Teaching Sound and Listening: Auditory Experiments

Article for the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology Newsletter (Spring 2014).

In the spring of 2013 I designed and taught the first sound studies course at the University of Texas at Austin. For years I had been following the field as it quickly expanded, and many of the references used to conceive and write my dissertation (Sound-Politics in São Paulo, Brazil) were related to sound studies. My idea with the course was to introduce multiple ways of talking about sound and hearing to undergraduate students across campus. Besides, teaching such an interdisciplinary course would diversify the presence of the School of Music on campus.

The objective of the course was to encourage students to think critically and actively about (1) how sound and listening allow us to study society more broadly; (2) how sound and listening habits are present in our daily (urban) lives; (3) how we can use everyday sounds to reflect on the present and conceive alternative futures. Because the field of sound studies is potentially endless, I decided to shape the course around three central topics: sound and technology, sound and space, and urban noise. I was prepared to work with a small group of ten-to-fifteen people – to my surprise thirty curious students from all over campus enrolled, all willing to find out what ‘sound studies’ was about.

In this short text I describe two projects developed in class, both of which relate to a discussion of sound and space (and, consequently, to ecomusicology): the soundwalk and the field recordings. Both assignments were carried on in the middle of the semester; by then students had already an analytical toolkit to talk about their auditory experiences. For instance, they were familiar with Murray Schafer’s pioneering work on soundscape studies, Henri Lefebvre’s ideas about the production of space, basic notions of architectural acoustics, and Jean-Paul Thibaud’s article on the acoustic embodiment of social practice. A class map outlines the topics that were covered in the course.

1. SOUNDWALK

On March 27 2013 we did a soundwalk across the University of Texas campus. We started in the classroom in the School of Music Building (east side of campus), and ended at the entrance of the Radio-Television-Film Building (west side of campus), where we met Professor Andrew Garrison, the department’s audio area head. Garrison showed us the RTF building and briefly talked about sound mixing and recording in film.

In organizing the soundwalk I was particularly interested in discussing how different individuals in the same acoustic environment are often sensitized to different sonic events; still, there is a shared pattern of filtering certain sounds and paying closer attention to others. This filtering process has something to do not only with loudness, but with how we associate different sonic events to a wide range of “moods,” mindsets, tastes, and expectations. To compare these filtering processes, I gave each student a small notebook and asked them to write down whatever they heard as we walked. You can see the results of the most mentioned sounds here (indoors) and here (outdoors).

In previous classes we had talked about Michael Bull’s work on the privatization and aesthetization of space made possible by mobile mp3 player. Most students told me they always wear headphones when moving around campus. The soundwalk offered them a chance to experience the campus as a dynamic environment with several sonic layers that indicate, among other things, modes of social interaction, landscape design, and socioeconomic activities. It also gave them a chance to think of alternative acoustic futures – did they find certain sounds unnecessary? Did these sounds affected specific spaces negatively? For instance, most students enjoyed “natural” sounds (birds chirping and the sound of the creek waterfall), which are located only in a few spots across campus. Could we think of ways of re-designing the campus acoustically?

 

2. FIELD RECORDINGS

For the second project, I asked students to (1) choose one or more environment(s) in the city, (2) listen closely to how the environment was acoustically organized (paying attention to sounds in relation to shared behaviors), and (3) relate that soundscape with the three central topics mentioned above. Additionally, I provided a list of 21 themes that they could address (the list ranges from something vague as “repetition” or “annoying sounds,” to the more specific items such as “nature” and “construction”).

This assignment gave the students an opportunity to think outside the standard vision-centric mode of registering experiences – they were much more familiar to the visual Twitter and Instagram than to SoundCloud or soundmap projects. It also allowed them to explore spaces outside campus and listen to Austin’s acoustic diversity (including its popular nightlife). I was surprised not only by the variety of sounds the students collected, but also by the creative ways in which they engaged with the readings and proposed themes. You can check some of their recordings here.

CONCLUSION

At the end of the semester, one student said she had “learned a surprising amount of stuff.” Another admitted the course content was not something he had ever thought of studying in depth, but that he was glad to have taken the class and discover there is not one, but several fields interested in studying sound from a sociological perspective. Building on this experience, in future courses I expect to design more collaborative soundwalks and field recordings. I’m thinking of creating soundmaps and sound installations, further encouraging students to compose podcasts (only two of them did, and you can access them here and here), and collaborating with sound archives. I also want to bring forward a more critical perspective on urbanism – how can we rethink social life in the city? How can sound-related fields such as sound studies and ecomusicology help us to put forward more sustainable, diverse, and democratic spaces? As ecomusicology continues to grow and dialogue with other disciplines, bringing a new perspective on environmentalism and soundscape studies, I think we have an important contribution to make to this debate.

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