Re-Making Sound

PDF Re-Making Sound February 24, 2022

Book author
  1. Justin Patch
  2. Thomas Porcello

Re-Making Sound is concise and flexible primer to sound studies. It takes students through six ways of conceptualizing sound and its links to other social phenomena: soundscapes; noise; sound and semiotics of the voice; sound and/through/in text; background sound/sound design; and sound art. Each chapter summarizes the history and scholarly theoretical underpinnings of these areas and concludes with a student activity that concretizes the historical and theoretical discussion via sound-making projects. With chapters designed to be flexible and non-sequential, the text fits within various course designs, and includes an introduction to key concepts in sound and sound studies, a cumulative concluding chapter with sound accompanying podcast exercise, and an extensive bibliography for students to pursue sound studies beyond the book itself.


Thomas Porcello

I am deeply indebted to dialogues with students in multiple classes I’ve led since 2017: several iterations of Approaches to Media Studies at Vassar College; two sections of UC Berkeley’s Music in American Culture and the University of San Francisco’s Anthropology of Music, in which I guest-lectured on much of the material in the Sound Design chapter; and Vassar’s advanced Anthropology/ Media Studies Sound seminar. In Spring 2019, I taught a graduate seminar in UC Berkeley’s Music Department entitled Sound Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Acoustic and Auditory. Its students—Jon Turner, Annie Greenwood, Cameron Johnson, Sarah Plovnick, Ryan Gourley, Andrew Harlan, and Andrew Snyder—were amazing conversational partners who pushed me to refine both my thinking about and my ways of framing the significance of sound studies.

I thank multiple interlocutors for honing, developing, probing, and contesting my thinking over the years: Steven Feld, Jocelyne Guilbault, David W. Samuels, Louise Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier, Aaron A. Fox, David Novak, Matt Sakakeeny, Joshua Pilzer, Carla Brunet, Kathleen Stewart, Greg Urban, and, of course, my co-author

Justin Patch.

Thanks to Niccolo Dante, who sat through long-winded musings about language, music, voice, and sound; to Nathaniel David and Maria Konovalenko for hours of spirited conversation during the Covid-19 lockdown; and, especially, to Carla Brunet for listening, pushing, believing, supporting, and always bringing out my best. Justin Patch There are many who deserve thanks and acknowledgment for their role in making this possible. A deep and heartfelt thank-you to my students and colleagues in Vassar’s Media Studies program and Music department for indulging my curiosity and supporting my experiments. The content and exercises at the end of the chapters owe a great deal to their feedback, xii 1 xii Acknowledgments innovation, and encouragement. For everyone who endured my perseverations about this project I owe a debt of gratitude. I cannot replace the time lost, but I am grateful for your generosity and grace. Thank you to the numerous people in my life without whose love, encouragement, and support this would not have been thinkable.

A few special mentions are due. First to my co-author Tom Porcello, Tarik Elseewi, Eva Woods-Peiró, and Giovanna Borradori for getting me involved with the media studies program. Gratitude to Veit Erlmann who introduced me to sound studies, Katie Stewart who introduced me to experiential writing and research, and my UT cohort for being on-call sounding boards, readers, editors, and peer reviewers. And, as always, thank you to the Patch, Lee, Notch, and Tang clans for their love and support.


In March 2020, across much of the world, the sounds of daily life—especially in urban areas—underwent a dramatic change as local, state, provincial, and national governments issued shelter-in-place orders in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Nonessential businesses were required to close, affecting everything from the restaurant and bar industries, to retailers, cinemas, schools, and personal services such as hairdressers and nail salons, to how one shopped at a grocery store. Throughout much of Europe, North America, East Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, and somewhat later in Central and South America, India, and urban locales in Africa, people were allowed to leave home only for essential purposes such as buying groceries or seeking medical attention. Public transportation was drastically scaled back or closed altogether; airlines nearly shut down, leaving airports virtually empty; highways normally clogged with daily commuters were all but deserted, while gas prices plummeted; entertainment and sporting venues were shuttered; and social and religious services, along with arts performances such as concerts and Broadway shows, were canceled.

The acoustic footprint humans exert upon the world was dramatically and measurably changed due to the lockdowns, especially in the most aggressive locales. Seismometers don’t only measure earthquakes; they also detect human activity as a source of seismic signaling (referred to as “anthropogenic noise”). This might be obvious when imagining bomb detonations, stripmining, and fracking but may be less so for more routine activities such as train and truck traffic, subways, rock concerts, and even crowd reactions at large sporting events. Seismologists have long recognized that, especially in more densely populated areas, human activity is capable of producing enough seismic signal to mask lower-level geological seismic motions associated with earthquakes or volcanic pre-eruptions, potentially interfering with the 2 2 Re-Making Sound development of “early warning” systems for such catastrophic geological events. Predictably, given the rhythms of urban life in much of the world, such masking is most prominent on weekdays, during daytime hours, and subsides during holidays and at night. Thomas Lecocq spearheaded a group of researchers in 2020 who conducted a study of the prevalence of humanly produced high-frequency seismic ambient noise (hiFSAN, defined as 4 to 14 Hertz, below the lowest frequencies that the human ear can hear) during Covid-19 lockdowns, as compared to other times that hiFSAN was known to be at its lower levels.1 A permanent reporting station in Sri Lanka reported a 50 percent decrease after lockdown; a surface station in Belgium reported a 33 percent reduction; Sunday night readings at a station in New York’s Central Park were 10 percent lower. Reductions were noted at ski resorts in Europe and the United States and in tourist destinations in the Caribbean. Global median hiFSAN dropped by 50 percent in the period spanning March–May 2020. These researchers were using the pandemic to better understand how human activity covers up geologically based seismic activity, not to study human behavior per se, but they made demonstrably clear that human activity was significantly quieter during Covid-19 lockdowns.

