Ever since we have possessed the capabilities to do so our species has sought to record the wonders and mysteries of our world in some form or other. Starting with oral and then written accounts, we graduated on to audio recordings and photographs, etching what we see and hear into immortality. While photographs are intriguing and have captured many great moments throughout history and into the present, I have always been rather drawn to the various occasions, events, and anomalies that we have managed to capture in sound though audio recordings, and I have explored this here at Mysterious Universe in a darker capacity before to some extent. Yet beyond this there are vast swaths of history and modern day mysteries that we have never known just what they sounded like, until now. Here we will go on an aural journey into the sonic mysteries and wonders of our world, and delve into some of the most captivating and enigmatic recordings there are.
When talking about any amazing or mysterious sound recordings perhaps it is best to start back all the way back at the very beginning, with the first known recording of a human voice. In 1857, a machine was designed by Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, which was called a phonautograph, and which basically worked by picking up sounds through a funnel and tracing them with a needle on soot-dusted paper laid over a slowly revolving cylinder. It was meant to mimic the workings of the human ear and was purely an acoustics experiment, merely putting the sounds into a visual medium and not meant to really be able to actually playback audio recordings. Through this wondrous machine, Scott was able to capture the very first recordings of sound, although they would be only visual representations and not actually audible until centuries later.
Sadly, these recordings were not really made to last, as they were merely tracings through a film of soot and not actually etched or carved in any way into the paper itself, meaning that many of these early recording experiments by Scott would be lost to the yawning chasm of time. However, in 2007 some of these old phonautograph recordings were discovered in surprisingly good condition in the collection of a patent office in Paris, submitted by Scott himself as he was applying for a patent on his invention. The following year, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California were able to digitally map the music and actually play it back with a virtual stylus. Among the selection of sounds captured are that of a tuning fork and what was at first believed to be the voice of a woman but which was later found to be at the incorrect speed and when played back properly is that of a man believed to be Scott himself singing the French folksong Au Clair de la Lune, which is the first ever recording of a human voice. You can hear the recording here.
It is interesting to think that the history of human music is far longer than that of our ability to record it, meaning that much of the collective music we have made since the dawn of time has been lost to us forever. However, as with Scott’s singing there are some intriguing and rare historical recordings that manage to either capture some of this lost legacy or manage to use technology to reproduce it. One type of music that is well known but practically unrecorded is the singing of Italy’s famed Castrati, who were men who had been castrated at a young age to prevent them from undergoing puberty and thus allowing them to keep a high soprano voice throughout adulthood.
The Castrati were widely renowned for their angelic, haunting voices, yet for as widely regarded and famous as they were we have almost no idea of what they actually sounded like, as the Catholic Church would eventually put an end to the practice of creating Castrati before sound recording devices could be invented. The remaining Castrati went on to live quiet lives under the care of Pope Leo XIII, who it turns out had a burgeoning interest in sound recording equipment when it came out. Because of this interest, he managed to record one Castrati singer named Alessandro Moreschi. Although Moreschi was over 50 years old at the time and his voice had seen better days, it is the only known recording of a Castrati singing, and an important piece of musical history and heritage immortalized before it became extinct. You can hear the haunting melody here.
Another piece of lost musical history with darker undertones comes to us from the horrors of the Holocaust during World War II. During this dark time of the incarceration and ruthless extermination of millions of Jews, many were forced to work in labor camps where they toiled away until they dropped from exhaustion or death. On the way to and from these camps, their Nazi overlords often forced them to sing songs, a practice that came to the attention of a Dr. David Boder during his interviews of over 130 Jewish war survivors in Germany, Italy, France, and Switzerland in the aftermath of the war, which were recorded on around 200 wire recording spools. Boder claimed that recordings of these songs existed from a camp in Henonville, France, and that these were held on a spool he had made of them, but this particular spool was missing, and no one had any real idea of what they sounded like or where the mysterious recordings had actually gone.
It was widely thought that these Henonville recordings were just another piece of forgotten history devoured by the war. However, in 2017 a canister was found at the archives at The University of Akron’s Cummings Center that had been mislabeled as “Heroville songs,” and within was found to be a lone old wire recording spool containing the long lost recordings from Henonville, which no one had ever thought we’d see again, let alone hear. The songs are sung in both German and Yiddish, and also feature songs of rebellion against the Germans, which were Jewish anti-German anthems with cleverly altered lyrics to fool the guards, who had no idea that their prisoners were rebelling through song. Dr. David Baker, the Margaret Clark Moran Executive Director of the Cummings Center, said of the amazing discovery:
I think it is one of the most important discoveries from our collections in our 50-year history. That we could give the world the melody to a song sung by those sentenced to their death through forced labour during one of the most unspeakable horrors of the 20th century is remarkable.
