In an environment with little visibility/short line of sight, in a roughly medieval setting, people who wish to represent their business and guilds etc., choose do so using sounds/music. The sound can carry through the low visibility environment notifying passers by of the the type of services or goods offered, perhaps even the company.


While one could hire a crier to advertise, I would like to argue the cost of employing a person for this purpose is too expensive.

There will be multiple businesses advertising in the same area so individual sounds should be distinctly identifiable even amongst other sounds.

The sounds are not intended to be heard clear across town, but within a range at which someone would normally be able to read a traditional sign, lets say < 50m.

Magic does exist in this setting, but isn't particularly well suited for this task at any affordable rate.


Would it be feasible to use sounds, from instruments such as wind chimes, to replace signs in a bustling medieval community?


If necessary it can be assumed there may be near constant air flow in the environment (i.e. windy)

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't think so, because sound doesn't just stop at a certain distance. Combine the lower-volume noises from far away with the many local noises and you'd hear nothing but a cacophony. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    May 12, 2017 at 18:25
  • $\begingroup$ Also, it would be really hard for complex life -- much less civilization -- to develop in such a low visibility environment. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    May 12, 2017 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ There can be regionally low visibility environments. Underground cities, tight knit cities, or perhaps narrow and windy canyons. visibility doesn't mean the air inst clear, just that you cant see far. $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 12, 2017 at 18:44
  • $\begingroup$ "visibility doesn't mean the air inst clear, just that you cant see far." That's not what "low visibility" means. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visibility $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    May 12, 2017 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ In a meteorological sense sure, though its meaning varies on context. I will clarify with low visibility/short line of sight. Despite that the comment also specifies it can be regional. So even if it was a haze that does not prevent life migrating from another region. $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 12, 2017 at 19:01

4 Answers 4


You do not have to rely on chimes and your fickle friend, the summer wind. Weight driven clocks and bells definitely existed in medieval times.

from http://www.andersoninstitute.com/history-of-the-clock.html

The oldest surviving clock in England is that at Salisbury Cathedral, which dates from 1386. A clock erected at Rouen, France, in 1389 is still extant (see photograph), and one built for Wells Cathedral in England is preserved in the Science Museum in London. The Salisbury clock strikes the hours, and those of Rouen and Wells also have mechanisms for chiming at the quarter hour. These clocks are large, iron-framed structures driven by falling weights attached to a cord wrapped around a drum and regulated by a mechanism known as a verge (or crown wheel) escapement.

from http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/salisbury-cathedral-clock.html enter image description here

Your burly assistant lifts the weight a few times a day and its controlled descent plays a bell, or many bells. Or a music box-like tune with your theme song. Music boxes were invented in the 1800s but they could have made big ones with medieval tech: a turning cylinder with pegs that strike bells or pluck plates. Your assistant can sing along from time to time (he has a fine tenor) so everyone knows the words.

Another item which could be used is a whistling kettle. I cannot find any reference to whistling kettles before the 1800s which is weird; if someone can find one please link it in comments. You do not need high pressure steam to make a whistle; just regular steam. All you need is a kettle made the right way and a heat source. It occurs to me that in a low visibility world you would want a lot of lights, which means fire, and the heat product of fire is wasted when you use a torch or brazier or candle for light. So: put a kettle over it. Your less burly assistant can go out and fill it from time to time, with a following period of silence as it gets back up to boil.

Once you have pressurized gas coming out of your kettle, you could attach all kinds of different whistles. Water whistles sound like a warbling bird. I have one much like the below picture that I bought at the Renaissance Fair. From https://www.aliexpress.com/w/wholesale-bird-water-whistle.html
enter image description here

ADDENDUM! One more! This could be Dark Ages tech. Animal criers. enter image description here from https://i.ytimg.com/vi/0wHAm_ScfnQ/maxresdefault.jpg with some MS Paint.

I pictured caged parrots, crows and mynah birds acting as animal criers. But this cute little Bali mynah made me think: what if the animal criers were loose? They could drift around the area of their home shop, talking to passers by and/or singing their songs. I think this would be great for a story - talking animals are always a little surreal and eerie. Having the talking crier show up next to you and suggest something in quiet tones would be great. Having the same talking crier show up when you are far away from its shop would be even better.

  • $\begingroup$ These are some interesting examples. A blacksmith perhaps could use excess heat for the boiling process perhaps. $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 15, 2017 at 10:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I have a bird like that. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    May 15, 2017 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ The idea of animal criers is actually quite clever, and it could be either campy or creepy depending on how it is presented! It's definitely an entertaining concept, and as I have a lot of wiggle room with wild life in the setting I can create a number of possible creatures for this role. $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 17, 2017 at 10:51
  • $\begingroup$ /campy or creepy/ starting with campy and turning unexpectedly creepy is excellent. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    May 17, 2017 at 13:22

Yes in theory, no in practise

It's pretty easy to replace signs with music.In the time period you're looking at most people couldn't read so signs were not written. Instead different types of shops had different pictures with all pubs having one type of sign and all bakers another. An individual shop would then customise their sign.