Another scientific study developed in partnership between the University of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences and Apple also sought to examine how human exposure to noise—in this case acoustic rather than seismic—changed during Covid-19 lockdowns in the United States.2 Study participants in California, Florida, New York, and Texas agreed to share sound data from their iPhones and/or Apple Watches with the researchers to provide information about their exposure to sound intensities as compared to their pre-lockdown exposure levels.3 In the end, there were nearly 6,000 participants in the study. The results showed significant decreases in exposure to sound during lockdown. Sound intensity is measured on a logarithmic scale (in units referred to as decibels, or dB for short); every drop of 3 decibels represents a halving of sound energy level. Across all four states, the mean reduction was 2.6 dB; New York data showed the largest decrease (3.1 dB) and Florida the smallest (2.4 dB). Younger participants showed greater reductions than older participants, and the overall range of differences between weekdays and weekends was greatly reduced. The authors note that significant reductions in the range of 65–70 dB and 70–75 dB were observed in all four states. Given that noise-induced hearing loss correlates highly to regular eight-hour exposures to sounds above 70 dB, and that there is growing evidence that repeated exposure to loud sounds is also linked to heart disease, hypertension, and losses in cognitive performance, these findings suggest that the lockdowns likely reduced Americans’ overall risk of sound-induced negative health effects.

These studies foreground scientific questions that the pandemic raised about sound. But what might a humanities-based or social scientific approach to Covid-19 and the world of sound look like? One might start by examining media coverage of how lockdowns changed the world’s soundscape. To believe media accounts, people living in urban areas missed the sounds of city life—even sounds that might have previously been thought of as unwanted noise. All but gone were the sounds of mechanized transport, of nightlife, and of crowded public spaces. Particularly to those accustomed to living within or amid the noise of cities, the change was so dramatic as to elicit news coverage and sound documentation efforts, many overtly referencing a sense of loss. “In India, the incessant beep-beep of cars has disappeared. In New York, Harlem’s heart has stopped beating. In Toronto, the trains no longer whistle, and in Marseille, every day sounds like a holiday. All around the world, the silence rolls in and out like a fog,” Robin Givhan wrote in late April 2020 in the Washington Post. 4 A month later, the New York Times asked a researcher at New York University (NYU) to weigh in on what it meant that the city had become quieter than on the coldest of winter days: Juan Pablo Bello replied, “It’s the sound of the city aching … It’s not a healthy sound in my mind.”5 Also in May 2020, the New York Public Library released an album entitled Missing Sounds of New York: An Auditory Love Letter to New Yorkers, as a reminder of what “makes New York special for so many people.”

When New York (and many other locations) briefly relaxed lockdown rules in June and July 2020, New York magazine celebrated a longed-for return of the densely layered sonic city: I once spent days traipsing around the streets with a recorder to assemble a sonic portrait, not just of New York but of New Yorkers. We’ll know that the city is healing when we start to hear something like it again, a collage of multilingual invectives, street-corner negotiations, one-sided phone calls, doomsday harangues, philosophical dialogues, parental lectures, playground squeals, public courtships, shouted breakfast orders, political come-ons, parking-spot disputes, snatches of song—the whole chaotic choir of urban life lived to the loudest.7

And by mid-August, the New York Times ran another feature comparing the pre-pandemic sounds of the city to those during the lockdown: Had we ever considered the reassurance behind a full-throated morning rush hour? How its harried mornings suggest the hum of a sound economy; the pursuit of knowledge; the commitment to provide and be self-sustaining? 4 4 Re-Making Sound … Lately, though, our muted rush hours are cacophonous in the wholesale disruption of earning and learning. The effect of this quiet is the opposite of calming. We find ourselves missing what we once loathed. Those carhorn bleats of annoyance. Those corner clusters of impatience, waiting for a green light. Those barks of “Excuse me!” that sound like the opposite of an apology.

In their focus on what had been sonically lost during lockdowns, such accounts simultaneously evoke and assert a strong nostalgic linkage between sound and sociability and the role that sound plays in the creation of what political scientist Benedict Anderson called an “imagined community”: an ideologically created sense of togetherness that binds members of complex societies into feeling that they share an identity with others who they do not know and will never meet.9 Anderson was writing specifically about national identity, and, given that he wrote his thesis originally in the 1980s, he positioned print and televisual media as key to building such senses of community and belonging. Political polarization since the 2010s as exacerbated by digital and social media—certainly in the United States but also throughout much of Europe and parts of South America—may make the notion of a collective national identity seem outdated, naïve, or quaint. But perhaps shared experiences offer a bridge or a frame of reference in which we can find some measure of recognition of and common ground with others. Is the acoustic world a location in which this might occur?
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