We are accustomed to perceive sound as a set of technical characteristics. Describing sounds, we talk about their pitch and volume, power and frequency, source and direction.
Sounds, however, can be understood differently - as a set of cultural habits and norms. The perception of sound by a person depends not only on his (sound) physical characteristics (wavelength or frequency), but also on the social context in which the sound was created or in which it was listened. These contexts, norms and meanings have changed with the development of technology, the transformation of society and the change of cultural paradigms.Photo NTNU / CC BY-SA 2.0
What is Sound Studies
The way people perceived, realized, described and interpreted sound, studies one of the directions of cultural studies, called “sound studies” (there is no sufficiently good translation into Russian as usual). This is an interdisciplinary direction, which (mainly) studies the development of the concept of “sound” in Western modern society. In fact, this is a cultural study of how the human perception of sound has changed over time, especially with the emergence and development of recording technologies.
When it comes to how we perceive the world around us and how this perception has changed with the development of new technologies, almost always the main subject of interest is vision, the study of the visual, the study of the observation process. There are so many studies on how we look at pictures and icons, how we perceive the perspective, how our vision has changed after the invention of a photo and video camera. Much less research is devoted to sound.
One of the most important (almost fundamental) texts in sound studies is the books of Jonathan Stern, a musician and professor from the University of Pittsburgh. In 2003, he published his study of the cultural prerequisites for the emergence of systems for the reproduction of sounds, The Audible Past. In it, he talks about how, for example, the invention of the stethoscope in 1816 gave a person the opportunity to hear the sounds made by his own body.
Later, the general enthusiasm for sound recording became part of the cultural trend that swept the Western world - preservation, “preservation” of everything that is possible. If we consider the development of society from this point of view, the request for the development of a recording technology and, for example, the need to create laws on the preservation of architectural heritage have a common cultural background.
Sound studies - a wide research field. Within this direction, they study the sound landscape, the principles of architectural acoustics (it is known to play an important role in many religions and cultures), the sounds of nature, the history of sound in western philosophy and much more. There are topics at the intersection of culture and sociology - for example, research ( link to PDF
) on how people perceive sound and how they listen in Islamic communities.
The cultural landscape is a combination of all natural and anthropogenic, generated by conscious human activity. The sound landscape is a system of all sounds that are present in the human environment.
According to sound studies, the sound landscape is actually composed of formally identical elements, but people always perceive it subjectively, from the perspective of their own experience, upbringing, mood, level of mediation and many other factors.
This term was coined by Canadian composer Raymond Schafer. He summed up this concept rather complex dialectical system. In its center - the sound landscape as something that can be perceived by man. In other words, it is not an objective collection of sounds in any place, but a set of perceptions. Schafer uses the concept of a sound landscape to try to explain the world as it is understood by the people living in it.
According to Schafer, landscapes can be hi-fi and lo-fi. In the first embodiment, the signal-to-noise ratio is in favor of the signal. Such landscapes are, for example, fields or forests, where we can almost equally well hear what is happening nearby, and what is happening far from us. In the second case, the ratio is inverse - signals, units of information, are lost in noise. These are cities and other noisy places where we most often can only react to external stimuli that are directly directed at us.
Studies of the sound landscape gave rise to the concept of "acoustic ecology." Noise exposure in cities is constantly growing, suffers from the nervous system, organs of hearing. They are trying to fight this with the help of laws stating permissible noise levels, approaches to urban planning, and architectural solutions. Soundscapes are also used in music
- they are recordings or overlays of various sound landscapes.
In 1936, the philosopher and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin wrote his famous essay "A Work of Art in the Epoch of its Technical Reproducibility". In it, he discusses how technical reproductions deprive the originals of the “aura” - the uniqueness, constancy of place and time. Benjamin argues (mostly) about photography and cinema, which have deprived "auras" of traditional painting and theater. The reproduction is devoid of "here and now" - it is not necessary to go to the theater, you can watch a movie. It is not necessary to go halfway through the world to the Louvre - you can see a photo of Mona Lisa.
After the appearance of sound recording devices, the sound also ceased to exist at the moment, to be unique and inimitable, it lost its “aura”. Capitalism, of course, took its own: the value of records and cassettes grew, which were sometimes positioned as something better and more perfect than live music (an advertisement
with Ella Fitzgerald, who does not hear the difference between live performance and tape recording).
Cassettes were valued for high quality playback and sound preservation. The value of a unique audiovisual experience (live performances) has faded into the background.
But we are now seeing a reverse trend. Recorded sound is replicated, widely available, often free perceived as being devoid of value. The originals regained their value in comparison with the “pictures on the Internet” - but in this very formulation an interesting cultural phenomenon is already laid.
If earlier objects of art were valuable because of their cultural or ritual functions, now they are unique at least because they are original. The main value of the paintings is no longer in what is depicted on them - all this can be seen on numerous reproductions. They are valuable because they are preserved, because they are recognized as great, because they are monuments to themselves.
An exact copy is only a copy, secondary to the original, even if it shares all its formal and technical features. And the original is primary in relation to the copy, and this is its power, the "power of the original." A live performance can be worse in sound than a studio recording, played with mistakes, interrupted by the roar of the crowd, spoiled by the weather, but for the audience it will often be more valuable than the reproduction (which sounds better, which you can listen to at any convenient time, and so on). The value of the original, the value of a live performance is a cultural construct.
Another modern cultural value is silence.
When the world is overloaded with signals and information, a person loses the ability to process it effectively. We hear a lot, but we perceive very little
. And for the modern person it is important to reflect the world around. This is another cultural-philosophical concept - any experience means nothing if a person does not realize it and does not give it a meaning. Experience is the main concept in the philosophy of John Dewey, American educator, philosopher and pragmatist.
The pursuit of silence is so relevant that it has become an independent experience. If before people were ready to travel half the world to hear something (artist's concert, opera, even nature), now people travel, including not to hear anything
Silence is also a kind of social construct, strongly dependent on the context. Now we appreciate silence - it gives us the opportunity to concentrate, take a break from the noise. We are looking for quiet cafes, choosing quiet rooms in hotels and quiet locations for vacations, leaving quiet talks from noisy open spaces. And, for example, immediately after the industrial revolution, silence was considered a sign of irregularity, breakage. Noise was an analogy of life, the proper functioning of mechanisms. But now the noise has become too much
. This is an example of how the social value of the same phenomenon changes over time.Sound is not just a physical phenomenon. Sound studies provide an opportunity to look at it from an unexpected angle - as an aggregate of cultural norms, social contexts, and even philosophical theories.