Sonic studies. Or, as some authors prefer to call the field, Soundscape Studies, or Auditory Culture. As an object of study, our sonic environment seems to be a quite recent discovery – of course with the exception of music. It is only at the end of the past millennium that more and more books were published on the aural relation subjects have to their environment. (See the literature list below.) However, one of the most important and trailblazing books on sonic studies already appeared in 1977, R. Murray Schafer’s The Tuning of the World, marking out the parameters, delineations, and categories of acoustic experience and its material operations, as Brandon LaBelle introduces this work. (LaBelle, 2007, 202) The Tuning of the World argues in favor of “acoustic design” as a discipline alongside any form of urban development and architecture, based on acoustic ecology, the study of sounds in relationship to life and society. The main purpose of Murray Schafer’s work was to study the effects of the ever-changing soundscape on human behavior – something which might be regarded as the purpose of sonic studies in general.
Sonic studies can be rightfully called an interdisciplinary field of studies. It combines history, philosophy, sociology and anthropology; the history and sociology of music and art; musicology, ethnomusicology, organology, and sound art; urban, media, cultural, performance, science and technology studies; acoustics and psychoacoustics; medical history and architecture; etc.
Sonic studies deals with the production, distribution, and consumption of sound (including music, noise and ‘silence’) and, especially, its cultural meaning. It explores the dynamic interaction between sounds and the physical environment, the socio-cultural milieu, and the individual. It focuses on the effects of sounds, starting from the idea that sonic marks consciously and unconsciously guide human behavior.
The Ear and/versus the Eye
In the very beginning of Noise. The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali writes:
For twenty-five centuries, Western knowledge has tried to look upon the world. It has failed to understand that the world is not for the beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, but audible. Our science has always desired to monitor, measure, abstract, and castrate meaning, forgetting that life is full of noise and that death alone is silent: work noise, noise of man, and noise of beast. Noise bought, sold, or prohibited. Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise.
Sonic studies seems an explicit reaction against the alleged domination of the eye in Western culture; it seems to parasitize on the often expressed opposition between the ear and the eye where the eye (re)presents intellect, abstraction, distance, objectivity, and surfaces and the ear is connected to affect, contact, immersion, reception, and subjectivity. (Sterne, 2003; Jay, 1993; Levin, 1993; Berendt, 1987; Ong, 1982; McLuhan, 1977.) ‘Why bother about the ear?,’ James Clifford still asks himself in 1986, given his conclusion that our culture is the result of acts of inscription, reading, and interpretation – acts within the domain of vision, visibility, and perspective. And, indeed, obviously there seems to be a need for the cultural and historical contextualization of auditory perception. Sonic studies suggests that it is possible to conceptualize new ways of knowing a culture and of gaining a deepened understanding of how members of a society know and relate to each other. (Erlmann, 2004, 3) However, in his introduction to Hearing Cultures, Erlmann immediately makes clear that a countermonopoly of the ear is not the aim of that publication, with this following Jonathan Sterne who in The Audible Past laconically states that ‘there is no scientific basis for asserting that the use of one sense atrophies another.’ (Sterne, 2003, 16) Instead of presenting a new hierarchy of the senses, Erlmann claims that it makes ‘scientific sense to conceive of the senses as an integrated and flexible network.’ (Erlmann, 2004, 4) In other words, the simplistic dichotomy between the (modern) eye and the (pre- or antimodern) ear must be replaced by a more nuanced approach. However, to make such an approach possible at all, more attention for the influence of hearing and listening is needed.
The Contribution of Sonic Studies
Sonic studies makes it possible and even desirable to rethink the relation between acoustics and the social conditions of a society. One example could be the concept of identity. On the one hand, sonority is co-constructing and consolidating the self. According to Peter Sloterdijk, already in the earliest times, rhythm, music, and language tied members of pre-historical communities together as a solid group, thereby creating a first invisible border between the self and the other. Through talking, singing, clapping, and drumming, the group secured its own acoustic continuum. Later on, church bells had more or less the same function: according to Alain Corbin their centripetal sounds aimed at attracting and unifying individuals living in range of the church. On a more individual level, listening to radio or CDs in cars and the use of portable sound equipments help the subject to control the environment by (partially) isolating herself from others and otherness, thereby maintaining at least the suggestion of a stable and clearly identifiable self.
However, besides helping to create identity, sound can also deconstruct this identity. Sloterdijk, for example, makes a distinction between two sorts of music, sedative and exodus. The former is meant not to hear world, to exclude otherness, whereas the latter is opening our ears to sounds which surround us, thereby blurring the border between inside and outside. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari emphasize the role of music as deterritorializing force: each musical invention deconstructs the well-known and accepted coordinates of time and identity.
A second example could be the concept of space. Birds and wolves define space by acoustic means. Specific sounds relate to specific places: the sound of cicadas reminds us of Southern countries, the screeching of seagulls makes us aware of the sea’s proximity, car sounds tell us we are in a civilized part of the world, etc. Jonathan Sterne writes how the use of Muzak in shopping malls acts as a sonic architecture: consumers are invited in, unwanted persons (teens, drug dealers, the homeless, sex workers, and low-income populations) are sonically kept outside. In more or less the same way, radio and hi-fi installations can act as sound walls, creating individual spaces and places. However, besides creating spaces, the sonorous can also transgress and decompose territorial structures. The use of portable audio players, for example, creates, in the words of Jean-Paul Thibaud, sonic bridges, that is a sonic continuity between public and private space, resulting in the neutralization of the sonic identity of places and the territorial power of sound. Here it is a matter of “phonic deterritorialization.” (Thibaud in Bull & Back, 2003, 333-4)
- Editor-in-chief of the online, open access, peer-reviewed Journal of Sonic Studies (co-editor Dr. Vincent Meelberg) since 2011.
- Setting up an undergraduate minor Sonic Studies at Leiden University (the Netherlands).
- Co-founding member of the European Sound Studies Association.
- Publication of a Sounding Art Companion (Routledge, 2016).
- The organization of an expert meeting on sonic studies (November 2012).
- A short radio interview with Vincent Meelberg and me about music and sound (in Dutch).