwartz, “The Indefensible Ear: A History.” The Auditory Culture Reader, Ed. Michael Bull and
Les Back. First Edition (Berg Publishers, 2004). 487-501.
Bruce R. Smith, “Tuning into London c. 1600.” The Auditory Culture Reader, Ed. Michael Bull and Les
Back. First Edition (Berg Publishers, 2004). 127-136.
“Siren.” Acoustics. Kenyon College Department of Physics.
“Siren.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 5 Mar. 2008
“Siren.” Urban Dictionary: <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=siren&page=1.>
“Siren (noisemaker).” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”
“Sound Kills Mouse.” Science News Letter. 1 Nov 1947.
“Spinning the Dial to Europe.” New York Times. 17 Sep 1939.
Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes, The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology (University
of Pennsylvania Press, 1989).
The Crystal Method, “Get Busy Child.”.<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0Fn2Fk9qyA>
“The History of 911 Emergency Calls,” <http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/bl911.htm. 13 Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in
America, 1900-1933, New Ed (The MIT Press, 2004). The fact that subliminal messages have gone public does not mean covert messages have become extinct. In department stores there
may be the subliminal sound of jail doors slamming or police sirens wailing to deter shoplifters… “What’s New in Subliminal
Messages” New York Times, 20 Mar 1988. 14 Accompanying Media
The following content was part of the project documentation, but has been removed for OCW publication
due to copyright restrictions. Images
Early siren design
Federal Signal Thunderbolt Model 1003
"ON GUARD" advertisement from The American City Magazine - July 1953
Chrysler Air Raid Siren c. 1952
Madeline book image by Ludwig Bemelmans
"In a car with a red light they drove out into the night."
- Ludwig Bemelmans, Madeline, 1939.
Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever
Richard Scarry's 1963 classic Best Word Book Ever! features ten emergency vehicles and twenty one sirens. Video
Air raid siren: Federal 2001 from Williamson, TN
http://www.williamson-tn.org/co_gov/depts/ecc/siren4.mpg (1.2 MB)
Wolf howl sonogram: “A Lonesome Howl” from NOVA Online | Wild Wolves | What's in a Howl
The Crystal Method, “Get Busy Child.” ...
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