Chapter 3. Adding Sound to Interactions

A Brief History of Sound Design

THE HISTORY OF HUMAN civilization is also a history of increasingly complex sound design. As humans gathered into larger groups and more permanent settlements, sounds were refined to be louder, more distinctive, and more customized.

Originating in West Africa, the talking drum was an early, elegant solution to the very common problem of communicating over a distance. Without consonants and vowels, the drums mimicked the rhythm and pitch of common poetic phrases that could be translated into known meanings. Much like how the alphabet song can be recognized when hummed, the phrases had a rhythm and set of tones that could be identified in a tonal drum beat. The talking drum communicated simple messages—the date of a ceremony or warning of an attack, for example—with other drums picking up signals and repeating them further along.

The amount of detail that could be conveyed was considerably lower than that of human speech, but much higher than the binary “on/off” conveyed by an alarm. It turns out that many group-level communication tasks fit neatly into this format. Although not the first device to convey variable messages at a distance, the talking drum was far more versatile than any other auditory communication device of its day. It was unique because of its combination of flexibility, resolution, and range.

Since then, humans have developed ever more sophisticated ways to convey messages over a distance, ...

Get Designing with Sound now with the O’Reilly learning platform.

O’Reilly members experience live online training, plus books, videos, and digital content from nearly 200 publishers.