Voice in the Cultural Soundscape: Sonic Literacy in Composition Studies

by Michelle Comstock and Mary E. Hocks



Sonic Literacy as Embodied Knowledge

Technological Literacies of Sound

Classroom Opportunities in Sonic Literacy

Voices in Soundscapes

Voice and Gender

Voice and Culture

Voices of Social Conscience



Works Cited

Video Clips





3. Technological Literacies of Sound

Integral to sonic literacy is a familiarity with its new tools and technologies--extensions and amplifications of our bodily faculties. The new tools, foundational literacies in themselves, allow extensive framing, editing, and sculpting of voice and other sounds, including music. Although the ability to use basic sound technologies to reduce background noise and enhance sound levels and quality is important and useful, sound must be captured initially at a high quality (of data-rate and megahertz), with good microphones, and with appropriate input levels; otherwise, the resulting files will be distorted (too loud), inaudible (too soft) or simply of poor quality.

As with any digital media, the advanced technologies of sound help to create an illusion of realism in the digital copy. According to communication theorist, Barry Truax, when the modern tape recorder was first introduced to North America in the late 1940s, it was

often referred to as a 'sound mirror,' suggesting that it reflects an image of sound to the listener--a concept that in some ways is more accurate than the implied objectivity and neutrality of a machine that simply records sound by transferring it to tape. (190)

"The mirror," he continues, "may 'color' reality through its representation, but it also frames reality, and hence makes us more intensely aware of it" (190). Such is the case with more modern digital sound tools that allow us to re-frame and thus enhance sound by splicing, mixing, and layering it. Much like desktop publishing has transformed writers into publishers, digital modes of music distribution (e.g., the MP3) have transformed listeners into DJs or soundscape artists. Truax argues that these literate practices--splicing, mixing, and layering--help one develop a type of "analytical listening," where one begins to notice sound as structure that includes rhythm, as well as content. This kind of rhythm includes how pauses or breaks add meaning in spoken language (149).

What technologies like sound mixers and editing programs make visible to all users are structural elements of sound that sound-based artists like musicians must hear and know in order to produce that sound--the beginning and ending of a note, rise and fall of a pitch, the level of volume, the tempo and timing of all the notes, or the rhythm of the words. But these programs cannot visualize the emotional impact of sounds, much less which sounds "fit" a certain situation. Those qualities require experiences with creating sound, listening actively to sound and responding to sound in a specific cultural context. Even for experienced sound artists, though, their audiences need a certain amount of literacy in order to appreciate their work. Whether one is a composer or audience member, analytical listening requires skill and practice. Experiences with digital audio tools can help build this "foundational" sonic literacy.

Analytical listening begins when we simply break down sounds into parts and hear changes in rhythm, places where an instrument comes and goes, instances when a recorded voice rushes a line or becomes distorted. But eventually, sonic literacy includes composing soundscapes and then listening to them carefully as we make changes and corrections to achieve better resonance with the audience. One simple example is adjusting the volume of a voice relative to the music playing behind it. Just as we must see the foreground image as a focal point over the background of a visual composition, a voice must be clearly audible over the background noise of a room or a soundtrack if it's meant to be heard and understood by the audience.

We realize that not all of our students are proficient in using sound technology, or have easy access to the tools, let alone the visual technologies necessary to produce a multimedia composition. And very few of us teachers of writing receive the kind of training that would even introduce us to the possibilities of composing with sound. Recently, desktop multimedia tools that focus exclusively on sound sculpting have appeared in operating systems and as free downloads. Even the most rudimentary of these tools allows users to create, capture, import, edit, loop, and layer sound files. If we plan to include sonic literacy as a part of foundational communication skills, we owe it to our students to offer them opportunities for active listening, creating and analyzing sound along with other forms of media and text.


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