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





5. Voices In Soundscapes

The digital media assignments we outlined ask students to register more deeply the rhetorical and cultural effects of voice, vernacular, and vocal performance. As our students have discovered, listening to recordings of oneself inspires a self-conscious perspective (a form of analytical listening) on what's being said, how it's being said, who is saying it, and to whom. Along with this self-consciousness comes the impetus to revise and revise again in order to achieve resonance (or dissonance) with an audience. They learn to write (script) for a particular voice or rather, their sense of their own voice, which requires that they slow down, be deliberate, articulate, practice, and at the same time, experiment and revise, then re-record.

Technically, voice, like music, is vibration. The vibrating vocal chords in the body create the sounds that become a voice. Similarly, voicing in instruments means making each note vibrate in tune, creating audible tones that are harmonious. Truax claims,

The first sounds to which the ear is exposed as it develops in the fetus are human sounds, and from that point onward, the voice and human soundmaking are the sounds to which we are most sensitive as listeners. We seem to have an unflagging interest in the endless variations of verbal production, including not only speech and singing, but also the wider range of nonverbal elements that complement them. (28)

In The Acoustic Mirror, Kaja Silverman attributes our fascination with verbal production to the infantile scene, where we heard voices long before we had the ability to see (44). Our bodies inscribe sonic knowledge from pre-consciousness on.

Also, like a fingerprint, each voice carries its own inflection, its own texture and grain. In writing, voice acts as a metaphor for how a persona created in the text "sounds," with elements of diction, tone, and style informing this written voice. In multimedia, students use music, interviews, and voice-over narrations to create a tangible, not just metaphoric, voice. There's a personality and also a personal feeling to a recorded voice, particularly a non-professional voice, whether it be voice-over narration or the requisite talking-head interviews in documentary projects. Thus, one reason we address the power of sound, not just images, in our composition courses is to help students become more than passive recipients and unquestioning consumers of sound.

As students also recognize, how we resonate with our own voice and the voices of others is informed by cultural differences and our ideological positions. For example, it's still rare to hear an adult female voice over in a Hollywood feature film. Women characters continue to be voiced over by male adults, adolescents, and children (e.g., Bridget Jones's Diary is more the exception than the rule). Thus, for our students and ourselves there's an aural novelty and particular self-consciousness in hearing one's own female voice, the voice of the ordinarily silent. The politicized silences described by Cheryl Glenn can operate in tactical ways, but an explicit female authorship, which includes the female physical voice, her use of language, and the authorial voice of the script, can become a radical countermove to the silencing effects of often male-dominated mainstream print and film discourses. As we mentioned earlier, we want students to develop a more critical sonic literacy that allows them to identify and communicate their own personal and cultural soundscapes, not just recreate the mainstream soundscapes they are accustomed to hearing.


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