A fascinating and educational clip featuring a portion of the actual Henonville recordings can be seen here. Another lost and found piece of music in recent days is a hymn that was jotted down by none other than the famous composer Beethoven himself. The short piece was found completely by chance in 2012 by a Professor Barry Cooper, of the University of Manchester, as he looked through a notebook containing some archaic sketches of the famous Mass in D, also known as the Missa Solemnis. The piece is scrawled in the corner and had long gone unnoticed, but it proved to be a hymnal adaptation of Pange Lingua. Interestingly, the great composer is not known to have shown any inclination toward making hymnal music, making it even more of an oddity. You can hear the reproduced version of Beethoven’s only known hymn here.
Some recreated lost music of a sort goes back even farther into the dark reaches of history still. Researchers studying ancient Aztec sites in Mexico have over the decades often uncovered strange ceramic whistles typically shaped like skulls or animals and etched with intricate designs. Rather sinisterly Called the “Aztec Death Whistles,” they were thought to be used for ceremonial purposes, likely during human sacrifices to Ehecatl, the god of wind, as a way to help the soul along in its passing. In these gruesome rituals, the victim would blow the whistle as they were killed, and there have been skeletons from sacrifices found to be still grasping the whistles centuries later. It has also been suggested that they may have been used when marching into battle to cower the enemy.
Although archeologists had a pretty good idea of how the whistles were used, no one actually knew what they sounded like, as the ones that had been located were broken and fragmented. It was not until very recently that an engineer in Mexico by the name of Roberto Velázquez Cabrera took it upon himself to try and recreate what the whistles would have sounded like, and it would take him years to finally achieve his goal. The result is a spooky, unearthly sound that has been described as sounding like ominous blasts of whistling wind mixed with the anguished screams of people in great agony, and it certainly would have been a horrifying thing to hear while awaiting sacrifice or facing an army blaring it. The eerie sounds of the Aztec Death Whistles can be heard here.
In addition to lost music there are various other sounds from history that have long been confined merely to our imagination but which have managed to miraculously surface in recent years. One of these originates in the American Civil War, which saw the northern Union forces pitted against the pro-succession southern Confederate states in a war that held the future of slavery in the balance and would drag on from 1861 to 1865 to become one of the most excruciating and bloodiest the country has ever seen before or since. Many of the battles during the Civil War were those of attrition, with forces on either side clashing to cause as much damage as possible before one retreated or was wiped out, and before these bloody engagements the Confederate soldiers would rush forward while unleashing a furious, howling war cry meant to terrify the enemy and boost their own morale. This practice became a Confederate trademark and came to be known as the “Rebel Yell.”
Said to be born of Native American or Scottish traditions of using war cries in battle, the rebel yell is thought to have perhaps differed between regiments, and has been described in literature as being a very intimidating, primal sound, variously said to sound like wolf howls, a screaming cougar or rabbit, an Indian whoop, and a banshee wail. No matter which description actually fits, one thing that is made very clear in accounts by soldiers of the era is that it was absolutely terrifying, with one account from a Union soldier saying that it created, “a peculiar corkscrew sensation that went up your spine when you heard it. If you claim you heard it and weren’t scared that means you never heard it.”
The thing is that as there were no recordings from the actual war it was long a mystery as to what the rebel yell actually sounded like, and it was mostly all just speculation and imagination based on oral and written accounts. It was not until rather recently that some old recordings of the sound of the rebel yell would be uncovered, in the form of some archived footage from the 1930s. Although of course these were not actual recordings from the actual Civil War itself, they were from real surviving veterans of the war, and so are likely a close approximation of what the yell probably really sounded like.
One of the pieces of footage was from an old newsreel showing an event for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, in which a few elderly veterans got together and reenacted the rebel yell, which sounds like a high pitched “Wa-woo-woohoo” sound. Another recording was made in 1935 of a 90-year-old veteran attempting the yell, and yet another from the 30s is a short film found in the archives of The Library of Congress that shows around a dozen veterans performing it. Although the rebel yell in these recordings is probably not as fierce or potent as it would be produced by these men in their youth, and it would have certainly been more intimidating and chilling when unleashed by hundreds of furious bloodthirsty soldiers, it is still an intriguing piece of history that may very well have been lost to time if these recordings had not been made and rediscovered. You can see footage featuring the rebel yell here.
In more recent times there have been some audio recordings that are perhaps even more mysterious in nature. On May 18, 1969, the United States launched the Apollo 10 space mission to send a manned spacecraft into orbit around the moon in what was meant to be sort of a rehearsal for the Apollo 11 moon landing that would follow 2 months later. The mission was a complete success, and would pave the way for one of the most incredible, groundbreaking feats in mankind’s history.
