Victory through sheer volume: A history of turning it up to 11

[This was my weekly column for GlobalNews.ca. – AC]

One of the most iconic music-related cinema moments has Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel demonstrating how his custom Marshall amplifier is equipped with a volume control knob that goes a little higher than normal.

Ear-splitting volume has been inextricably associated with rock ever since the genre developed in the 1950s, but don’t give it all the credit/blame. People have been screaming for musicians to turn it down for centuries.

At first, the volume at which humans could perform music was restricted. What kind of lung power did you have when it came to singing? How hard could you hit, pluck, or blow into something? And how well would that physical force transform into sound pressure levels?

Anything could be made louder by having more people do the same thing simultaneously. If we have to guess, ancient drum circles, the kind used for religious rituals or preparing for battle, were once the loudest form of music on the planet. The more drummers you had, the greater the volume.

And then there was the role of architecture. Amphitheatres, cathedrals, and concert halls were constructed as natural amplifiers so actors, singers, and priests could be heard throughout the structure. The Romans discovered that if you draped a tent over their amptheatres, the sound was kept in.

Later, all the great opera houses were built to make whatever came from the stage and the orchestra pit seem louder.

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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