Worldbuilding: The Sound of Silence

Warning, this was partly sparked by being driven out of a bookstore – yet again – by the background music. Out of a bookstore. When I love books. Customer satisfaction, yer doin’ it wrong….

What are the sounds of a fictional world? Animal, plant, wind; the strum of a lute, the hissing crackle of lava pouring into the sea? What does a character hear, when all else is silent?

Is the world customarily quiet, just the wind blowing over the dunes? Or is it the 24/7/365 cacophony of a planet-wide city, advertisements blaring from every street-sign, horns and alarms galore? Do your characters have to work to get any quiet time to think? Or is the problem too much quiet, and too much thinking, and deciding to go do something drastic about it?

Sound is one of the interesting senses, because it’s the only one that potentially gives us a full 360-degree perception of the world around us. In a sense, it’s “touch at a distance”, using vibrations to perceive something we can’t physically get our hands on. In human evolutionary terms, both hearing and sight evolved from skin-sensors; one to pressure, the other to light. Which, some speculate, is one of the reasons blind people can adapt hearing and touch to give them a visual interpretation of the world: the brain still considers them all part of the same set of sensors, so rewiring isn’t nearly as hard as if, say, you were trying to smell the world for details.

Sound is also interesting because it’s invisible. The sounds your character doesn’t consciously notice can be critical, because that’s what makes up their day-to-day environment. Someone who ignores the clacking of people assembling firearms has a far, far different perception of what’s supposed to be in their environment than someone who’s ignoring the crackling static of the idiots in the next thaumaturgical lab trying to get their lightning elemental back into the Faraday cage. Again.

But to me one of the most critical sounds you can put in your book is a silence, where your character’s expecting sounds they know. The hush of birds fleeing before the storm. The sound of footsteps halting in a dark alley. The absent hum, where the power should be running the fridge, the A/C, the electric fences holding back the velociraptors….

Silence. Done right, it’s more scary than you think!


32 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: The Sound of Silence

  1. this was partly sparked by being driven out of a bookstore

    Bummer. 😦

    I hate it when they have too much noise in bookstores. This is a place for books and reading. Kinda of like a library. Most bookstores have a library-feel to them and most people I know automatically speak just as softly in a bookstore as they do the library.

    Why is there loud music?

    It doesn’t have to be dead silent aside from quiet voices. There is plenty of soft, gentle music that you can play at low volume to break up that silence without driving away customers who like bookstores in no small part because they are quieter than other stores.

    When I love books.

    Someone I know compared trying to sell her books is like trying to give a small child candy. And if she walks out without a book, you are making bad candy. When it isn’t that hard to make good candy.

    Or in this case, have the candy store be clean, smell nice, and otherwise be pleasant.

    Re: Sounds and silence

    Sometimes what is supposed to be there is just as important was isn’t there.

    As the Great Detective himself said, (paraphasing here) “There is the matter of the dog barking.”
    “The dog didn’t bark.”

    Right that it does say something about the characters’ background and such about what sounds they expect to hear and what sounds or lack of them will make them tense up.

    Another thing to consider is characters with above human hearing. Besides the fact that they can hear stuff outside of the range of human hearing is that their threshold for too noisy is at a different spot than most humans.

    Like I bet Morgan and other Fanalis probably aren’t fond of big cities because they are pure, sensory overload.

    Youkai and hanyou probably don’t like them for similar reasons.

    Not to mention Jim Ellison from the Sentinel . . .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It wasn’t that the music was loud, it was that it was consistently depressing and full of The World Is Pain. I’m usually in a bookstore because I want a distraction from reality, not negative reinforcement of it!

      (And it’s apparently enough to drive some of the people working there a bit around the bend, too; clerk at the coffee bar confided she was glad the machines meant she didn’t hear it as much!)

      And, hmm. Nature can get pretty noisy too. Ask anyone who’s dealt with Cuban tree frogs and screech owls calling all night. πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I see.

        Still sounds awful.

        What’s wrong with like, some light, softly playing classical piano or something like that?

        Re: Nature

        Yeah, nature can get pretty noisy πŸ™‚

        It’s different kind of noisy. And sometimes thick vegetation can muffle sounds. Heat can also dampen sound waves so there is that factor.

        Plus our big cities also have a lot of lights and smells in addition to the cacophony of sound. And a lot of people running here, there, and everywhere. Which can be taxing on the nerves for anyone, let alone predators with better senses and quite possibly entirely justified paranoia.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Nature is often noisy… but it tends to be the sort of noise that normal people tune out as “background” after the first few minutes. Having synesthesia and aspergers, both, means I don’t have a “background” filter so notice when “there’s actually noise here but you’ve just started filtering it out and not noticing it”, which was a really weird thing to encounter before I found out why it was happening.

