Extensive though the BBC's sound library is, even there they might have problems laying their hands on an actual recording from the birth of the planet. The only solution when the Sound of Life team wanted to bring Radio 4 listeners the noises of the start of life was to attempt to recreate them.
But as Aubrey Manning explains, by taking an educated guess, they can come pretty close to what it must have been like all those billions of years ago.
“We know the solar system coalesced out of stardust and at first all the planets were molten on the surface. One thinks of volcanic activity, the hissing of lava, bubbling and roaring of gas, all of that must have been there,” explains Aubrey.“Then water started to condense out of the rocks and we got hit by meteors – dirty snowballs – and that added water, and there would have been hissing as that water fell onto hot rocks, and then gradually as the Earth’s surface began to develop it began to cool on the surface a bit.Then you would have oceans, and you would have the lapping of water and the sound of rain.”
Aubrey - Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh University - has been exploring these sounds, and many others, for The Sound of Life. In the course of his research to present this landmark series for BBC Radio Four, he's come to realise that in some respects, the background music of Planet Earth hasn't altered that much in millennia. Snowfall, lapping water, rainfall - these are all sounds that still occur in our natural landscape today, probably identical to those very first sounds. The difference, of course, is that they've since been joined by a cacophany of other sound, but for some 500 million years these were the only sounds to be heard. Eventually, though, life forms started to appear, and where there’s life, there’s certainly noise.
“For me, the most archetypal sound of life is really running water, because that’s what’s unique about our planet,” Professor Manning says, "then we had great fun thinking what the first sound was on Earth that was due to life.”
He pauses, then adds mischievously: “I shouldn’t say what it is, though; it was rather a surprise and I think I’ll leave it that way!”
One tantalising reason to tune in, and Aubrey promises lots more aural delights as well.
“The sounds on these programmes are going to be absolutely great; the producers are people who really care about sound. They really take trouble. This is state-of-the-art stuff we’re talking about, it really is,” he enthuses.
Some of his own favourites include the call of the Swedish thrush nightingale; the weird booming of the bittern, again on the Swedish marshes; listening to midshipman fish through hydrophones in the Pacific Ocean; and a group of elephants in Kenya.
“The elephants were quite at peace all around us and they were falling asleep; then you began to hear these very, very low sounds. Partly it’s the mothers talking to the infants, but after a time there was a sound that our guide said was saying, ‘let’s go now,’ and this sound was taken up by other elephants and the group began to move off. These sounds are really very low indeed – you don’t hear them so much as feel them on your chest.”
For the purposes of the programme the sounds have been speeded up to make them more audible – a process which has also made accessible other sounds which are usually unheard by human ears, including the sound of whales. Conversely, the squeaking of bats and birdsong has been slowed down.
“Some of the birdsongs are immensely complex and you really have to slow them down in order to see the pattern that is there. The song of the nightingale, for instance; one hears it as a series of delicious sounds, but when you begin to play it slowly you can hear that the bird is actually singing two songs at once in parts. Birds have got two voice boxes so they can actually sing two songs at once. So there’s a lot going on there that we usually can’t hear.”
Sadly, though, being able to better hear the sounds of the animal kingdom doesn’t mean we’ll be chatting away to them Dr Doolittle style in the future.
“I don’t think it’s possible to have some sort of meaningful dialogue with an animal, because I don’t think that their language is organised in that way,” says Aubrey. “They have a language but they don’t have speech; it’s more a series of signals which mean particular things.” As a natural historian, it’s no surprise that the professor picks out the experience of recording birds and animals as his personal highlight of the series; or that he’s less enthusiastic when talking of the noise made by humans.
“It can be wonderful – Mozart’s 24th Piano Concerto would be high in my list of anthropogenic sounds, and the sound of the spoken voice can be very lovely. I also have a kind of affection for the throaty roar of a vintage racing car, which in its right place, on a racing circuit – not on a public street – I think is rather marvellous.
“But it’s quite awful if you think of the pollution of our terrestrial environment, and also the marine environment, by human sounds which are deadening out the more natural, gentle sounds of the Earth,” he says. “There is so much background noise now that people living in cities are losing a lot of the natural sounds that are around.There’s a kind of deadening effect – we don’t have enough peace in our society.”
He talks animatedly of the dangers of ever increasing noise pollution such as traffic noise, aeroplanes, urban street sounds and, of course, the dreaded noisy neighbours. And after having very few sounds for billions of years, the world now constantly produces new ones – which quickly become commonplace.
“Since the advent of computers and fax machines and so on, there are some new sounds that have never been heard before on the planet that are now completely, instantly recognisable.” says Professor Manning. “The sound of a fax machine making a connection is an extraordinary sound – I wouldn’t say it was beautiful, but it instantly means something to you and 15 years ago, nobody would have had any idea what it meant. Similarly the sound of an inkjet printer working – a completely new sound, never been heard before, and we know it instantly.”
In fact it’s hard to get away from noise wherever you are.
“Noise levels that surround us all the time are rising and have risen rapidly, and there is a lot of evidence that they are having deleterious effects,” he says. “It is worrying and we’re going to have to pay more attention to it because it is one of the things that is detracting from the quality of life.
“But I hope that in this series what we do is alert people to what the problems are and some of the solutions. We need big public pressure that this is unacceptable.” Despite so much modern noise pollution, Aubrey wouldn’t swap his ears for anything.
“The production team was having this conversation in Seattle and we agreed that we would, as human beings, rank sound as the very highest sense,” he says. “In other words, if you put yourself in this ghastly, macabre position of, would you rather become blind or become deaf, we all of us said we would rather become blind. We would lose a gigantic amount but we wouldn’t be cut off from human society in the way that becoming deaf causes a real problem.
“Of course deaf people who grow up deaf develop a society of their own and we can communicate with them but I am acutely aware that people who go deaf become rather excluded. It’s rather difficult if, say, a friend of yours is going deaf; you don’t tend to ring them up because you know how difficult it is to have a conversation on the phone. So you don’t speak to them so much and, when you are speaking with them, you talk more loudly and shout and that means the emotionality goes out of your voice and so on, so I think we felt that sound is absolutely, enormously important.”
And it’s not just to humans that it’s so crucial.
“One of the revelations to me as a biologist in these programmes has been the extent to which sound is the absolutely dominating sense underwater. The world of marine life is a world of sound; much of the ocean is in total darkness and sound is the only sense that deep-living animals like whales and seals can really communicate with underwater. Water is also a terrifically good medium for the transmission of sound – sounds are travelling many kilometres.The irony is that when Jacques Cousteau wrote his first book about scuba diving he referred to it as ‘the silent world’ – he couldn’t have been more incorrect! He was going down into the world of sound.”
A world in which listeners, too, can immerse themselves on Radio 4.