Author: Kathy O. McGill


Sound in Colonial Virginia

Sound in colonial Virginia came from a variety of sources, including nature, instruments, weapons, and voices, and played a significant role in how people perceived their environment. Information on the subject is scarce, and conclusions are drawn from references in letters, diaries, and rare published accounts. Because Americans lived closer to natural noises than many Europeans, these sounds took on greater importance. The wilderness was unfamiliar and possibly dangerous, so its sounds were described carefully, and its warning signals attended to. Human-generated sounds such as bells regulated life on remote plantations, while gunfire marked ceremonial occasions as well as warfare. The performance of music was an important part of theater and a popular pastime among amateurs, while the singing of hymns served as a unifying force among worshipers. Sound performed communal functions, but in various ways for different groups. For Virginia Indians, silence aided both hunting and ambushes, while the sound of war cries made a strong and lasting impression on English colonists. For enslaved African Americans, music was an integral part of culture and identity. Often played on European instruments, it accompanied religious rites but on other occasions could also satirize white culture. Over time vision became the dominant sense by which people formed an understanding of their environment. This may have come with the advent of print culture or Enlightenment thinking, although there were regional differences both in the way in which sound was perceived and in the timing of changes that took place in the area of sensory perceptions.