The Sound Studies Reader

Jonathan Sterne (ed.)
New York: Routledge, 2012.
ISBN: 978-0-415-77130-6 (hardcover), 978-0-415-77131-3 (paperback)
RRP: US$120.29 (hardcover), US$38.52 (paperback)

Carlo Nardi

Independent scholar (Italy)

Readers often reflect an attempt to legitimize a newly formed field of study through the ex post facto selection of eminent forefathers and texts. Undeniably a qualified figure to pursue this endeavor, Jonathan Sterne is a point of reference for everyone interested in the cultural study of sound, mostly thanks to his groundbreaking book The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (2003), not to mention, among others, his examination of the role of commodification and psychoacoustic models of hearing in the development and success of the MP3 format (2012), his critique of the concept of orality according to writers of the Toronto School (2011) and his investigation of the use of music as a crime prevention tool (1997). With this reader, however, Sterne does not intend to establish a new academic field in the traditional sense, that is, by cocooning an embryonic discipline within a given set of theoretical concerns and epistemological boundaries, but rather to advance a dynamic and open concept of sound studies as “a name for the interdisciplinary ferment in the human sciences that takes sound as its analytical point of departure or arrival” (2). This volume is a welcome addition to a range of scholarly texts aimed at organizing the interrelated although not coinciding topics of sound-, aural-, auditory- and, more generally, sensory studies. It will thus be of interest firstly for anyone whose research interests are in such fields as music, sound art, cinema, media (including radio, television, video games and the Internet), linguistics, drama, dance, sound design, architecture, disability, sound storage and reproduction, telecommunications and psychoacoustics, that is, where sound is already a central object of study. Secondly, it can engage students and scholars in areas (for instance, political communication or education) where sound plays a relevant part and, nonetheless, is often (literally) overlooked due to the prevalence of ocularcentric paradigms. Finally, sound—sound knowledge, sound practices, sound imagination—is intended as a conceptual framework that, by encouraging unorthodox interpretations of the world, can profitably extend its reverberations (the temptation to speak in metaphors is strong) to other fields of knowledge.

Extremely wide-ranging and definitely substantial even for a reader, the book contains forty-five chapters, including an introduction by the editor, and is organized in six groups of readings: “Hearing, Listening, Deafness”, “Spaces, Sites, Scapes”, “Transduce and Record”, “Collectivities and Couplings”, “The Sonic Arts: Aesthetics, Experience, Interpretation” and “Voices”, each with a brief introduction. It is not only that its abundance makes it impossible to do a comprehensive review of the content, but also that the selection is consciously aimed at eschewing synthesis. In his introduction, Sterne provides a list of references that serves as well as an extensive bibliography and includes a list of collections of previously published and unpublished works that, as compared to The Sound Studies Reader, tackle the issue of sound/audition from different angles. Among these, the most similar in scope to the present book are Bull and Back (2003), Drobnick (2004) and Pinch and Bijsterveld (2011). It is no surprise, then, that the introduction is dedicated in significant part to a clarification of the specificity of this anthology. As Sterne explains, this reader places culture at the center of the definition of sound: “To think sonically is to think conjuncturally about sound and culture” (3). Nevertheless, the relationship between sound and culture is not unproblematic. Formerly, Sterne conceptualized sound as a primarily human-centered problem: “. . . the hearing of the sound is what makes it. My point is that human beings reside at the center of any meaningful definition of sound” (2003: 11). Here, however, he reviews his position, conceding an alternative stance that, while acknowledging a degree of reflexivity between the conceptualization of sound and that of hearing, “assumes the physicality of sound and then considers its cultural valence” (7). While this dualism seems to be inherent in the nature of sound, Sterne crucially contends that a distinctive trait of sound studies is the adoption of a critical stance towards the role of sound within wider formations of power and subjectivity: “. . . without critique, it is art, technical discourse, science, cultural production or training practice ‘about sound’, and not sound studies” (5).

The culturalist approach of several contributions suggests that there persists a permanent rift, at both the theoretical and epistemological levels, between the study of sound and the senses as cultural constructions and their understanding within physics, biology, experimental psychology and neuroscience, that is, the disciplines that have conceptualized the “physicality of sound” as we know it. This rift has arguably triggered at least two tendencies, both owing to the fact that, in its early days, the sociocultural study of the senses was posited as a conscious reaction to a prevailing attitude in the “hard sciences” to both universalize and reify human sensation: firstly, cultural studies have generally overemphasized the malleable and variable features of the senses at the expense of their biological substance; secondly and for similar reasons, too often scientific objectivity has been sacrificed to the advantage of a self-referential dialectic that sociologist Franco Ferrarotti tagged “aestheticizing radicalism” (1977: 469), a form of scholarship that possibly reveals more about the writer’s ideological mindset than about the real functioning of sensory processes. This second trait is more noticeable in texts inspired by literary studies and, to a certain extent, philosophy, which also have a significant presence in the reader and about which I will say more later.

