Sounds (in Psychical Research)

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Sounds (in Psychical Research)

Sounds produced in the séance room fall into two main categories: ordinary and psychic. In the first category belong all the natural sounds emitted by the manipulation of certain objects without any visible agency. In the second are the sounds that apparently do not relate to any visible object; both the source and the production of these sounds are unknown.

The noises that accompany the movement of objects, such as the lifting of a table or the shaking of bells or tambourines, are ordinary noises. Raps, direct voice, direct music, sounds of invisible instruments, machines, the rattle of chains, the clashing of swords, and sounds of galloping, without having the noise-producing object in the room, would be considered psychic.

Another differentiation may be made according to the intelligence required for the sound production. No intellectual effort is necessary to bang a table or shake a bell. The phonograph requires certain experience, the playing of an instrument artistic education.

The simplest psychic sounds are the raps. Their tonal scale and expressive power is surprising and their strength may increase to formidable blows. For example, as Lord Adare in Experiences in Spiritualism with D. D. Home (1870) notes, "At one time, Miss Wynne, Home and I heard a very singular rumbling and rolling sort of sound in the air behind us, which was repeated three times."

The sounds in the séances of W. Stainton Moses showed an extraordinary range. The first sound, as distinct from raps, was heard on March 23, 1873, and resembled the plucking of a string in midair. It soon imitated a musical clock that was in the next room. Two months later, the sound became so loud that the vibration of the table was marked.

"The sound would traverse the room and seem to die away in the distance, and suddenly burst forth into great power over the table, which appeared, in some inexplicable way, to be used as a sounding board. The wood of the table vibrated under our hands exactly as it would have done had a violincello been twanged while resting upon it. The sounds were at times deafening and alternated between those made by the very small strings of a harp and such as would be caused by the violent thrumming of a violincello resting on the top of a drum.With them, as with other phenomena, a great variety was caused by good or bad conditions. Just as illness or atmospheric disturbance made the perfumes and drapery coarse and unre-fined, so the lyre sounds became harsh, unmusical and wooden. The table was used until at times the musical twang would shade into a sort of musical knock, and finally become an ordinary dull thud upon the table. When things were not all right, the sound would assume a most melancholy wailing character, which was indescribably weird and saddening. It was not unlike the soughing of the wind through trees in the dead of night; a ghost-like dreary sound that few persons would sit long to listen to. That sound was always accompanied by black darkness in the room. No point, indeed, connected with these strange sounds is more remarkable than the intensity of feeling conveyed by them. Anger, sadness, content and mirth, solemnity and eagerness, are conveyed in a way that is quite inexplicable. The wailing sounds above noticedseem at times almost to sob and shriek as if in a burst of sadness. Sometimes to a question put silence will be maintained for a while, and then little hesitating sounds will be made, very slowly and tremulously, as to convey perfectly the idea of uncertainty and doubt. Then again the reply will come clear, sonorous, and immediate as the 'I do' of a witness in the box who has no doubt as to the answer he should give.

"The sounds used always to commence near the circle, and, so to say, radiate from it as a centre into different parts of the room. Of late they have changed, and are usually audible to me before they strike the ear of any other person. How far this may be attributable to clairaudience, a faculty lately developed in me, I cannot say positively. But at any rate, they seem to me to commence by a distant rumble, not unlike the roll of a drum. This gradually draws nearer until it is audible to all, and the old sounds are in our midst.

"Hitherto I only mentioned the stringed musical sounds. But there are other sounds which professedly emanate from the same source and which resemble the sound of a tambourine played over our heads, or, at times, the flapping of a pair of large wings. Still later other sounds, like those made by a small zither, have presented themselves."

Charlton Speer, in an account given to F. W. H. Myers, described four kinds of musical sounds produced without any instrument in the room. The first was called "fairy bells." These resembled the tones produced by striking musical glasses with a small hammer. No definite tune was ever played, but the bells, on request, would always run up and down a scale in perfect tune. It was difficult to judge where the sounds came from, but when Speer applied his ear to the top of the table it seemed to be somehow in the wood. The second was a stringed instrument, akin to a violincello but more powerful and sonorous. It was only heard in single notes and was employed to answer questions. The third sound was an exact imitation of an ordinary handbell. It denoted the presence of a particular spirit. The fourth sound could best be described by imagining the soft tone of a clarinet gradually increasing in intensity, until it rivaled the sound of a trumpet, then by degrees gradually diminished to the original subdued tone of the clarinet, until it eventually died away in a drawn-out, melancholy wail. In no case were more than single notes, or at best isolated passages, produced. The controlling agencies accounted for this with the peculiarly unmusical organization of the medium.

Various sounds were used by some of the spirit controls as a special mark of identity. "Grocyn" produced pure sounds like those of a thick harp string; "Chom" made the sound of an old Egyptian harp with four strings; "Said" used a three stringed lyre; "Roophal" a seven-stringed one with a rippling sound; and "Kabbila's" sound was like a drum, very deep, a sort of prolonged roll.

It is said in mediumistic communications that the spirits, in their world, can create for themselves from fluidic material the things they wish. Spirits have claimed that they can produce the sound of anything in this same way.

In Gwendolyn K. Hack's Modern Psychic Mysteries at Millesimo Castle (1929), there is the interesting note that the spirit of the young aviator Vittorio Centurione always arrived and departed in his airplane. The coming of the airplane was heard from a distance, then it descended into the séance room with the characteristic noise and flew above as if there was no limit of space and finally stopped. On the first occasion when "Centurione" manifested, the approach of the plane was followed by the sound of falling, hissing, and splashing into the water illustrating the very manner by which this aviator had perished over Lake Varese.

Dancing performances and duels were executed for the sitters' entertainment at the séances at Millesimo Castle. In the notes of the séance August 12, 1928, we find:

"D'Angelo: 'Here, in the midst of you, a little battle between two Romans is going to take place' we heard the sound of two swords hastily withdrawn from their scabbards. They were crossed and glanced off each other in a sinister manner. Then we heard the most formidable blows, given first by one side and then by the other. These blows rained upon metal, echoing upon the shields and helmets of the warriors. We heard rapid footsteps pounding the floor as the combatants fought, now advancing, now retreating. It was quite alarming, and one could not avoid cowering instinctively, when a powerful thrust came too close, for one felt that the next blow might glance off and strike one's head or neck."

Will Goldston wrote an account of a séance with Rudi Schneider in the Sunday Graphic (December 22, 1929):

"Several heavy thuds followed, as though a giant were striking a block of marble with a mallet. The extraordinary thing was that the thuds did not seem to come from the walls, the ceiling or the floor, but from the table. They were powerful thuds, and yet they did not cause any vibration in the room, as such thuds caused by normal means would create."


Adare, Lord. Experiences in Spiritualism with D. D. Home. Glasgow: R. Maclehose, 1924.

Hack, Gwendolyn Kelley. Modern Psychic Mysteries at Millesimo Castle Italy. London: Rider, 1929.