top of page

Sound Studies in the Digital Humanities and Composition Courses


     In 2009, Cynthia Selfe argued that “our contemporary adherence to alphabetic-only composition constrains the semiotic efforts of individuals and groups who value multiple modalities of expression,” and she encouraged a “thoughtful understanding of aurality and the role it can play in contemporary communication tasks” (618). Many educators have since advocated for and actively begun to integrate sound studies into their composition classes. Classes in Sonic Rhetoric and Sonic Literacy are now being offered as stand-alone courses, and full degree programs have been established in sound studies and sonic arts at several universities. Some of the pioneering instructors who are currently teaching innovative composition courses with a focus on sonic rhetoric include Casey Boyle, Erin Anderson, Steph Ceraso, Mary E. Hocks, and Michelle Comstock.


     The advancement of mainstream digital audio technologies has created new possibilities for sonic engagement and production. Inexpensive USB microphones, portable audio recorders, and MIDI keyboards, software programs like ProTools, GarageBand, Audition, open source audio editors like Audacity and Reaper, plus hundreds of music and recording apps for mobile devices have given amateurs the opportunity to manipulate and design sound in ways that were at one time only possible for professionals. It is now conceivable for people to teach themselves how to create music, songs, podcasts, and soundscapes by playing with software or using video tutorials. Platforms like iTunes, SoundCloud, and Creative Commons Audio give listeners easy access to uploading and downloading audio files which they can share, organize, or remix.


    Steph Ceraso, professor of Digital Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Virginia, wrote a robust curatorial statement in which she cites four main pedagogical approaches to teaching sonic rhetoric in composition courses and of incorporating sound into digital pedagogies. These are Writing with Sound, Curating Sound, Critical Listening, and Sound Mapping. Below are further explanations of each of these approaches and examples of some ways in which they are being implemented.


1. The WRITING WITH SOUND approach to teaching sonic rhetoric directly connects alphabetic writing with sonic composition. It considers the affordances of sound while drawing on concepts like audience, genre, and rhetorical effects. Podcasts are a common type of “sound writing” used in classroom settings. Other fitting assignments include audio essays, memoirs, and postcards, all of which involve writing scripts and recording them.


     Casey Boyle, Assistant Professor in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas in Austin, states in his “Writing with Sound” syllabus that the class aims to “examine recording, editing, and distribution of sound as a form of writing” with the goals of enabling students to:


  • Identify various sound genres and their rhetorical effects.

  • Understand the technical and practical affordances for producing sound.

  • Compose effective digital podcasts and audio essays.


     Boyle organizes his class as a project-based workshop and several of the class meetings involve hands-on practice with digital audio tools. He requires written responses to readings as in a traditional composition class, and also asks students to create recorded audio responses to sonic material using the free open source audio recording/editing software, Audacity. Early in the class, students are introduced to radio storytelling, podcasts, soundscapes, and sound mapping. These concepts are revisited throughout the course as genres and materials with which to practice sonic composing. Boyle’s course takes a multidisciplinary approach, drawing on readings and audio texts from critical theory, sound studies, rhetoric and composition, journalism, and pop culture. Assigned readings and “listenings” are scaffolded, so that students learn new theories and technical practices incrementally in order to apply the knowledge to their own sonic projects. Following are some of the assignments in Boyle’s class that illustrate how “writing” remains prominent in his design.


Casey Boyle’s Writing with Sound class assignments:

  • Reading Responses and In-Class Assignments: Students write responses to required readings (300-500 words) as an opportunity to critically and creatively engage with the course readings and case studies as well as provide the starting point for class discussion. In addition, a number of in-class audio exercises are designed as responses to in-class instruction.

  • Soundscape Composition: Students compose a sonic landscape using field recordings and found sounds, framed as “Sonic Postcards.”

  • Podcast Analysis: Students identify and subscribe to a podcast, then script and compose a 3-5-minute analysis of the podcast series examining the “themes, genres, online distribution, and technical dimensions.”

