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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 6 (2000) No. 2

The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor. By Bruce R. Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. [xiv, 386 pp. ISBN 0-226-76377-3 $21. (paperback).]

Reviewed by Ross W. Duffin*

1. Content

2. Music

3. Conclusion


1. Content

1.1 Strange book. Apologies for beginning with a fragmentary sentence, but it seems apt for a book that itself begins with “Huh?” The author, a professor of English at Georgetown University, attempts to analyze virtually everything to do with sound in early seventeenth-century England: phonating, hearing, listening, measuring, contextualizing, and internalizing. The overall effect is stimulating even though there are musical details that seem less than satisfactory. This is not primarily a book about music, however.

1.2 Smith begins with conceptions of anatomy and philosophies of communication before moving on to “mapping” the soundscapes of the time. These he divides into “City,” “Country,” and “Court,” following the three classifications provided by Thomas Ravenscroft in his Melismata of 1611. Ambient sounds, both natural and manufactured, are identified and quantified to a remarkable degree.

1.3 Not all of Smith’s discussion is relevant to this audience. Musicologists will not need the explanations of how the various “Cries” works preserve and present the vendor “jingles” of the city, as might specialists in other disciplines. But the sounds surrounding or in the background of musical or theatrical events are revealed in a thorough and thought-provoking manner. These are the seventeenth-century equivalents of computer fans, air conditioners, ringing telephones, photocopiers, passing cars, sirens, jack-hammers, helicopters, the rumble of distant jets—things we have learned to filter out as much as possible in conducting our own business, whether thinking, reading, conversing, teaching, or music-making. Not surprisingly, the emphasis at the time in question was on birdcalls, church bells, dogs barking, beating hoofs, jingling harness, and cart squeaks and groans. Obviously, it is interesting and useful to have this early soundscape portrayed for us since it is so different from our own.

2. Music

2.1 One odd omission from the soundscape, considering the comprehensive nature of the list—right down to the buzzing of bees—is the almost complete disregard of the “Waits,” the municipal watchmen who, well into the seventeenth century, were hired to play shawms and other musical instruments. This is surprising considering the late Anthony Baines's speculation that “of all musical sounds that from day to day smote the ears of a sixteenth-century town resident, the deafening skirl of the shawm band in palace courtyard or market square must have been the most familiar....”1 Nor, for that matter, is much attention paid to domestic chamber music, whether for voices, viols, virginals, lute, cittern, etc. The unfortunate impression left is that these sounds were too negligible to be mentioned, or that instrumental music is not sufficiently “human” (i.e., vocal) to be considered.

2.2 The one musical genre thoroughly addressed in the book is the ballad. Physiological, psychological, sociological, political, not to mention acoustical aspects of ballads are explored, situating the ballad as a unique and vital phenomenon of early modern English life. It is certainly true, in contrast to chamber music, that the narrative element of ballads places them in a special entertainment category, one that is related to the plays looming in the background of Smith’s discussion throughout the book.

2.3 One of the author’s more eloquent moments occurs where he is discussing the typical citation of a ballad tune by title alone, such as “Queen Dido” as the tune for “The Spanish Tragedy”:

For a literate historian, such a phrase all too often points towards silence. For musicians in early modern England, it pointed toward the known and the familiar, towards traces of sound that were already in the reader’s brain, lungs, larynx, and mouth. Standing outside that cultural soundscape, we have access to such tunes only when a well-placed composer like William Byrd happened to take up the tune as the theme for a set of variations which he subsequently wrote down in a score. “Queen Dido” is not, alas, one of those tunes. (p. 112)

This is an important point, expressed in a poignant but slightly disingenuous manner. Smith undoubtedly knows from Claude Simpson’s The British Broadside Ballad and its Music (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1967), which he cites several times, that the “Queen Dido” tune actually does survive in an early seventeenth-century source, although not from the pen of Byrd. Ironically, there are other examples that would have served the same purpose and stood up to such scrutiny besides. Perhaps Smith’s intent to further discuss “The Spanish Tragedy” dictated the use of a less than perfect musical example.

2.4 Another passage likely to make musicologists uncomfortable is:

Surviving transcriptions of “When that I was a little tiny boy” indicate that this song...was performed in a pitch range approximate to the modern tenor. (p. 233)

Smith attributes this information to Philip Pickett of the New London Consort and the new Globe Theater in London, but one wonders if the message has somehow become garbled. Studies like that of Peter Seng2 have made it absolutely clear that the “traditional” tune for this song can be dated no earlier than the eighteenth century. How this could lead to Smith’s statement about its range without further information—not provided here—and how it relates to the acoustic world of the stage in early modern England is bewildering.

3. Conclusion

3.1 One whole section of the book is devoted to the acoustical environment of the Globe and Blackfriars Theaters. Aspects of pitch, vowel quality, decibel levels, and reverberation patterns all find a place in the discussion, along with sound effects and background music. This is an odd combination of elements, but the results are often insightful and original.

3.2 There were times when I wondered where on earth Smith was heading. But almost always, the reason for the verbal meandering became clear, and eventually the point was brought full circle to the subject at hand. That in itself is an image that Smith would appreciate, since the idea of the circle, O, is one that permeates the book, and tethers otherwise disconnected topics to a central point. We are not sure why we are visiting some of these destinations, but the trip is curiously enjoyable, and we definitely feel that, if nothing else, we have learned to be better listeners by the end. This is no mean accomplishment. For musicologists, ultimately, the value of this book lies not in what it tells us about music, but in raising our awareness of the aural context for music, both historically and in our own time.


*Ross W. Duffin (rwd@po.cwru.edu) is perhaps best known in North America for his radio program, “Micrologus: Exploring the World of Early Music,” on National Public Radio from 1981 to 1998. A Noah Greenberg Award winner (1980), his scholarly work has focused on 15th-century Franco-Flemish music from Du Fay to Josquin and on English music of the Jacobean period. He is Fynette H. Kulas Professor of Music and director of the Early Music program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. His recent publications include A Josquin Anthology (1999) and A Performer's Guide to Medieval Music (2000). Return to beginning


1. Anthony Baines, Woodwind Instruments and Their History (New York: W.W.Norton, 1957), 268. Return to text

2. The Vocal Songs in the Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), 129. Return to text

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