What many people may not know is that the astronauts on the mission had a very peculiar experience as they hurtled through the black of space out on the dark side of the moon. It was here that the experienced men heard something that took them quite by surprise and baffled all those aboard. They began to hear strange, unearthly radio transmissions coming through their headsets that sounded musical and which were described as being “outer space-type music.” The strangest part of it was that the spacecraft was on the far side of the moon at the time, in a location that should have put them out of all radio contact with Earth for about an hour, yet here was this otherworldly, eerie music coming from seemingly nowhere.
There is also the fact that these were seasoned, well-trained astronauts who well knew the kind of sounds that they could expect to hear out there, and this was not one of them. It was all so bizarre that the astronauts debated whether they should even report it or not, and the phenomenon went on for an entire hour, right up to when radio contact with Earth resumed, leaving the crew dumbfounded and wondering what it could have possibly been. Apollo 15 command module pilot Al Worden would later muse on the strange incident, saying:
If you’re behind the moon and hear some weird noise on your radio, and you know you’re blocked from the Earth, then what could you possibly think? We’d had a lot of incidents where guys who flew in space saw and heard things that they didn’t recognize, and you wonder about all of that.
For years no one had any idea that this had happened at all, except the astronauts themselves, and the mission transcripts and audio recordings from the mission were labelled as classified material, but many of these have since been declassified, and have been made public. As to what it is, NASA itself vaguely claims that it was just some sort of interference, but by others it has been called everything from a new space phenomenon to alien transmissions. Interestingly, the astronauts who had been on the mission have since downplayed the whole incident, saying that they thought nothing of it. This seems odd considering at the time they had obviously been quite puzzled and excited about it all, leading one to wonder if perhaps they were told to play it down and sweep it under the carpet. Just what did those astronauts hear out there alone in the depths of space? You can see a news clip about the phenomenon and listen to the spooky space music here and decide for yourself.
Speaking of odd conspiracies, in late 2016, U.S. and Canadian diplomatic personnel in Cuba began complaining of various mysterious symptoms including nausea, dizziness, exhaustion, trouble balancing, and in some cases hospitalized with more severe injuries such as hearing loss, nerve damage, concussions, and brain trauma. Nearly 30 people would be afflicted, and in many cases the victims reported being assaulted by various jarring, anomalous sounds, such as a high pitched, keening noise, blaring music, a “mass of crickets,” or something akin to grinding metal or the scratch of nails upon a chalkboard, which always seemed to be focused on just one specific location, with the sound stopping if one were to step out of its limited range. In a very few cases, people were beset with the physical symptoms but could not recall having heard anything strange.
Considering the reports of these inexplicable audio barrages and the focused locale of these occurrences, it was suspected that some sort of sonic weapon was being deployed, although just how this could be and who could be behind it were unknown. Officials even carried out a thorough search for any such devices that might be capable of such a thing, but came up empty handed. In the meantime, Cuba completely denied that they had anything to do with the mysterious case, and the whole thing has remained an impenetrable conundrum that is still debated. While there are sonic weapons that do exist, they are typically bulky, very noticeable affairs that would be inadequate for such covert attacks, and experts doubt that the sonic weapons that do exist could cause the type of damage reported. One MIT researcher and psychoacoustics expert named Joseph Pompei said in an Associated Press statement on the matter:
Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible. Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.
So what is going on here? Has someone managed to create a smaller, portable sonic weapon device and deploy it in Cuba? If so, who is behind it and what do they want? The subjects obviously have not died, so if such a weapon is being used then is it just to sow terror and panic? No one has the slightest clue. What we do now know is what the sonic assault sounds like, as the Associated Press has released a recording of what a few of the victims heard and had the presence of mind to record during the unsettling experience. Experts who have analyzed the recordings have stated that the sound contains at least 20 different overlapping frequencies lying within the 7,000 and 8,000 kHz range, making it very curious indeed. You can hear the supposed “sonic attack” here, but be warned that it is an extremely abrasive, unpleasant sound.
Ever since we have been able to, we have recorded the sounds of our planet, and in many cases these would be lost to time if we had not done so. Here we have explored historical occasions and oddities long thought lost and more modern mysteries captured on tape for all to hear. These sounds remain with us, perhaps at times haunting us or even frightening, but always fascinating. Perhaps decades, even centuries from now we will still look back on such recordings and allow our imaginations to alight, wondering just what mysteries and oddities our history holds, and these recordings will remain unchanged, inviting discussion and debate, slices of our planet’s heritage immortalized for all time.