  • Podcast Series: A final project includes a short proposal, three podcast episodes of 3-5 minutes, and a brief prospectus that outlines a digital distribution plan. The three podcasts must include an interview, a sonic remix or remediation, and a site recording.


     In another approach to writing with sound, Jonah Willihnganz, lecturer in Narrative Studies and director of the The Stanford Storytelling Project at Stanford University, teaches a course in “The Art of the Audio Essay” as part of a series of “PWR 2” courses, designed to help students “develop skills in effectively presenting research-driven argument in media other than print.” The main focus of Willihnganz’s class is to “to teach students strategies for writing entertaining, provocative and persuasive audio essays.” The course has four principle assignments that build toward the development of a single final audio essay.


     Willihnganz’s Four Assignments:

        1. Research Proposal & Pitch (2 pages; 5 minute presentation) (10%)

        2. Essay for Print with Bibliography (6-8 pages) (20%)

        3. Script and Audio Essay (6-7 pages, 12-16 minute recording) (50%)

        4. Peer Letters and Research Reflection (10%)


     In addition to these main assignments, students are also asked to present, in groups, a short rhetorical analysis of an audio essay and to write peer critiques for their classmates. Willihnganz states in the syllabus, “We're all about audio in this class, so the reading is fairly light.” The required textbook for the class is Radio: An Illustrated Guide by Jessica Abel and Ira Glass, which supports the radio-genre approach to sonic rhetoric in which text-based audio projects are dominated by voice and spoken language with accompanying sounds, music, and audio effects.


2. CURATING SOUND introduces students to curatorial practices through studying and producing sound archives. Studying digital collections of sonic artifacts involves thinking about such rhetorical practices as organization, representation, historical context, interpretation, and cultural value. John F. Barber, a professor in the Creative Media and Digital Culture Program at Washington State University, offers the following comprehensive list of aural artifacts that are capable of being archived and curated: “soundscapes, sound maps, sound collages, and remixes; digital storytelling (perhaps in transmedia projects); aural and oral histories/biographies/documentaries; curated exhibitions/installations/performances/broadcasts; or as stand alone artifacts (embedded sound, podcasts, web-based radio, archives, curated collections.”


     Sonic data can be accessed from sonic archive databases using a variety of search criteria. Some, like the Harvard University's Loeb Library Archive of World Music, are purely text-based and consist of written descriptions of sound recordings. Others provide links to sound files that can be accessed, listened to, and sometimes streamed or downloaded. For example, the Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music is an audiovisual database that documents music and culture from all over the world in one of the largest university-based ethnographic sound archives in the United States. The British Library Sounds is also an extensive collection of unique sound recordings from around the world covering a full range of recorded sound including music, drama, literature, oral history, wildlife, and environmental sounds. Some archives have a more artistic bent like UbuWeb, an extensive online database of avant-garde art and artists from different creative disciplines. The “UbuSound” page is an alphabetical list of over 1,000 avant-garde musicians and sound artists with hypertext links to streamable recordings of their music, radio interviews, and podcasts and cross-referenced links to other artists and media.


    At the other end of the spectrum is Freesound, a user-fed site that “aims to create a huge collaborative of audio snippets, samples, recordings, bleeps.” Under Creative Commons licensing, Freesound is able to provide new and interesting ways of accessing sound samples and allowing users to browse the sounds, upload and download to and from the database, and interact with fellow sound-artists.


3. The CRITICAL LISTENING approach to teaching sonic rhetoric involves having students reflect on their own listening practices and consider how these may have changed over time in reaction to personal, cultural, historical, and technological developments. The act of critical listening must be learned and practiced. Every one of the sonic rhetoric classes researched herein include listening as a fundamental prerequisite to composing with sound.


     Jonah Willihnganz at Stanford begins his “Art of the Audio Essay” course by having students listen to radio documentaries, dramas, and memoirs from radio programs like “This American Life” and “Radio Lab.”  The class then analyzes how these audio pieces are structured and integrate research, music, and interviews using strategies from classical oratory and modern fiction which the students have studied in prerequisite courses.


