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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

16 September 2012

Sound, hallucination and the moment of epiphany

SEEING THINGS WHICH aren’t there doesn’t bother people as much as the prospect of hearing voices in their heads.

Having visions in a metaphorical sense is now part of prevailing management orthodoxy; rather more Powerpoint slides must have been titled Realising the Vision than Obeying the Voices.

Even accounts of religious and supernatural experiences don’t seem too personally embarrassing when they’re limited to the visual sense. But claiming to hear God’s voice invites ridicule – it’s alright to be shown the Promised Land, but not so good to have an internal talking satnav telling you how to get there.

The 1960 film Inherit the Wind is a fine Hollywood courtroom drama. It’s based on the 1925 Scopes ‘monkey trial’ in which a Tennessee high-school teacher ended up in court for telling his pupils about Darwin’s theory of evolution. The teacher’s defence attorney, Henry Drummond, is played by Spencer Tracy and Fredric March acts the part of Matthew Harrison Brady, who’s helping the prosecution.

In this scene, Brady messes up by admitting he thinks God speaks to him personally:

DRUMMOND The Bible is a book. A good book. But it’s not the only book.

BRADY It is the revealed word of the Almighty. God spake to the men who wrote the Bible.

DRUMMOND And how do you know that God didn’t spake to Charles Darwin?

BRADY I know because God tells me to oppose the evil teachings of that man.

DRUMMOND Oh. God speaks to you.

BRADY Yes.

DRUMMOND He tells you exactly what’s right and what’s wrong?

BRADY Yes.

DRUMMOND And you act accordingly?

BRADY Yes.

DRUMMOND So you, Matthew Harrison Brady, through oratory, legislation, or whatever, pass along God’s orders to the rest of the world! Gentlemen, meet the Prophet from Nebraska!


Voices in the head are believed to threaten personal responsibility in a way visions can’t. Their commands might be too explicit and unambiguous to ignore or disobey. In 1981, during the second week of his trial, the serial murderer Peter Sutcliffe claimed he had heard the voice of Jesus during his work as a gravedigger:

I was digging and I just paused for a minute. It was very hard ground. I just heard something – it sounded like a voice similar to a human voice – like an echo. I looked round to see if there was anyone there, but there was no one in sight. I was in the grave with my feet about five feet below the surface. There was no one in sight when I looked round from where I was. Then I got out of the grave. The voice was not very clear. I got out and walked – the ground rose up. It was quite a steep slope. I walked to the top, but there was no one there at all. I heard again the same sound. It was like a voice saying something, but the words were all imposed on top of each other. I could not make them out, it was like echoes.

If Sutcliffe had invented this episode as a way to claim diminished responsibility, it didn’t work. The jury found him sane and he was convicted of thirteen counts of murder.

According to the American psychologist Julian Jaynes, hearing voices was once a universal part of human mental life. Jaynes’ landmark 1976 book was titled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and in it he expounded the theory that people in early societies had no awareness of their thoughts as belonging to themselves. Instead, thoughts were perceived as coming from elsewhere: the voices of ancestors or deities.

Years later Chris Frith, a neuropsychologist based in London’s brain-science intellectual quarter around Russell Square, began putting forward a similar-seeming explanation for schizophrenia. Frith believes the brain needs a mechanism to orient and delineate our mental experiences so that we know our thoughts come from ourselves rather than from others, and in schizophrenics this mechanism works poorly or not at all.

As with most mental phenomena, there is likely to be a continuous spectrum of difference between the relentless auditory hallucinations of very ill people and those occasional experiences in which sounds of non-human origin seem to have a clear and intended message for the listener. In folklore, Dick Whittington got as far as Archway in north London before he heard the Bow Bells speaking to him: Turn again Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London.

Church bells occupy a special place in English folk art which perhaps primes listeners to expect to hear them as having intentionality. Not only were the complex patterns of change-ringing developed in England in the 17th century, but church bells were often baptised and given individual names. The bells in Kipling’s Mandalay also carried the message to return:

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

The same motif occurred to the British politician Enoch Powell after India gained independence in 1947. Powell, whose ability and powerful ambition had propelled him to a professorship in Ancient Greek at the age of 25, had dreamed of becoming Viceroy of India. When this possibility evaporated, Powell became despondent. He later recalled than he’d been lifted from this state when he heard church bells in Oxford urging him to return to political life.


Powell is remembered today foremost for his 1968 speech warning that immigration and anti-discrimination legislation would lead to communalist violence. One might not expect Powell and the Jamaican reggae producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to have a lot in common, but both claimed to have had moments of epiphany inspired by sound.

In the sleeve notes to his compilation Arkology, Perry describes what led him to move to Kingston and his first music job working for Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd:

They had a project to develop Negril, and I get a job down there throwing stones, and I get an overload from throwing stones down there for two weeks. I started making positive connection with stones, by throwing stones to stones I start to hear sounds. When the stones clash, I hear like the thunder clash, and I hear lightning flash, and I hear words, and I don’t know where the words them coming from. These words send me to Kingston. Kingston means King’s Stone, the Son of the King. So I go up to King’s Stone, because the stone that I was throwing in Negril send me to King Stone for my graduation.

As with Powell and the Oxford bells, it may be that Perry is dramatising what was a more gradual process of stock-taking and decision-making. The two men also shared the understanding that personal presentation is something to be worked on.

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