OF THE SUBLIMITY AND BEAUTY OF SOUND (1790)
REV. ARCHIBALD ALISON
1. All sounds in general are SUBLIME, which are associated with Ideas of Danger; the howling of a Storm, the murmuring of an Earthquake, the Report of Artillery, the Explosion of Thunder, &c.
2. All sounds are in general Sublime, which are associated with Ideas of great Power or Might; the Noise of a Torrent, the fall of a Cataract, the uproar of a Tempest, the Explosion of Gun-powder, the dashing of the Waves, &c.
3. All sounds, in the same manner, are Sublime, which are associated with Ideas of Majesty or Solemnity, or deep Melancholy, or any other strong Emotion; the Sound of the Trumpet, and all other warlike Instruments, the Note of the Organ, the Sound of the Curfew, the tolling of the passing Bell, &c.
That the Sublimity of such sounds arises from the Ideas of Danger or Power, or Majesty, &c. which are associated with them, and not from the Sounds themselves, or from any original fitness in such sounds, to produce this Emotion, seems to be obvious from the following considerations:
1. Such sounds, instead of having any permanent or definite Character of Sublimity, vary in their effect, with the qualities they happen to express, and assume different characters, according to the nature of these qualities.
If sounds in themselves were Sublime, it might reasonably be expected in this, as in every other case of Sense, that their difference of effect would be strictly proportioned to their difference of character, and that Sounds of the same kind or character would invariably produce the same Emotion. The following instances, however, seem to show, that no specific character of Sublimity belongs to mere Sound, and that the same Sounds may produce very different kinds of Emotion, according to the qualities with which we associate them.
The Sound of Thunder is perhaps of all others in Nature, the most Sublime. In the generality of mankind this Sublimity is founded on Awe, and some degree of Terror; yet how different is the Emotion which it gives to the peasant who sees at last, after a long drought, the consent of Heaven to his prayers for rain, to the philosopher, who from the height of the Alps, hears it roll beneath his feet, to the soldier, who, under the impression of ancient superstition, welcomes it, upon the moment of engagement, as the omen of victory! In all these cases, the Sound itself is the same; but how different the nature of the Sublimity it produces! The report of artillery is Sublime, from the images both of Power and of Danger we associate with it. The noise of an engagement heard from a distance, is dreadfully Sublime. The firing of a Review is scarcely more than magnificent. The sound of a real skirmish between a few hundred men, would be more sublime than all the noise of a feigned engagement between a hundred thousand men. The straggling fire of a company of soldiers upon a field-day, is contemptible, and always excites laughter. The straggling fire of the same number of men, in a riot, would be extremely sublime, and perhaps more terrible than an uniform report.
The howling of a Tempest is powerfully Sublime from many associations; yet how different to the inhabitant of the land, and the sailor, who is far from refuge, to the inhabitant of the sheltered plain, and the traveller bewildered in the mountains, to the poor man who has nothing to lose, and the wealthy, whose fortunes are at the mercy of the storm! In all these cases, the Sound itself is the same, but the nature of the Sublimity it produces is altogether different, and corresponds, not to the effect upon the organ of Hearing, but to the character or situations of the men by whom it is heard, and the different qualities of which it is expressive to them. . . .
The most general character, perhaps, of Sublimity in Sounds, is that of Loudness, and there are doubtless many instances where such sounds are very constantly sublime; yet there are many instances also, where the contrary quality of sounds is also sublime; and when this happens, it will universally be found, that such sounds are associated with Ideas of Power or Danger, or some other quality capable of exciting strong Emotion. The loud and tumultuous sound of a Storm is undoubtedly Sublime; but there is a low and feeble Sound which frequently precedes it, more sublime in reality than all the uproar of the storm itself, and which has accordingly been frequently made use of by Poets, in heightening their descriptions of such scenes.
Along the woods, along the moorish fens . . .
Sighs the sad Genius of the coming storm,
And up among the loose disjointed cliffs
And fractur'd mountains wild, the brawling brook
And cave presageful send a hollow moan
Resounding long in Fancy's listening ear.
Then comes the Father of the Tempest forth, &c.
The great divisions of Sound are into Loud and Low, Grave and Acute, Long and Short, Increasing and Diminishing. The two first divisions are expressive in themselves: the two last only in conjunction with others.
1. Loud Sound is connected with ideas of Power and Danger. Many objects in nature which have such qualities, are distinguished by such sounds, and this association is farther confirmed from the human Voice, in which all violent and impetuous passions are expressed in loud tones.
2. Low Sound has a contrary expression, and is connected with ideas of Weakness, Gentleness and Delicacy. This association takes it[s] rise not only from the observation of inanimate nature, or of animals, where in a great number of cases, such sounds distinguish objects with such qualities, but particularly from the human Voice, where all gentle, or delicate, or sorrowful affections are expressed by such tones.
3. Grave Sound is connected with ideas of Moderation, Dignity, Solemnity, &c. principally, I believe, from all moderate, or restrained, or chastened affections being distinguished by such tones in the human Voice.
4. Acute Sound is expressive of Pain, or Fear, or Surprise, &c. and generally operates by producing some degree of astonishment. This association also, seems principally to arise from our experience of such connections in the human Voice.
5. Long or lengthened Sound, seems to me to have no expression in itself, but only to signify the continuance of that quality which is signified by other qualities of Sound. A loud, or a low, a grave, or an acute Sound prolonged, expresses to us no more than the continuance of the quality which is generally signified by such Sounds.
6. Short or abrupt Sound has a contrary expression, and signifies the cessation of the quality thus expressed.
7. Increasing Sound signifies, in the same manner, the increase of the quality expressed; as
8. Decreasing Sound signifies the gradual diminution of such qualities.
I shall leave to the reader to attend to the diversity of expression which arises from the different combination of these diversities of Sound.
The most Sublime of these Sounds appears to me to be a loud, grave, lengthened and increasing Sound.
The least Sublime, a low, acute, abrupt, or decreasing Sound.
The most beautiful, a low, grave and decreasing Sound.
The least beautiful, a loud, acute, lengthened and increasing Sound.
Such are the few general principles that, as far as I can judge, take place, with regard to the Sublimity or Beauty of Sounds.
[SOURCE: Archibald Alison, Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (Edinburgh: J.J.G. and G. Robinson, London; Bell and Bradfute, Edinburgh, 1790), pp. 13740, 1757]
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