     Mary E. Hocks and Michelle Comstock in “Composing for Sound: Sonic Rhetoric as Resonance” describe how they emphasize critical listening in their approach to teaching sonic rhetoric. They believe that listening for the uses, affordances, and effects of sound takes time and involves focusing on layers of environmental sounds and their effects on the body and emotions (137). Their classes are built on listening exercises that place special significance on the soundscape because, they say, “Ambient noises of our environment strongly inform every rhetorical situation…and contribute to the construction of our sense of being in the world” (136). The following listening exercise from their class is based on Michel Chion’s three modes of listening:


Hock’s and Comstock – Exercise in Critical Listening (140)

  • Listen to Sound Art and Musique Concréte pieces (by Pierre Schafer and Michel Chion)

    • Listen Causally

    • Listen Semantically

    • Practice Reduced Listening by bracketing both to hear the qualities of the sound itself

  • Listen as a group, then individually with headphones

  • Perform reduced listening on a recorded sound object outside of class

  • Record a found sound object and bring the recording to class. The class listens, causally, semantically, then reduced (brackets both)


     The above exercise uses sound art installations and musical recordings to train students in “particular ways of listening” and to give them a background with which to develop a “sensibility to the sonic environment” before beginning to write for or with sound (136).


     Another seminal part of Hocks and Comstock's sonic rhetoric pedagogy is that they emphasize the multi-layered meanings of the term and concept of “resonance” to teach listening. They connect the idea of resonance in physics, “the phenomenon of one vibrating system forcing another to oscillate with greater amplitude at specific frequencies,” to resonance as a physical, psychological, and emotional human experience, “the ability to evoke or suggest images, memories, and emotions” or “the quality of evoking response” (Merriam-Webster). Thus, resonance as a physical vibrational phenomenon is linked with the resonance of human connection as inspiration for creative or practical endeavors. 



Physics: the phenomenon of one vibrating system forcing another to oscillate with greater amplitude at specific frequencies. 


Human: biological, emotional, cultural: the ability to evoke or suggest images, memories, and emotions; the quality of evoking response.

   In the following exercise, Hocks and Comstock use the pedagogical practice of resonance as “both a physical phenomenon and a metaphor for sonic rhetorical engagement” (138).


Hocks and Comstock's Exercise in Resonant Listening (141)

Part 1: Experiential listening

  • Students provide a link to or sound file of music (no video) and answer the following: Do you like this song? Why/why not? Listen again and makes notes about your actual experience (a phenomenological method of reduced listening)

Part 2: Profiling a Listening/Resonating Self: Sonic memoir playlist assignment

  • Goal: to explore (without relying on voiceover) how our sense of ‘self’ and ‘community,’ including our experience of belonging and alienation, are dependent on sound.

  • Use a theme to create a playlist of sounds (like a mix tape) that represent your everyday soundscapes.


4. SOUND MAPPING is the practice of pairing geographic locations with sonic data in the creation of digital maps with embedded sound files. Sound maps are a design style for studying and archiving sounds that prioritizes the soundscape. Incorporating sound mapping activities into digital pedagogy requires students to pay close attention to the sonic environment and soundscapes, and sound mapping can also generate discussions about how patterns of sound can reveal information about a location’s geography, inhabitants, and culture.


     In its simplest form, a sound map can be created by drawing a sketch that illustrates the location of sounds as experienced from a central location or a trajectory of movement. In the internet domain, the practice of digital sound mapping has become popular in both professional and recreational spheres. In essence, sound maps can be seen multimodal compositions that incorporate and combine textual, visual, and sonic information. They are used to archive sounds in multiple disciplines: art, policy evidence, historical archives, and consumer tools.


     Digital sound maps come in a variety of types and designs. “Atlas Sound: A Typology of Sound Maps” defines them as “graphic catalogs of music, noise, local ambient color, or anything else audible” and offers a catalog of types, some of which are listed below.