There is a further, more general concern related to focusing on just one sense. Several chapters, such as Jacques Attali’s “Noise: The Political Economy of Music” and Emily Thompson’s “Sound, Modernity and History”, underscore the need for a reappraisal of the study of hearing to counter the tendency to privilege sight in scholarship.[1] This legitimate claim, however, might lead to an underestimation of the intersensory nature of the human experience, or, borrowing David Howes’ words, “the multi-directional interaction of the senses and of sensory ideologies” (2005: 9). In fact, an exclusive emphasis on hearing might contribute to the reproduction of a compartmentalized model of the senses, that is, a paradigm typically developed under the aegis of modern science and backed by a specific ideology that pervades academics as much as laypersons. Regarding this, Sterne himself elsewhere equates an aspect of this ideology to an “audiovisual litany [that] renders the history of the senses as a zero-sum game, where the dominance of one sense by necessity leads to the decline of another sense” (2003: 16). On the other hand, the choice to focus on sound rather than on hearing has at least two advantages. In the first place, it provides physical phenomena with a substratum of objectivity—and one that exists beyond the human body—that is often mystified in the most radical constructionist accounts of perception. In the second place, and inducing me to rethink my objection, it acknowledges that the ear is only one of many human receptors resonating with vibrations. In so doing, while keeping its focus on the cultural dimension of the senses, The Sound Studies Reader avoids a common objectifying idea according to which the internal sensory processes are understood as an extension of the external sensory organs (see Mazzolini 1989).

Sterne must be given credit for offering asylum to an extremely wide selection of approaches that without any doubt will satisfy every palate. This task, however, as it promises liberation from the strictness of epistemology, risks ipso facto to dissolve into the many streams of mutually contradictory paradigms and, at times, even self-contradictory ones. Regarding the latter, I refer in particular to those (few) chapters, such as Kodwo Eshun’s “Operating System for the Redesign of Sonic Reality” or Steve Goodman’s “The Ontology of Vibrational Force”, that deal with idealistic conceptions of sound or discharge the scientific method tout court. In particular, Eshun contends that, “[f]ar from needing theory’s help, music today is already more conceptual than at any point this century, pregnant with thoughtprobes waiting to be activated, switched on, misused” (452) or, more succinctly, “[p]roducers are already pop theorists” (451). Inspired by Eshun, Goodman, envisaging an ontology of sound that highlights “the in-between of oscillation, the vibration of vibration, the virtuality of the tremble” (71), argues that theory should be subordinated to the object of study: “[W]e place theory under the domination of sonic affect, encouraging a conceptual mutation” (70). However, the idea itself of an ontology of sound, as much as it is at odds with the study of actual historical formations, threatens to reduce multifaceted phenomena involving sound and hearing to a mechanistic metaphysics unable to grasp the real, let alone to affect social change. Many readers will undoubtedly feel comfortable with texts that, imbued with metaphysics and literary theory, display a prose dense with portmanteaus, neologisms, metaphors and other stylistic liberties at the expense of rigor and, alas, clarity, or where everyday knowledge is promoted to theorization, and bewilderment and paradox are used as critical tools in their own means. As a matter of fact, anticipating any possible misunderstanding, Sterne explains that “there is no a priori privileged group of methodologies for sound studies” (6). Furthermore, it is probably true that, at this stage, a less inclusive choice would have encountered different but equally insurmountable problems, reflecting only a limited portion of the “interdisciplinary ferment” above mentioned. Nonetheless, I fear that the lack of a consistent epistemological approach and, in particular, the departure from a scientific mindset, might prevent not so much the development of sound studies as a fruitful scholarly interest in its own right, but, more importantly, it might undermine its critical potential. In fact, I doubt that there can be critique if theory is disengaged from a realist philosophy of science. In fact, certain essays made me wonder to what extent empirical criteria of validation or falsification are relevant for the sake of an argument. I will illustrate this point with an example.

Alexander Weheliye’s chapter “Desiring Machines in Black Popular Music” tackles a subject that might possibly be of interest for the readers of this journal, namely the twofold use of technology as signifier and signified in contemporary R&B, concluding that “segments of mainstream black popular music . . . [i]nstead of dispensing with the humanist subject altogether, . . . reframe it to include the subjectivity of those who have had no simple access to its Western, post-Enlightenment formulation, suggesting subjectivities embodied and disembodied, human and posthuman” (517). As emancipating as this statement sounds, my qualms derive from the fact that Weheliye’s argument is based on an erroneous assumption that might sound trivial to most but, instead, points to methodological issues regarding the challenges of interdisciplinarity. Weheliye interprets voice processing as a development of an anti-naturalist “mechanized voice” (513) first codified by Roger Troutman and Zapp in the eighties, but he mixes up the vocoder for the actual instrument that Troutman used in the examples cited (and for which he is still well known among funk and hip-hop fans), namely the talk box. As any music maker or listener familiar with the two devices will confirm, the vocoder and the talk box function in different ways (in terms of articulation, performance skills and additional instrumentation needed), produce different audible effects and, as the case in question shows, are associated with different performers.

