How does sound shape knowledge?

Paul Jasen


Western thought has long assumed a special relationship between vision and knowledge: Seeing is believing.  But what about the traffic between sonic experience and ideas?  How do inherited beliefs about sound, its effects, and its meanings inflect our sonic encounters?  And what about sound's role in shaping the way we understand our world?  Sunday's first panel brought together artists and scholars whose work takes up sound-knowledge questions in various ways, exploring intersections of thought, perception, and technology (no less than science, philosophy, and politics) in acoustic space.  The deceptively simple question "What is sound?" became an opportunity to reflect on the slipperiness of the term: is it an object, an event, a relation in space?  What about vibrations felt by other means, or frequencies perceptible (at times even damaging) to other species but not our own?  Together, the panel explored what it means to "think sonically," when our language is so dominated by visual metaphors (when "I see" means "I understand") and the aural lingo at our disposal is sometimes found lacking.  To this end, Jennifer Heuson took on the popular term "soundscape," drawing links to colonial notions of landscape (primitive, timeless, uninhabited) and describing the impact of "soundscape tourism" on indigenous communities in the American Midwest.   For Donna Legault, however, sonic terrains also encompass spaces constructed by the artist in order to immerse bodies in unusual vibratory relations, and so the concept of acoustic territory emerged as a more adaptable and less loaded term for describing sound's spatial and experiential aspects.  John Shiga quickly expanded this territory into the lab and the ocean with his discussion of military SONAR technology as an ear-led medium of exploration, but also as a danger to the too-little understood sensoria of sea life.  Finally, these discussions of synaesthesia and the non-human agencies led to Paul Jasen's closing invitation to also consider sound as a route to un-knowing.

What we know (and what think we know) about sound fills volumes.  The various scientific approaches to sound might come most readily to mind: the field of acoustics is concerned with the physics of sound and the way it operates in space and matter; bioacoustics turns the same questions to living bodies; psychoacoustics deals with the intersection of physics and perception;  neuroscience has shown us which parts of the brain seem to respond to different varieties of sound and rhythm. 

None of this, however, tells us much about the cultural life of sound and this where the growing field of sound studies steps in, drawing widely from music, media studies, anthropology, film, philosophy, and more.  Sound studies takes various forms.  There are histories of audio technologies and their uses.  There are histories of "soundscapes" past and present.  There has been a focus on sound's reproduction and mediation, as well as learned habits of listening.   And there are "archaeologies" that ask how culture shapes ideas about sound and even the perception of sonic stimuli. 

What these various approaches share in common, however, is a tendency to treat sound as a relatively passive object of human knowledge: a thing, out there, that exists only insofar as we give it meaning.  We think about it, find uses for it, but it doesn't do much in return.  Far less often do we consider sound's own agency.  We're less accustomed to asking how ideas arrive through sound, how sonic experience can operate as a medium of discovery and lead us into new understandings of the world.

Consider, though, the role of musical instruments and other audio technologies in the expansion of scientific knowledge.  Ancient Greece had its Monochord - the single-stringed instrument that revealed the vibratory workings of octave ratios in music.  In so doing, it also became a laboratory tool understood for centuries to be a window into the Divine mathematical ratios of the universe, which themselves could be applied to fields like architecture and philosophy.  Meanwhile, the early pipe organ - which began as an experiment with water-powered flutes - helped found the science of hydraulics, while later, wind-driven versions became a test bed for the emerging field of pneumatics. 

In more recent times, medicine has had its crucial audio tools in the stethoscope and ultrasound which, in combination, reveal the rhythms and morphing insides of living bodies.  On a larger scale, modern sonar listens to the ocean floor, revealing otherwise inaccessible topographies, while seismographs tune into Earthen rumblings, and radio telescopes turn a giant ear to the cosmos. 

Of course it doesn't take machines to open a channel between vibration and knowledge.  Each day, consciously and not, we sound out the world we inhabit.  We come to know multiple overlapping "acoustic territories," some familiar, some of our own making, other less certain, or even troubling.  We feel their workings, gauging what we might do with them and what they might do to us.  We hold our knowledge of these places in language and mental images, but also in our bodily habits, and acquired reflexes.  In our movements, we string these sensed places together, tracing mental maps of their refrains.  Elements of these sound worlds acquire names and cultural meanings, but there's more to them then that.  Our interactions with them go beyond language to produce a felt sense of the world that constitutes its own type of knowledge. 

The ethnographer Steven Feld has used the term "acoustemology" ("a union of acoustics and epistemology") to bring more attention to such sound-shaped modes of knowledge.  "Sound," he writes "both emanates from and penetrates bodies; this reciprocity of reflection and absorption is a creative means of orientation - one that tunes bodies to places and times through their sounding potential."  This idea of bodies "tuning" to particular locales is key.  We can go on to use the term acousteme to describe the sonorous organization of particular places and times.  By this I mean the sounds that give the place its own sonic character (what has often been called a "soundscape"), but also, and just as importantly, the ways in which the sounds native to that space shape human experiences, expectations, and ideas of it. 

An acousteme is a familiar sound world combined with an understanding of how it works: what's normal, what's possible, what's "right" and what's "wrong."  Neighbourhoods have their own acoustemes, so do airports, places of worship, and shopping malls.  They can be ruptured by intrusions of unfamiliar or "inappropriate" sound.  They are often fought over and contested.  Overlapping ones can live in uneasy tension, and they can be thrown into discord by conflicting ideas about how sound should work within them.  We can therefore understand noise by-laws as the official recognition of one acousteme over the competition, and a legislated effort to police it.

There is another way that acoustemes can be undone, however - one that reveals a more spectral dimension of this sound-knowledge equation.  Call it un-knowing.  Un-knowing happens when something in the world begins to erode certainties about ourselves and our surroundings.  It's an unraveling of accumulated knowledge in a moment of mystification. 

Religious cultures have long known about sound's ability to produce these sorts of effects.  We find evidence, for example, in the peculiar acoustics of many ritual sites (caves, burial mounds, churches, etc.) and in musical instruments that emit hallucinatory renditions of familiar sounds (weather events, voices, animal calls).  Bass-generating instruments are especially prized, it would seem, because very low tones are so good at eliciting weird perceptual effects, including feelings lightness and motion, invasion by strange energies, and the uncanny sense of a presence felt but unseen.  These are catalytic moments in which the certainties of an acousteme fall away and something else floods in.

If religious cultures work hard to channel this sort of mystification into codified belief, then contemporary sound artists have been experimenting with something much more open-ended.  This work recognizes that profound or subtle disruptions of an acousteme can put minds in unfamiliar places, drawing people into new relations with each other and the spaces they occupy.  Implicit in such projects is an understanding that sound, deployed in the right ways, can work to break down the self-certainty that keeps ideas rigid and inhibits creativity.  In making us feel uncertain, they force us to adjust.  Vulnerability makes us move, think, and respond differently.  It's not just about novelty, or making people feel a little strange.  At their most ambitious, these projects make us think critically about our place in the world.  By opening a little crack in the ordinary, they allow us to glimpse something different, if not entirely comfortable.  And by recognizing un-knowing as the precursor of new ideas, they have a fundamental stake in those circuits between sound and knowledge. 

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