Sounding Stone and Cetacean Energy

Sounding History

Nov 24 2021 • 35 mins

This episode is about what happens when sounds and people meet and mix. A lot of what we talk about takes place away from North America and Europe, but we end up circling back to a primary question in this season of the podcast: how did Westerners use the sounds of others to perceive the world, “The West,” and themselves?

Our first example is one of those historical stories that is so, well, weird you have to wonder if it is actually fiction. In the early years of the seventeenth century Chinese officials discovered a thousand year-old stone pillar (or “steele”) near the city of Xi’an in Western China, along the old east-west trade route known as “the Silk Road.” It was inscribed both in Chinese and Syriac, a form of Aramiac in which many early Christian texts are transmitted. Recently arrived Jesuit missionaries were quick to pick up on this find, because it supported their claim that Christianity had a long history in China. They also transmitted the news back to Rome.

Then the fun starts. The great Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, famous among other things for his collection of interesting objects and texts from around the world, used what he read about the stone to speculate about the intonation of the Chinese language (and China’s relationship to ancient Egypt!). A few decades later a minor German clergyman in then very provincial Berlin read Kircher’s account and proposed the idea that in China people sang all the time (as if they were in an opera) instead of speaking. Our point is that conclusions about far-away places don’t have to be true to be interesting.

Our second postcard was inspired by a TikTok meme. At the time we recorded the show, sea shanties were everywhere on the internet, thanks mainly to the music-video sharing app ability to amplify strange (we would say interesting!) sound objects: the app can act as a kind of digital version of Kircher’s collection of curiosities. This got us thinking about where sea shanties, and other seafaring songs come from.

And so we found ourselves talking about whaling ships. As Chris points out, whalers, which were really floating factories, were a kind of Silk Road on the water, thanks to their global routes and diverse crews. They also remind us that music history, economic history, exploration, and extraction often run along the same tracks. The sea shanty meme was good fun (for most listeners!). But sea shanties, and other songs from the riches of maritime history, are more than just curiosities. They offer vital sonic clues about big processes, fascinating moments, and human experience in global history.

Key Takeaways

  • Historical misunderstandings can be interesting in their own right: take the story of how the discovery of an ancient monument in China led one European to speculate that Chinese people sang all the time as if they were in an opera. Behind this odd idea is a story of someone struggling to make sense of new historical evidence.
  • Whaling ships and other workhorses of the maritime trade were both “floating factories” and fascinating soundscapes. The music passed down from them (including the recent TikTok sea shanty craze) offer clues about these soundscapes, and the ways that music history and the histories of economics (especially the history of working people) travel on the same tracks.


All of the books mentioned in the episode can be found in our Sounding History Goodreads discussion group. Join the conversation!