        Also, this brings up another option: not just “what sounds are different”, but “what senses are different”? Even just for humans, those with synesthesia can experience the world in very different ways, depending on just which senses are crosswired. And that’s with the same basic sensory nerves, being processed slightly differently. When you get into differences in the nerves (different range, different sensitivity, etc), that changes which things will be noticed. When you add exotic senses (detecting magnetism, for example), stuff can get really interesting.

        And beside both of those, there’s a cultural effect. Some studies that have been done with people brought up in different cultures shows that if you give them the same scene, and ask them to describe it, those from the same culture tend to pick out the same basic details, but those details may be different from those another culture focuses on. (One I remember off-hand, used a photograph of a stream. One of the cultures in the study noted what sort of things were present in the photograph. Another culture instead focused on what actions/movements/etc were going on in the photograph. And a third culture focused on the relationship between the things in the photograph.)

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Spotty sensory filters do make it hard to sort out what most people think is “normal”, yeah.

        And I think I read about that study. IIRC, Americans noticed if there were fish in a stream or not. Some other cultures… didn’t, always.


      4. What’s wrong with like, some light, softly playing classical piano or something like that?

        Wouldn’t even have to be classical. Almost anything instrumental, or in a foreign language, fills the necessary BGM requirements.

        Maybe not the stuff that they call “Atmospheric”. That stuff becomes annoying the instant that you notice it, because it refuses to sound like music (which has a rhythm, which can be ignored as soon as you know where it loops).

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Nah, Hakkai BROODS. He tries to hide it, but they all know when to leave him be.

        It’s when he SMILES and is perfectly polite and formal that Sanzo starts subtly looking for either an exit or something he can make an exit. Sanzo is sure he can take Hakkai, just… he doesn’t want to bother with it today. It’s a better idea to make the idiots get supplies before the stalls burn down. Or worse.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. A quiet Hakkai is probably planning for a surprise.

        And since Hakkai’s surprises generally include the phrase “What do you mean they don’t know how many bodies?” you can see why Sanzo watches a too quiet Hakkai like a hawk.

        If for no other reason that explaining why any of them did a thing that scared the locals and no, you can’t kill them for being scary is his job.

        Besides Hakkai usually has a good reason for wanting to go homicidal on someone.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. In a fictional world, there would probably be snarls, hissing, screams that sound human but are actually carnivorous creatures attempting to lure unsuspecting adventurers to their deaths…that kind of thing. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

  3. American Psycho is one of the [four] songs on my workplace’s repeating soundtrack. In a supermarket. Argh!! Give me one decent song! Even 60’s music!(never heard it,but it has to be better!)

    Liked by 1 person

      1. We used to play Big Band music. And yes, it does deserve capital letters. I miss that music so freaking much. Why ever did big band go out of style? Why did swing music go out of style? It’s pretty simple to dance to, and you can fake knowing a it pretty easy.

        The problem, in my experience of ten years working in the same store in different positions, is that the music is supposed to reflect the tastes of the main customer base. I miss some of the old songs that came out before I was a twinkle in my parents’s eyes….

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Amusingly, I can’t do repeating soundtracks of anything(I love music. I also have a very long playlist). I also find cities quieter then my smallish town. Less gunshots, for one thing. Or drunk idiots drag racing at 2am.

    Then again, walking around San Francisco at 4am in a fog is very, very quiet, peaceful, and eerie. There might be anything out there, after all.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I used to think that here got thick fog when you couldn’t see four feet away. Then living there, I couldn’t see my hand at the end of my arm when it really rolled in. Having to walk to work really gave your ears and memory a workout. And Ishmael is awesome for a few reasons, that’s one.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Someone made a nice point in scifi, once; it’s never really quiet on a starship. There’s always the distant background thrum of the power core, the soft hiss-hum of the air recyclers, gurgle of fluids in the piping, the binary chatter of computers, the occasional vibration-rumble of guidance thrusters. If something – or gods forbid, -everything- suddenly goes quiet, it generally means you’re about to have A Very Bad Day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haven’t been on a starship– yet!– but when our LHD went dead in the water… yep, LOTS of sounds you didn’t know where there, and even more that you didn’t feel until they were gone.

      I think it was only about 30 seconds. Felt like hours. You didn’t even have to know anything, your gut just dropped.


  6. Hate bad music in a book store– there’s usually a ton of local radio stations that will be OK, and if that doesn’t work, freaking stream Calm Radio (whole bunch of “environmental” type music from Canada), KING FM (a non-profit group of classical music stations) or something like KBRD, which is “America’s Ninth Best Radio Station Playing Music of The 20s, 30s.” Keep it low enough you can’t really hear it unless you think about it, and it’s bubblegum.


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