An Incredibly Brief and Unfinished History of Sound by Kirsten Reneau

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

close up of pattern resembling both ocean waves and sound waves


They don’t think that the Big Bang was much like a bang at all. It was a rumbling bass that first shook the universe so hard that galaxies seeped out of nothingness, dripping dark matter and future life.

Had one existed, no human ear would have been able to hear it. The universe hit a collective puberty.

The scientist who discovered this recreated the noise, the emiction of nothingness into everythingness, when he got letter from an 11-year-old who was working on a school project. This scientist used a NASA satellite, plugging in the frequency spectrum, and immediately his two dogs ran into the room, howling in way that only animals who know something can. He had to transcribe it up several decimals before he, too, could hear what made his dogs cry.

When I first heard the noise, played for me by a boy who made me want to touch the stars, I forgot how to breathe. Everyone knows the sound of a dropping bomb, shown to us in cartoons and history documentaries alike. It is the slow build up before the great explosion, an anxiety-inducing drop of a whistle — it is every ugly bomb that has ever dropped and each single droplet that has disrupted the quiet of still water. All fear, all tension, all build up.

And that was the first sound.


We have to talk. It always starts like that, doesn’t it? Or maybe sometimes they get creative, and it’s I need to tell you something.

That’s where bad news always begins, rooted against the back of our jaws. It’s no easier to be the messenger sometimes, and the language can taste thick against the roof of your mouth, coating the tongue heavy and dense. But it’s not the words that we are afraid of saying. It is what follows — the quiet.


I close my eyes and inhale deeply, breathing in the air that lays heavy around me. The air is different here, and I know that — it is drenched in humidity from the water that threatens to break the shoreline in half. It also carries the faint scent of smoke, like the cigarettes my grandfather used to light. Now they are mine.

A man once called them coffin nails and I liked that so much that I gave him one.

These things make it harder to fill my lungs completely, but I do it anyways — I breathe deeply and my chest rises.

From the air in the chest, small puffs vibrate up the throat, sifting its way against a muscle just about the size of the walnuts I used to pluck from trees in my backyard. In men, you can watch the larynx move up and down like a fishing bob, delicately finding its balance on their necks.

Finally, stretched tightly across the top of the throat, are the vocal cords. They are two folds of mucous membrane, all pink and softness, cut like a slit (|) it is a reminder that we all began as women. The vocal cords do vibrate, but not in the way that my sixth-grade science class taught me. The human form is far more delicate than that.

The total surface area of the cords that vibrate is no bigger than half of my very smallest fingernail. What a powerful muscle, this minuscule section of our body responsible for some of our greatest joys and heartbreak.


The ocean is more expansive than we can wrap our brains around and somewhere in the Pacific there is a pod of whales that are swimming together. They talk to each other without grammar and syntax but in a series of clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls.

The clicks help with navigation, bouncing off the objects the noise will seamlessly return to the whale and slowly it will be able to make out the shape of it. Whistles and pulsed calls are for socializing, to help differentiate between friend and not yet friend. Whales are very much human in how we love to be with each other, in our desire to be known.

But there is a whale that is different. It is either a fin whale or a blue whale, or perhaps it is a combination of both, a strange but not unheard of hybrid that must balance itself somewhere in between. He is male, and he calls during mating season the way that male whales do. He was first recorded in 1989, still profoundly deep to the human ear but about 15 hertz above average for a whale. They picked up the same mating call time and time again, and for twelve years, this whale cried in such a way that scientists had never heard before.

So the question came: Could anyone hear him?


I have something to tell you. It is not a threat or even a promise of impending gossip to be whispered about at school the next day. It is a declaration, and I know that without words but by the way he looks at me in the mid-October heat, our teenage bodies golden against the falling sun.

I am in love with you, he says. And it’s really okay if you don’t feel the same way but I just wanted to let you know that this is how I feel and you know that you don’t have to say it back but I just really wanted you to know —

I do not say anything. I wrap my arms around his body and press my forehead to his shoulder. The Adam’s apple stops moving. He pulls me closer and we rest in the quiet.


Om!, This syllable is the whole world, the Mandukya Upanishad begins. It is the states of time, the states of consciousness, and all of knowledge — the primordial sound of the universe. In meditation it becomes almost a hum that shakes both the individual cells of the body and the reverberates against the cosmos, and that tiny muscle in our throats swells to the occasion.

The physical world falls into the background, and this single syllable comes into its power.

One Sanskrit document suggests that our body, in its perishable state of being, is the first fuel stick and Om is the second. With discipline and diligence, the rubbing together of these sticks will start a fire full of thoughts and self-awareness that bursts from one’s self. The text claims that Om is a tool of empowerment, to allow one to know the God that sits inside ourselves, nestled in the chest, right where language itself (and thus, the world) begins.