This does not necessarily imply that Weheliye’s thesis should be easily dismissed—or that my hasty confutation would be sufficient for such purpose. Nonetheless, the lack of empirical evidence raises concerns that are worth considering. In fact, if a premise is wrong, how can the conclusions that are derived from it still be considered valid? More in general, does empirical evidence contribute to define criteria of validity in similar cases or are we just in the domain of metaphysics? If the latter is true, how can scholarship be truly critical?

This is clearly an epistemological issue that affects also our understanding of what we mean by methodology, and whether we choose to consider it an uncountable noun, that is, a common platform for selecting, discussing, comparing and evaluating research methods, or we surrender to its multiplication in irreconcilable paradigms. The real question is, what is the advantage of substituting methodology (rather than “methodologies”) with dialectical skills, thus devaluing discourse as an end in itself (see Gouldner 1970: 12–14)? Aware that this space does not allow for a full discussion of this topic, I would like to conclude quoting a passage from this same reader as it apparently voices similar preoccupations for idealistic conceptualizations of sound. Rick Altman, in his examination of “film fallacies” in screen sound (previously published in Altman 1992), claims that, in order to “restore a sense of sound’s role in creating our sense of the body, we must depend on historically grounded claims and on close analyses of particular films rather than on ontological speculations that presume to cover all possible practices” (228). Accordingly, sound studies at large should reflect how historical actors experience and conceptualize sound. In fact, a genuinely critical theory of sound, both as a modus operandi aimed at dismantling forms of structural inequality and domination and as emancipatory praxis, not only cannot be detached from real actors, but also should reveal actual contradictions in order to encourage actors to change reality. As Boltanski writes, “[t]he idea of a critical theory that is not backed by the experience of a collective, and which in some sense exists for its own sake – that is, for no one – is incoherent” (2011: 5).

The Sound Studies Reader provides so much food for thought that, in this brief space, I could only give some hints of its reach, the issues it addresses and the problems it raises. Needless to say, it will likely become a benchmark for anyone interested in this topic.


[1] Attali contends that, as music is capable of anticipating changes in the structure of society, we must learn to sharpen listening skills: “Today, our sight has dimmed; it no longer sees our future, having constructed a present made of abstraction, nonsense, and silence. Now we must learn to judge a society more by its sounds, by its art, and by its festivals, than by its statistics” (29). Thompson examines the intersections between the cultural history of acoustics and that of the urban environment in American cities: “[M]y work addresses an aspect of construction long neglected by visually oriented architectural historians. I challenge these historians to listen to, as well as to look at, the buildings of the past, and thereby suggest a different way to understand the advent of modern architecture in America” (123).


Altman, Rick. 1992. “Four and a Half Film Fallacies”. In Sound Theory/Sound Practice, ed. Rick Altman, 35–45. New York: Routledge.

Boltanski, Luc. 2011 [2009]. On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation. Trans. Gregory Elliott. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bull, Michael and Les Back, eds. 2003. The Auditory Culture Reader. New York: Berg.

Drobnick, Jim. 2004. Aural Cultures. Toronto: YYZ Books.

Ferrarotti, Franco. 1977. “Intorno al Metodo della Sociologia Critica” [Issues of Method in Critical Sociology]. In Storia del Pensiero Sociologico, Volume III: I Contemporanei [History of Sociological Thought, Volume III: Contemporary Thinkers], ed. Alberto Izzo, 461–73. Bologna, il Mulino.

Gouldner, Alvin W. 1970. The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. New York: Basic Books.

Howes, David. 2005. “Introduction: Empire of the Senses”. In Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader, ed. David Howes, 1–17. New York: Berg.

Mazzolini, Renato. 1989. “Schemi e modelli della macchina pensante (1662–1762)” [Schemes and Models of the Thinking Machine (1662–1762)]. In La Fabbrica del Pensiero. Dall’Arte della Memoria alle Neuroscienze [The Factory of Thought: From Art to Memory in Neuroscience], ed. Pietro Corsi, 68–143, 198–200. Milano: Electa. (Engl. tr., “Schemes and Models of the Thinking Machine (1662–1762)”. In The Enchanted Loom: Chapters in the History of Neuroscience, ed. Pietro Corsi, 68–143, 198–200. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.)

Pinch, Trevor and Karin Bijsterveld, eds. 2011. The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sterne, Jonathan. 1997. “Sounds Like the Mall of America: Programmed Music and the Architectonics of Commercial Space”. Ethnomusicology 41(1): 22–50.

———. 2003. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

———. 2011. “The Theology of Sound: A Critique of Orality”. Canadian Journal of Communication 36(2): 207–25.

———. 2012. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.