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By Tim Boon on

Music, Noise and Silence

Dr. Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History at the Science Museum reflects on a series of upcoming public events exploring science, technology and music.

In 1935, the Science Museum staged a very uncharacteristic temporary exhibition, on the theme of noise abatement. The Museum’s exhibitions in those days usually celebrated new technologies, such as television (in 1937) or showed unfamiliar parts of its collections, for example ‘rafts, canoes and boats’ (1931). But noise was seen as a by-product of industrial modernity that needed to be tackled, not least by new silent technologies and measuring devices, and so the exhibition was planned.

‘Silent lift’ display in 1935’s Noise Abatement exhibition. Credit: Science Museum
‘Silent lift’ display in 1935’s Noise Abatement exhibition. Credit: Science Museum

To celebrate the 80th anniversary of this exhibition, and as part of the research towards a future exhibition on science, technology and music, the museum has organised a series of events, organised around the themes of ‘Music, Noise and Silence’. The series, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is being developed in conjunction with the Royal College of Music and the University Nottingham. Each workshop includes publicly-accessible concerts and talks by high profile speakers.

Logotype of the Anti-Noise League, pressure group behind the 1935 exhibition. Credit: Science Museum.
Logotype of the Anti-Noise League, pressure group behind the 1935 exhibition. Credit: Science Museum.

On February 25-26 at the Royal College of Music, we explore Music and Silence, starting form the idea that silence is the ‘absolute zero’ of both music and the science of acoustics. The conversations will discuss the proposition that modern ‘quiet’ musics – including experimental, ambient and spiritual genres – are responses to industrial modernity.

The publicly-accessible concerts and talks for ‘Music and Silence’ features a two-part concert on 25th February and an afternoon of presentations by David Toop (author of Ocean of Sound, 1995) and Hillel Schwartz (Making Noise, 2011) on 26 February (book here).

On 26–27 March, we explore Noise and Silence at the University of Nottingham, focussing on the issues that led to the Museum’s 1935 exhibition and their resonances today.

How can electronics mediate a noisy world? Advertising flyer, Electronic Music Studios, c.1975
How can electronics mediate a noisy world? Advertising flyer, Electronic Music Studios, c.1975

Finally, at the Science Museum on 23–24 April, we go into Music and Noise, exploring the interactions and musical possibilities that industrial modernity has opened up for new kinds of music of all kinds. Watch this space for updates on the later events.