Reflections on Sonic Environments

Vincent Meelberg and Marcel Cobussen

The Gym

In Music in Everyday Life, social scientist Tia DeNora gives a beautiful example of how the human body is organized through music and movement: aerobics. With aerobics the body is configured, reconfigured, composed and decomposed in relation to sounds, to musical sounds. (DeNora 2000: 93) However, DeNora hastens to say that it is inadequate to state simply that music acts on the body, that it will automatically entrain the body in particular ways. The aerobics example shows that the effects music has on the body are “the result of a lot of work oriented to fitting musical material to movement style.” (DeNora 2000: 96) Each component of an aerobics session – DeNora distinguishes five: warm-up, pre-core, core, cool-down, and floor exercises – asks for different sounds, different rhythms, different speeds. Only then, music “can discipline the body’s performative character, configuring and transfiguring the body over the course of a session.” (DeNora 2000: 103)

I frequent a gym in my neighborhood. And over the past few years, I have been a member of several gyms. Entering one, a couple of years ago, I could immediately tell whether the instructor in charge was white or black, Dutch or Antillean. The difference was in the first place audible: techno versus hip hop, acid house versus rap, “eurological” versus “Afrological” music (the latter terms are coined by improvising musician and philosopher George Lewis). In a way, a different soundscape makes you enter a different gym.

I cannot recall if the different sounds, rhythms, and speeds of these music styles had their immediate effect on my performances. (Most likely, many other components should be taken into account: food, sleep, time of the day, weather conditions, motivation, etc.) But one aspect certainly influenced me: the volume. It is striking that DeNora does not mention the influence of volume at which the music is played during an aerobics session. Working out on high volume doesn’t allow you to think about anything but the exercises, as if the loud sounds give the instructor’s commands more authority. Also, a certain volume is needed to propel your body into motion. This is no background music; the volume not only outroars the groaning and moaning of the sportsmen and women, it prompts you to jump, turn, bike, run, row, stretch. Decibels, too, make you forget the smell of your neighbor’s sweating; they allow you to pull faces. Relaxing in the sauna afterwards, you are able to experience the different strategies by which (musical) sounds are put to use in order to affect your body and mind: here, in contrast to the gym’s noise, the soft easy listening and MOR pop tunes distract your attention from the extreme heat. Here it is the near silence that serves to enhance the impression that this treatment is healthy. Different soundscapes, same effects. There is no one-to-one relation between (the absence of) (musical) sounds and human behavior.


                                                                                                                              The Study

                                                        The Shop

            Sirens                                                                                                                                                                  The Gym


                    The Bedroom


                             The Ear and/versus the Eye

                Sound Design    



                                                    Footsteps                                                                                                                                      Rattle and Hum

                                                                       Your Space