I would suggest this gives a decent basis for replacement with sound. I'm thinking a system of sounds for each shop type so blacksmiths might have metal chimes, carpenters wooden ones, bakers might have a bell or whatever. There are almost certainly enough different types of banging/chiming object to do this.

Your problem comes with how much the sounds stand out. With every shop on a street, conversations, noises from animals, workshops and sales being made the amount of noise in the street is going to be so loud it would be impossible to pick out one sound above all the others so whilst in theory shops could be distinguished by tune in practise it wouldn't work.

  • $\begingroup$ The various types of chimes, per trade is a good idea, but I agree, how can we tell the difference between metal chimes 1 and metal chimes 2. I also wonder though if perhaps people who grew up with it would be better able to differentiate the sounds. $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 12, 2017 at 18:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Different pitches should be fairly distinguishable. $\endgroup$ May 12, 2017 at 18:44
  • $\begingroup$ No wind = no chime. Bells must be rung and need a person (may as well have a crier doing the work). $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    May 12, 2017 at 18:45
  • $\begingroup$ Let us then perhaps presume somewhere with a near constant air flow, I would like to keep that avenue open. $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 12, 2017 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Twelfth You can have a bell rung by the wind. $\endgroup$ May 12, 2017 at 18:47

Medieval technology is a limiting factor here, however the Byzantines (predating what we consider 'medieval) possessed some mechanical technologies that were amazingly well ahead of it's time. Unfortunately much of this is lost in the later medieval period, I guess your call as to how prolific this technology is.


When Slavic ambassadors visited Constantinople (formerly Byzantium) in the 10th century, they were so awed by the city that they later wrote that they "knew not whether we were in Heaven or Earth." During their stay, these visitors would have seen mechanical golden songbirds on the boughs of jeweled trees and a hydraulic throne that lifted the Emperor 30 ft. above his subjects.

Key piece here is the mechanical song bird. Using a similar technology as music boxes, the Byzantines brought to life 'mechanical song birds' that were capable of singing songs and playing musics.

A little more detail can be found here (google books, can't copy here)


In Short, the Throne of Solomon had a bronze tree in front of it and in this bronze tree were bronze birds of a variety of species. Each birds song was unique and was frequently used during audiences with the king. Should also be of great note...mechanical roaring lions were also present.

I'm not quite sure as to the volume level these could reach...but you can definitely get unique sounds playing from several sources, and there is nothing saying a 'chain' of medieval stores that has 5 different locations could have 5 identical songbirds, one for each location.

So yes, if this 'medieval' world managed to keep some of the mechanical brilliance prior to medieval times...then I think you have all you need existing in Earths history. That being said, I don't believe this is considered medieval technology and a bit out of scope.

  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate the real world example, I will look into it. Its worth stating though the medieval era did have its fair share of wind instruments, so I imagine they could fashion other types, reminiscent of these song birds as well. $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 12, 2017 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ Building these is going to be beyond the riches of most tradesmen surely. $\endgroup$ May 12, 2017 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ Compared to just using chimes/pipes etc perhaps, cost is a factor for sure. $\endgroup$
    – Firelight
    May 12, 2017 at 18:57
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Very true...I would think the cost could be reduced if it was done more as a music box than in the constraints of a jeweled animated bird (the birds in the Solomon tale moved as well)...but still correct, without some standardization, these would be expensive to reproduce in Medieval Europe. $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    May 12, 2017 at 19:18

In theory it's an interesting idea, but I believe in practice it would ultimately fail. The same way people use visual signs today, the bigger the sign, the more people see it. I feel like after a while it would turn into a fight of who can be the loudest.
The implications of this are really interesting though. I might go off on a wild tangent here, so bear with me. First off, I feel like shops would try to spread out a bit. Granted, it'd get them away from the main shopping area, but it would also afford them more advertisement. I feel like shopping areas would be less densely populated with stores, otherwise shops audio signs would be drowned out by the more popular shops would could afford to hire bands and criers. On the topic of bands and criers, however, I feel like the market for them would be quite good. People would specialize in writing and playing jingles as loudly as possible (kinda like how commercial jingles work today). Same goes for criers. This could open up an entire new market for these types of advertisers. And with this new market, perhaps schools or guilds could form around them specifically dedicated to designing advertisements.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .