All Ears: A Journey Through Sound Culture

15 min readOct 23, 2013


I had the privilege of taking an undergrad class in 2011 entitled Sound Culture (taught by Tim Hecker and Ryan Diduck) at McGill University. This was my final paper drawing together many of the topics covered over the course of the semester. It is not perfect nor is it exhaustive, but I had an absolute blast learning this material and I hope that it shows in my writing.

To talk about sound is to first accept that it is transient and entirely ephemeral. Sound is something forged out of the atmosphere and something that disappears just as quickly within it. Sound is not only susceptible to change but actually inhabits time and space as a variable of change — in technical terms, as the invisible waveforms that oscillate through the air around us; in cultural terms, as products that derive meaning from a complex dialogue between social conventions and human subjectivity. These nuanced conditions of sound also resonate with the way in which sound itself is received by the ear and further processed by the inner ear. According to Schwartz, “of all the organs considered the most inaccessible, the inner ear was so tightly woven into the brain and skull, and so acutely sensitive to pain, that to explore it while in lively process was all but impossible, and would remain so, really, until improvements in imaging techniques during the 1970s” (Schwartz 2003: 490). But even though scientific research on the workings of the inner ear did not flourish until recent history, many technologies and social practices pertaining to the ear have long been in existence beforehand. Human beings were already learning to listen and hear in certain ways without ever having or needing any preconceived knowledge of the science behind it. Discourse on the “modern” ear thus seems slightly anachronistic — does the term “modern” simply imply a scientific understanding of the ear, or does it imply the constitution of the ear as a thoroughly modern undertaking?

It is important to note that we cannot talk about the modern ear without alluding to the incredible changes which were brought upon aurality in the twentieth century — the effects of modernity as we know it. During this paradigm shift brought on by industrialization and secularization, “the world seemed to be more encumbered with sound than ever before, so that the ear had to do active duty as bodyguard, herald, explorer, and confidant. But because it was on constant guard duty, because it was charged with announcing the arrival of the most unpleasant along with the most welcome sounds, because it had to be attentive to new sounds while cognizant of the old, and because it had to be as alert to a whisper or an infant’s whimper as to an incoming shell or a speeding motorcycle, the modern ear was perpetually in danger of being overtaxed” (Schwartz 2003: 493). As a result, listening and hearing can be thought of as the interchangeable tools with which the ear learns to adapt to and fulfill its many duties. These two basic functions of the ear, however, are often conceived of as separate processes. Listening, which “had been supposed to be selective and willful, had long been contrasted with hearing, which was supposed to be indiscriminate and automatic” (Schwartz 2003: 488). According to these definitions, then, listening is understood as a practice of critical and active discernment while hearing is understood as a practice of receptive and passive consumption. But what happens when listening is engaged as a routine? Through rote learning and repetition, listening can just as easily become an automatic and non-selective process. On the other hand, the common notion of “hearing something” often indicates an alertness to foreign sounds within a given environment. How can one hear something first without actively engaging with it?

The questionable divide between listening and hearing is as much a problem of linguistics as it is a problem of the politics of space. Even though the ear can alternate between hearing and not hearing, listening and not listening, it is still constantly being trespassed by sound waves. With the help of cultivated audition, however, sonic space can become differentiated through sociocultural practice. Cultivated audition is essentially a survey of how human beings have come to adapt, appropriate and put into practice the many ways in which sound can be organized. Once auditory space is delineated, the countless cultures of listening then determine — each applying their own moral reasoning — how to go about in apprehending the audible range of human hearing as well as everything beyond it. Since meaning hinges upon this notion of the heard and the unheard, sound itself is then used “to raise social issues of what is private and what is public … but [cultures of listening] also raise the question of whether sounds themselves have a right to privacy — whether all sounds are meant to be heard” (Licht 2009: 8). Here, aurality suddenly becomes an overtly political playground: after all, how do we go about enacting aural discretion? Taking this idea one step further, what happens when we begin to essentialize the notion of private versus public in spirituality, a vast realm in which “hearing heavenly voices” or “listening for ancestral spirits” can be both individual and collective experiences?

With reference to the early history of sound, Luigi Russolo (Russolo 1913: 23) claimed that “sound was attributed to the gods [among primitive peoples]. It was considered sacred and reserved for priests, who used it to enrich their rites with mystery. Thus was born the idea of sound as something in itself, as different from and independent of life”. Though this Western-centric assumption is largely generalized, it is true that the enigmatic nature of sound was often attributed to spiritual mysticism prior to modern science. Human affairs were guided by faith, superstition and revelation; authority and control over human existence were understood to be beyond our physical (and thus audible) limits. Instead of calling for the protection of the obscurity of sound, however, modern science encouraged the reasoning and validation of sonic qualities through rationality in order to master sound as quantifiable knowledge. In light of modernity, then, “the divine could not possibly speak or call or intercede in a world of such predictable laws, such mathematical order, such perfect rationality … divine absence, far more than presence, had to be constructed, and philosophical argument alone was insufficient material: the rules and practices of auditory experience had to be reshaped as a condition of heaven’s silence” (Schmidt 2000: 6). Faith itself had to be recalibrated, but God’s existence was not necessarily denounced per se. With religious cultures of listening such as “the Swedenborgians, as with Mormons, Adventists, Shakers, and Methodists, one thing was clear: God was hardly falling silent. Instead, with the crumbling of established authorities, God had more prophets, tongues, and oracles than ever before; thus the modern predicament actually became as much one of God’s loquacity as God’s hush” (Schmidt 2000: 11). This was the postmodern breakdown of centralized religious narratives into a spread of heterogeneous components, or perhaps the dissemination of viral cultures upon spiritual audition.

On the other hand, “spiritualism’s fanciful portraits of a benevolent spirit world gave way in the age of modernity to a program of pragmatic experimentation focused squarely on verifying the act of communication itself” (Sconce 2000: 59). This sense of speculation in turn feeds the sentiments expressed through public fascination with the occult, a phenomenon not uncommon in the early twentieth century. The surge in suspicion of our communicative powers, whether used in religious or secular contexts, was also tightly intertwined with the introduction of radio technology into everyday life. The early twentieth century occult was often a complex mix of both fact and the fantastic, and as a result “a variety of paranormal theories, technologies and fictions challenged the otherwise wholly enthusiastic celebration of the emerging medium [of radio] by suggesting an eerie and even sinister undercurrent to the new electronic worlds forged by wireless [communication]” (Sconce 2000: 62). While wireless did in fact suggest sinister undertones, it also promised a positive instantaneity in communication. This sense of proximate immediacy was especially notable in Western spiritual communication because the heaven-and-earth, call-and-response model of divine contact was no longer absolute. Divinity itself became closer by virtue of its disparate yet embedded presence in the trivial matters of modernity. For instance, those who participated in paranormal DXing believed that the dead could be contacted and heard in real time. In order to communicate with them, the living simply had to tune in through radio transmission and catch these spirits at the right frequencies and at the right instance.

The idea of ritualized practice, however, also underwent a fundamental paradigm shift, given that communal access to the ether did not require a physical congregation of people in order to take place. Wireless thus “presented a paradox: alone at their crystal sets and radios, listeners felt an electronic kinship with an invisible, scattered audience, and yet they were also acutely aware of the incredible distances involved in this form of communication that ultimately reaffirmed the individual listener’s anonymity and isolation” (Sconce 2000: 62). For this very reason, radio at the turn of the century was uncannily comparable to the ocean: it served to separate people yet it also brought them closer together. According to Sconce (Sconce 2000: 63), “oceanic metaphors proved versatile in capturing the seeming omnipresence, unfathomable depths, and invisible mysteries of both radio’s ether and its audience — mammoth, fluid bodies that, like the sea, were ultimately boundless and unknowable”. As a cultivated form of listening, then, DXing can be seen as one way of charting the waters of radio technology by bringing it into a personalized environment, for reasons of purely personal interest; this domestication of technology was perhaps an indirect way of dealing with the weightlessness and alienating effects of modernity.

DXing is described as “drifting through the spectrum in search of transmissions from the most distant points around the nation and globe, a journey traversed primarily across mysterious expanses of silence and static … [since,] in the early days of [radio] technology, wireless contact was of more interest than wireless content” (Sconce 2000: 65). This is yet another instance of hearing for sounds rather than listening for the information they conveyed, because DXers did not necessarily know what they were listening for. The paranormal use of DXing in particular “stirred anew the old dream of ‘universal communication’, a dream expressed in religious terms by early commentators on the telegraph … but there was also a significant and telling difference in the cultural visions of paranormality accompanying wireless that clearly distinguished it from telegraphy and telephony” (Sconce 2000: 61). This telling difference can in fact be attributed to corporeality — is it possible to have a disembodied consciousness, and if so, what would that imply of human existence? What is a living body if its consciousness can be separable and can have an afterlife sustained through sound? This discourse on sound as the political ecology of the body also raises another interesting question: what happens when sound is used to exploit the body, not in the spiritual sense of bodily possession, but rather for purposes of power and control through sonic torture?

The case of Muhammad al-Qatani’s detainment in Guantánamo immediately comes to mind. Here, in a slight inversion of discourse, we shift from investigating the cultures of audition to the investigation of how audition is used to cause psychological harm on the basis of cultural, social, or spiritual difference. Curiously, sound and music used as coercion in Guantánamo — “a place that is out of the world”, as described by a CIA agent — draws upon similar notions of otherworldliness in aurality as discussed before. Coupled with the sinister undertones of wireless communication in early twentieth century, the American theorization and deployment of sound as affliction for the past fifty years does not seem too farfetched after all; the need to master the unknown is ultimately what is at stake. From what is now more openly known of this government classified research, “either sensory deprivation or sensory overload could be an extremely quick way of breaking down a human being’s psychological ability to orient him- or herself in reality, distinguish the hallucinatory from the real, or resist interrogation” (Cusick 2008: 4). This is not only an assault on the ears but also a direct and inescapable colonization of one’s thoughts and personal values through persistent sonic stress. Once again, this harks back to the discernment between private versus public and perhaps more importantly, what happens when the barrier between the two no longer exists. The volatile politics of auditory space thus becomes substituted for American politics and the sociocultural values that constitute it.

In a sense, then, Guantánamo is the ear manifested as a real life facility and realized to its most wicked extent — a self-contained organ governed entirely by its lawlessness. As such, there are also no means of defense to protect anyone (including the US officials themselves) from the psychological torment that occurs within its confines. Anything can and will be used against human beings when the opportunity arises, and there is no essential difference between noise and music when sonic torture is utilized. Muhammad al-Qatani’s case perfectly captures these dynamics:

Music was conceived as a powerful force, in some writings a force from the devil, that could provoke passions contradicting rational adherence to religious precepts. Listening to songs with frivolous or sensually provocative lyrics was especially dangerous to the soul … yet his inability to talk knowledgeably about Islam’s theological traditions on music allowed “the music theme” to merge with the themes known as “the bad Muslim.” “al Qaeda betrays Islam,” “God intends to defeat al Qaeda,” “arrogant Saudi,” and “I control all” to produce the overall “approach” called “Pride/Ego Down.” That is, al-Qatani was humiliated, and his Muslim identity attacked, by his obvious ignorance of his own tradition. (Cusick 2008: 13)

The affective sensibilities induced by music are instead held against al-Qatani here — a forced embodiment of sound so as to create a sense of sonic fatalism within his psyche. More specifically, “his interrogators had taken full advantage of music’s peculiar properties as a sensory experience, a site of cultural belief, and a medium of cultural practice to force al-Qatani into a conscious state of sin he was powerless to avoid” (Cusick 2008: 14). In this manner, the interrogators are inscribing onto the body while also exorcising from it the politics of difference, using music to coerce al-Qatani into acculturation by making him give up his own personal values — the fabric of his cultural identity. This kind of psychic pain induced by music “attacks its target and causes self-betrayal in the intrasubjective space that many religious traditions call the soul. It is when the soul and body together collapse in the catastrophe of self-betrayal that resistance is not just futile but impossible (Cusick 2008: 17).

So it is entirely possible for humans to lose their sense of focus, orientation, ability to think and even their consciousness while under sonic attack, but what seems most detrimental is the thought of losing oneself in a drone of musical sounds. Music is evidently not used as pleasure or for enjoyment in Guantánamo — it practically replaces noise in terms of being unwanted sound — so can we still call it music then, if its original intentions are drastically manipulated to other ends? Is subjectivity or intentionality the more significant factor when deciding whether or not something is considered music? Of course, it is also important to remember that the distinction between music and noise is always culturally determined to some extent. In seventeenth and eighteenth century England, for example, “the word ‘noise’ connoted a variety of imprecise and often contradictory meanings. ‘Noise’ was used to describe sounds that were musical or unmusical, pleasant or unpleasant, and could also be applied to quarrelling, strife or the spreading of rumours” (Cockayne 2007: 112). In this context, “noise” was not only used to distinguish between what is public versus what is private, but also to make class distinctions based on taste and cultivation. Noise thus held a decidedly negative connotation, but it was still recognized as human-oriented sound — socially motivated clamour, if you will — when compared with the industrial din of nineteenth and twentieth century cityscapes.

This latter version of noise (the sonic excess and byproduct of machinery processes) seemed much more pervasive and irritable to the human ear, but for Luigi Russolo and the Futurists, it was something exciting and entirely worthy of our attention. He explains:

Every manifestation of life is accompanied by noise. Noise is thus familiar to our ear and has the power of immediately recalling life itself. Sound, estranged from life, always musical, something in itself, an occasional not a necessary element, has become for our ear what for the eye is a too familiar sight. Noise instead, arriving confused and irregular from the irregular confusion of life, is never revealed to us entirely and always holds innumerable surprises. We are certain, then, that by selecting, coordinating, and controlling all the noises, we will enrich mankind with a new and unsuspected pleasure of the senses. (Russolo 1913: 27)

From this belief emerged the development of Russolo’s noise boxes called intonarumori which were to be used like musical instruments; in line with the sentiments expressed in the Futurist manifesto, then, these instruments rendered the love of industrialization, technology and militarism through performance as sonic mimicry of the city. This representation of ambient urban sounds can be imagined as an early form of soundscape composition, although noise pollution for the Futurists was thought of as something liberating rather than detrimental to the environment. Also, similar to the schizophonic nature of soundscapes, the context of each intonarumori performance created its own temporally and spatially organized sonic profile — the curation of sound implied that music was being made, which in turn suggested that noise can in fact be aestheticized when considered within the domain of musical discourse.

This idea of aestheticization may be ambiguous in relation to noise, but it is perhaps even more so in relation to acoustic ecology and soundscape composition. First of all, as “the study of the interrelationship between sound, nature and society” (Westerkamp 2002: 52), acoustic ecology “brings to the fore sound as a physical presence whose understanding can lead to more sensitive built environments that reduce noise levels and infuse sociality with deep listening” (Labelle 2006: xiv). Soundscapes thus stand on the side of nature and inherently discriminate against noise as something harmful and unnatural. Noise is, once again, thought of as an unwanted social byproduct. The call to reduce or eradicate noise further implies that it is a fundamentally human creation, that it is something we should have control over. This sentiment is reflected in the compositional process whereby recorded sounds are carefully rearranged and curated by soundscape artists — the human intervention and ideological mastership of an otherwise non-selective auditory environment. According to Hildegard Westerkamp, “the [soundscape] artist seeks to discover the sonic/musical essence contained within the recording and thus within the place and time where it was recorded. The artist works with the understanding that aesthetic values will emerge from the recorded soundscape or from some of its elements” (Westerkamp 2002: 54). When an audience is listening to a performance, then, they are simply appreciating the surface (hence aesthetic) representation of the original sonic event because listeners are not experiencing the event itself in actuality. And while soundscapes can be thought of as music for the way they are aestheticized and subsequently performed, there is one essential difference between the two: musical performances aim to move their audiences through the body and senses (contemplation as experiential aftermath), while soundscape performances ask for their audiences to think about what is being heard with their minds serving as political filters (contemplation as prerequisite for appreciation).

Then again, soundscapes can just as well be ambient music or ambient noise to someone who is unaware of the thoughts behind it. Indeed, “to stubbornly conditioned ears, anything new in music has always been called noise. But after all, what is music but organized noises? And a composer, like all artists, is an organizer of disparate elements. Subjectively, noise is any sound one doesn’t like” (Varèse 1929: 20). As a result, disturbance and cacophony are often attributed to new sounds that are foreign to the ear, but this is just as much a matter of subjectivity as it is an indication of breakage from traditional ways of hearing. Sonic newness is a constant reminder of the fact that sound is ultimately relative and conjectural, for it is impossible to grasp let alone process at once all the sounds that are being received by the ear at any given time; “Robert Hooke remarked that ‘noise is displeasing because the ear cannot keep up with the constant change of tuning required. Noise theorists have noted that the pitch of some sounds make them more likely to be regarded as noise, but that ‘in the final analysis it is the social (and in turn political) context which deems them acceptable’” (Cockayne 2007: 13). The socialization and politicization of sound cannot be divided because they are essentially two sides of the same coin. How people collectively engage in aurality then becomes discourse unto itself, discourse that recognizes our biological, intellectual, cultural and social motivations as both embedded and embodied, discourse that posits the ear as what exists on the vulnerable precipice between the mind and body.


Cockayne, Emily (2007). “Noisy.” In Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770 (pp. 106-130). London: Yale University Press.

Cusick, Suzanne G. (2008). “You are in a place that is out of the world…”: Music in the Detention Camps of the “Global War on Terror.” Journal of the Society for American Music 2/1: 1-26.

Labelle, Brandon (2006). “Introduction: Auditory Relations.” Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (pp. ix-xvi). New York: Continuum.

Licht, Alan (2009). “Sound Art: Origins, Development and Ambiguities.” Organised Sound 14/1: 3-10.

Russolo, Luigi (1913). “The Art of Noises: Futurist Manifesto.” In Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner (eds.), Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (pp. 10-14). New York: Continuum.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric (2000). “Introduction.” Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion and the American Enlightenment (pp. 1-14). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Schwartz, Hillel (2003). “The Indefensible Ear.” In Michael Bull and Les Back (eds.), The Auditory Cultures Reader (pp. 487-501). New York: Berg.

Sconce, Jeffrey (2000). “The Voice from the Void.” Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (pp. 59-91). Durham: Duke University Press.

Varèse, Edgard (1929). “The Liberation of Sound.” In Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner (eds.), Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (pp. 17-21). New York: Continuum.

Westerkamp, Hildegard (2002). “Linking Soundscape Composition and Acoustic Ecology.” Organised Sound 7/1: 51-56.