Sound Studies has recently emerged as a vibrant new interdisciplinary academic field. In the introduction to the 2012 Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, editors Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld describe it as the study of “the material production and consumption of music, sound, noise, and silence and how these have changed throughout history and within different societies” (7). Sound studies draws on a broad range of discourses including film studies, musicology, psychoacoustics, cultural anthropology, technology, audio engineering, voice studies, acoustic ecology, and communications. In combination with digital and internet technologies, it is now finding its place within the discipline and practices of rhetoric and composition, where strategies, methods, and materials are being developed for teaching sonic literacy. This site explores the integration of sonic studies into composition scholarship and how digital practices have expanded the possibilities for analyzing and composing sound through recording, editing, remixing, and archiving, and looks specifically at pedagogies that use listening practices and the archiving mechanisms of soundscapes and sound maps.


Multimodal Composition

     In 1996, the New London Group introduced the concept of multiliteracies into the field of composition studies and called for a replacement of the existing pedagogies that prioritized textual reading and writing with one that incorporated multiple modes and designs of meaning making: image, gesture, and sound. Wysocki, Johnson-Eilola, Selfe, and Sirc expanded on this idea in their foundational 2004 text, Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition, in which the authors presented different ways of integrating new media into composition classes and suggested strategies and materials for teaching and assessment. In 2005, the National Council of Teachers of English incorporated the “Position Statement on Multimo­­dal Literacies," which asserts, “In personal, civic, and professional discourse, alphabetic, visual, and aural works are not luxuries but essential components of knowing…. Students should be able to both read critically and write functionally, no matter what the medium” and be taught “skills, approaches and attitudes toward media literacy, visual and aural rhetorics, and critical literacy” (NCTE).


     Although content in the form of alphabetic text is still the most dominant form of rhetorical composition in academic settings, visual, gestural, and audible modes of expression are gaining ground as acceptable and necessary components. According to Joddy R. Murray, professor of New Media and Digital Humanities at Texas Christian University, academic textual composition tends to utilize a discursive format that relies heavily on logically sequenced ideas; other modalities, on the other hand, often carry a “non-discursive” rhetorical significance that is understood through feeling and intuition instead of logic (Murray 11). Much of the foundational rhetoric of sound is apprehended in the affective and physical realms of perception, a concept that greatly influences how sonic rhetoric is being taught in composition classes.


Sound Theory

     Sound in its most basic physical form is described as vibrations that travel through air or another medium that can be heard when they reach listener’s ear. In this way sound is considered to be a cause and effect phenomenon. A source creates a vibration, but it is not considered to be sound until it is perceived by a listener. The vibrations of sound are described in physics as waves that occur at certain number of times or cycles per second or frequencies, measured in Hertz. Humans generally hear between 20-20,000 Hertz. Frequencies below this scope are called subsonic; those above are super-sonic. Frequency broadly relates to the pitch of a sound.

     The vibrations of sound can be described in terms of various other characteristics. Below is a list of the main characteristics of sound (Krygler):

  • Pitch: the highness or lowness (frequency) of a sound. Pitch is highly distinguishable and is one of the most effective ways of differentiating order with sound.

  • Loudness: the magnitude of a sound, measured in terms of decibels, an ordinal difference.

  • Duration: the length of time a sound is (or isn’t) heard.

  • Attack/Decay: the time it takes a sound to reach its maximum/minimum

  • Register: the relative location of a pitch in a given range of pitches.

  • Timbre: the general characteristic and unique quality of a sound produced by its harmonic content

  • Rate of Change: the relation between the durations of sound and silence over time.

  • Order: the sequence of sounds over time.


     Sound is pervasive in our physical surroundings, and it exists most predominantly in non-textual, non-discursive forms. That is, most sounds, including music and environmental ambiences, are comprehended intuitively and emotionally, not logically. Sonic rhetoricians Mary E. Hocks and Michelle Comstock posit that the rhetorical significance of sound manifests through a sense of subjective resonance (141). David Holmes of The Royal Geographical Society writes, “Sound is normally a component of the environment that we take for granted, yet all the time the sound world is changing. Although we have a well used geographical language to describe the visual appearance of environments, we are often less confident when describing the landscapes of sound. And yet sounds are an important tool that can be used to investigate a deeper representation of place…people, landscapes and processes can be investigated through the fieldwork medium of sound and noise.”