Collaborative Documentary: Maps of specific places that are open to public uploading of sound files of recordings taken from that area and pinpointed to a specific location.


  • A diverse category that often doesn’t rely on mapping in the standard visual sense.

  • GPS BEATMAP - Planet as Control Surface: Software that uses GPS to assign musical snippets to small circles of land all over the planet.


Consumer Empowerment / Environmental Awareness and Planning:

  • SoundAroundYou The World Soundscape Project under development at the Audio and Acoustic Engineering Research Centre at the University of Salford invites people to add their own recordings to a large data pool for professional analysis. Users can also tag sounds with their own qualitative opinions and rate sound clips from 1 to 10 in areas such as tranquility, activity, location and soundscape quality.

Music as Sound Map:

  • Every Noise At Once: “ ongoing attempt at an algorithmically-generated, readability-adjusted scatter-plot of the musical genre-space, based on data tracked and analyzed for 1524 genres by Spotify.”


Saving “endangered” sounds through archival preservation:

  • Historical preservation:

    • Sydney Sidetracks Historical material, including sound and video, is tagged to a map of Australia’s largest city. The site encourages visitors to “download a version to your mobile or load up your player and take the stories with you. When you next visit the city, you can listen to the crowds at Martin Place celebrating the end of WWII or watch George St., 1906, from a moving train.”


Policy Data: Cities pursuing noise control need clear data that can be translated directly to enforcement. These maps are usually not linked to actual sonic events but estimate decibel levels based on infrastructure, traffic level, and other sources.  Their purpose is to help city planners be more aware of the impact of sound when making choices about zoning and construction.


  • Noise map of Central London:

Hybrid Sound Maps: Combine archiving with creativity.

  • Museum of Endangered Sounds: An individual, Brendan Chilcutt launched this site to preserve the sounds made by his favorite old technologies and electronics equipment.

  • LA Listens:

  • Cities and Memory: “...a global field recording & sound art work that presents both the present reality of a place, but also its imagined, alternative counterpart – remixing the world, one sound at at time.” [My personal favorite!]

     In their co-taught composition class, “Composing With Sound", Steph Ceraso and Kati Fargo Ahern created a digital writing and multimodal composing assignment called “Embodied Soundscape Design” that incorporates sound mapping in an exercise in which students are asked “to engage in an activity of embodied soundscape design.” Ahern defines the soundscape as “a landscape made of sound, a sonic ‘field,’ or an arrangement of simultaneous and spatially situated sounds…[that] can potentially draw together music, speech, and nonverbal sound.” She stresses that composing a soundscape requires “situating sounds in spaces rather than on paper or in linear arrangement” because “sound is spatial, dynamic, situated, and involves an intervention not only in our lived-in spaces but also our presumptions concerning what it means to be a listener.”

     In the soundscape design exercise, Ceraso and Ahern's students begin by choosing a sound that they can make in the classroom space. Each student writes the name or description of a sound on a notecard, then chooses a point in the classroom to stand and make a recording of the sound. When the recordings are done, all students play their sounds simultaneously into the room while another recording is made of the combination of all of the sounds together. This recording is the first version or draft of their collaborative soundscape. Next, they alter the soundscape by varying the pitch, volume, speed, and position of their sounds by moving around the space. After engaging in the soundscape design exercise, the students draw individual visual soundmaps of the room including descriptions and drawings of all of the sounds. From these soundmaps, the students create an “embodied soundscape”, in which each student is assigned an individual sound to either create or find and then play on a mobile device.

      In Ceraso and Ahern's class, students composed a soundscape based on a soundmap designed to make the classroom more tranquil. They arranged the sounds of silence, birds, water, and wind. Ahern commented that "the act of composing with sound may feel impermanent, but it allows participants to trace changes in arrangements of sound, become more aware of embodied, individual listening differences, and bring the experience of composing with sound into other acts of multimodal and material compositions.”



bottom of page