The whale. He would have left his mother at around six or seven months but wouldn’t have reached maturity until he was 25 years old. Normally, they would live in groups of six to ten, traveling up and down the expansive nothingness and everythingness that the water has to offer. Because of the enormous size of the blue whale, it has no natural predators, other than the occasional orca.

Maybe he was attacked once, and bears the scars across his tail, white, angry chalk lines cutting against the fin. Maybe this was the first time he had been touched since he left his mother.

Fin whales can live for 140 years; blue whales have not been studied enough to have a clear tell of just how long their lives can stretch. When no one can hear you, it may feel as long as the ocean itself. Because he has no predators, he is doomed to live until he simply cannot anymore, calling to a void year after year and hearing nothing in return.

Does he know?

Could a whale understand the echoing silence that is loneliness?


We learn to cry before we learn to speak.

Like the whales, we too learn to communicate without structure, but rather, three different types of crying. The first of these is the basic cry, which follows a systematic pattern of crying and silence, crying and silence, and sometimes, with an inspiratory whistle. Next is the angry cry; while this sounds similar in pattern to the normal cry, it is stronger, louder, more likely to hurt. The third is the pain cry, which is often one long scream, followed by a period of holding one’s breath.

At that age, we cry because everything is the first time — we believe hunger could kill us, so we cry. We believe the puppet could kill us, so we cry. We believe the person we love more than anything in the world leaving could kill us, so we cry. Some of these thing, we never outgrow.

My mother says I cried the most when she left me. I would scream for her when she wasn’t within eyesight, more than either of my sisters. I cried often as a child — I cry often now. But as a child growing up, it was closer to wailing, a half scream half sob that left me with full red cheeks and a scratchy voice.

In these times, my parents often left me alone. There was nothing they could do. I would weep until I had worn myself out, until the only sounds were just me heaving, punctuating the stale air with sharp breaths inward. And then it would be quiet again.

Sappho once wrote, “What cannot be said will be wept.”

In that case, I wonder how many unspoken words are behind an ocean made of saltwater tears.


That boy broke up with me, you know. I loved him too, but there was a loneliness that sat inside of my chest, filling up the empty space between air and the inner god I could not find, and it did not leave me, despite all his declarations. Call it miscommunication.

He told me in his car, Listen, we have to talk… but there was very little “we” in terms of talking. After he was done speaking and I was done listening, we sat in silence, an unbearable weight between us, pressing against the divot of my throat I thought I would die if I had to spend one more minute in the suffocating pressure that had crept into the air around us, dense with the pain of knowing you are unwanted. Nothing felt so empty and so large as the space that hung in that silence.


When people learned about the whale, the scientists who discovered him started getting letters. Some asked how they could help. Some realized that the story of this creature they would never know broke something inside of them, because they, too, were not being heard. It was mostly women who wrote to them.

After twelve years, they no longer were able to follow the whale’s path. The last interview on the matter was given in 2012. Since then, there have been songs, sculptures, films, and even a short-lived Twitter account dedicated to what had been dubbed “The World’s Loneliest Whale”

But here’s the tick — the whale speaks differently, but they are unsure if that really means anything at all, other than a minor vocal abnormality. If you talk to the scientists, they don’t know if other whales can or cannot hear it, which means they could, which means the question is not about the whale anymore but instead it is about the people: why do we want the whale to be lonely?


It was August, 1952, when John Cage first presented the three-movement composition 4’33”. They were at the regal Maverick Concert Hall in New York, as part of a recital focused around contemporary piano music. The pianist came out, sat down at the bench, and to mark the beginning of the piece, closed the lid. He later opened it briefly to mark the end of the first movement, and again for the second and third.

When asked about the composition, Cage said, “They missed the point.”

“There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

Some have called it “four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence,” but that that’s not quite right. It is four minutes thirty-three seconds of humanity, of strangers listening to the nothingness and everythingness that the universe has to offer.


After that car ride, I spent four days alone in my room.

The air was heavy then too. I did not shower. I barely ate. When I finally emerged, hair soaked by the build-up of humidity, my body tired in its loneliness, I went to my friend and I told him about how much it hurt. I didn’t know what I needed except company.

Being a good friend, he picked me up from my house and we drove to a field nearby. He let me talk, and when I was done, he did not try to give me an uplifting speech or a motivational sermon.

He said: I hear you.

In the quietness that followed, we listened as the crickets began to sing.

KirstenReneauHeadshotKirsten Reneau graduated from West Virginia Wesleyan College in 2016, and is working on her masters of fine arts in creative nonfiction at the University of New Orleans. This is her first publication.




STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Jordan Smith

Share a Comment