     Before sound recording technologies existed, sonic rhetoric generally referred to the practice of oratory, how the human voice conveys meaning, ethos, and pathos through the delivery of spoken words. Spoken language uses the human voice to express textual content, which is a discursive activity based largely on logical appeal. Dr. Erin Anderson, professor of composition at the University of Massachusetts, notes that in sound studies, it is important to distinguish between speech as textual content and voice as material. Voice, in itself, is “more than language”. Understood as materiality, voice represents the physical phenomenon heard and felt within our sonic environment that can be recorded, remixed, and archived like any other sonic material (Anderson).


     Acousmatics, or the process of objectifying sounds, is another important concept that was presented in the 1940s by Pierre Schaeffer, the inventor of musique concréte. With the invention of the tape recorder, Schaeffer and others began to compose music constructed by mixing recorded sounds together. Recording technology allowed for a new experience of sound. Separated from their sources, sounds have their own existence, which Schaeffer described as “sound objects” (objéts sonores). Hocks and Comstock propose that sounds as material objects can be treated as “worthy and capable of close observation and manipulation” and “vehicles carrying semiotic and non-semiotic messages about experience and environment…for dynamic rhetorical engagements with sound” (136).


The Soundscape

     Sonic rhetoricians and scholars refer to our fundamental sonic environment as the “soundscape,” a term coined by R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer, writer, music educator, and environmentalist. Schafer considered the soundscape to be any “acoustic field of study” such as a musical composition, a radio program, or an acoustic environment. He was interested in understanding how soundscapes inform our understanding of the world and ourselves, and in his groundbreaking research, he chronicles in detail how soundscapes have changed as civilizations have developed. As an acoustic ecologist, Schafer advocated for listening to and analyzing soundscapes, making distinctions, and becoming aware of the nuances and subtleties of sounds in order to be more cognizant of those that enrich and feed us and those that are toxic and polluting.


     The following chart shows the terms Schafer invented for the notation of soundscapes, which he calls a “sonography” (Schafer 7-9):

  • Keynote sound

    • A background or fundamental sound against which all other sounds are perceived; created by geography and climate: water, wind, birds, forests, insects, animals

  • Signal sound

    • The foreground sound to which attention is consciously directed: bells, whistles, horns, sirens

  • Soundmark

    • A community sound which is unique, derived from a landmark, and noticed by the people in that community: church bells


     The soundscape is a broad concept that considers the complete sonic environment and human responses to it. Scholars and practitioners from a wide variety of disciplines including acoustics, manufacturing, sound art, film and live performance arts, social science, psychoacoustics, and environmental ecology have appropriated and contextualized the concept of the soundscape within their own fields for both scientific exploration and artistic expression. In composition studies, the soundscape is generally investigated for its personal, societal, cultural, historical, and political meanings and narrative implications.      


Classifications of Sound

     R. Murray Schafer’s work generated interest in the creation of taxonomies and classifications of sound in order to develop a language and terminology to describe and categorize it. Sounds can be classified according to various criteria including physical characteristics, referential aspects, and aesthetic qualities. These categorizations inform how sound is studied and also archived and preserved in sonic databases.

     Following is a simple table of some basic sound classifications from the Royal Geographic Society of Great Britain (Holmes):

  • Biophony

    • Related to ecology/ecosystems: e.g. sound of trees moving in wind, sound of birds, sounds

  • Geophony

    • Related to physical environment: e.g. running water, crashing waves, sound of wind, rain/precipitation

  • Anthrophony

    • Related to people and their activities: e.g. cars/planes/trains, farm and other machinery, wind round buildings, footsteps, breathing, talking, music, phones

 Listening and Hearing

      From the perspective of a listener, sound has its own set of characteristics and ways of being measured. Michel Chion, a pioneer in sound studies and student of R. Murray Schafer, came up with the concept of three modes of listening: causal, semantic, and reduced as described below (Chion 25-34).


   Chion’s Three Modes of Listening

  • Causal (most common)

    • Listening to a sound in order to gather information about its cause or source

  • Semantic

    • Listening that refers to a code or a language to interpret a message; eg. Spoken language, Morse code

  • Reduced

    • Listening that focuses on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and meaning.


     Chion’s theories have been applied in various disciplines including linguistics, communications, and film studies, and they also play a significant role in the integration of sound and composition studies. In order to compose with sound, it is imperative to build deep listening skills and tools for analyzing sound and its rhetorical effects (Hocks and Comstock 136).























Sonic Rhetoric in Composition Studies ​- Introduction and Background