Phenomenological Excess

The elusive and dangerous categories of noise and silence seem to threaten a familiar and often invisible security in auditory experience. Precisely what these terms mean, however, has been variously reasserted in contradictory ways (Bijsterveld 2008). Noise is often characterized as “unwanted sound” (Stansfeld 1992), an “aperiodic” sound source (Kryter 1985), “disturbance” or “annoyance” in relation to a particular sound or soundscape (Schulte-Fortkamp 2002). Indeed, on national and international levels the problem of noise is increasingly viewed as a public health issue to be, ideally, eradicated (Ising & Kruppa 2004; Stansfeld & Matheson 2003). The supposed essential negativity of noise, by these definitions though certainly not all, conceals what I take to be a reciprocally challenging and constructive phenomenon.(1)


The same might be said for discourses on silence. Beyond Cage’s anechoic presence (Cage 1961; De Visscher 1989; Losseff & Doctor 2007), silence is often conceived as the preferred alternative to the excessively loud world. Silence supposedly marks the accomplishment of control or property (and thus propriety), giving the listener or the speaker (Jaworski 1997) authority over the restrained possibility of sounds in space. The professor and judge’s imperative of “silence” demonstrates this clearly: by first establishing a quiet space, the individual or institution gains power over the subjects and sounds within this acoustic territory. Silence, in these general accounts, is commonly related to decibel levels and thus is often equivocated with quiet. Nevertheless, the role of political power in the description and institution of silence is more pronounced than when one talks merely of a “quiet” locale, which seemingly holds a more natural status (Brambilla & Maffei 2006; De Coensel & Botteldooren 2006; Wrightson 2000). Either way, silence is generally regarded as an achievement over and against the chaos of noise in public space.


I would like to approach these topics quite differently. I do not want to assume that noise is detrimental and that silence is beneficial to human health or functioning. Such a predetermination, I believe, disfigures the variety of auditory experience in alternate contexts. Sounds do not have essential characteristics in subjective experience universally. Inasmuch as we accept the notion that a sound only exists when it is listened to as such, we must insist upon the particularity of auditory interpretations.(2) However, and in a way that undermines the type of specificity toward which sound research often aims, the designation of particular types of sounds as noisy or silent (airplanes and crickets, for example) evokes an essentialized account of a sound’s natural effect before the subject or context are understood.


I’d like to begin with a brief and simplified phenomenology of listening, particularly to explore the unresolved fractures at its margins. Many accounts of listening presuppose both the transitory nature of sound as well as the ability of the subject to incorporate sounds meaningfully into a unified experience. From the works of Merleau-Ponty through Schaeffer, Ihde, and Nancy, the phenomenological listener parses and integrates perceptual objects through rational incorporation or inherent processes of embodiment. This reasoning results in an implicit theory of acoustic agency as a distinctly positive aesthetic construction rather than potential negation. A theory of phenomenological excess might be able to describe this process more acutely as well as to complicate it. But what is phenomenological excess? Further, how can we connect such perceptual instabilities in the listening subject to reconfigurations of social acoustic space? 


I propose three basic, strictly abridged phenomenological categories of audition. The first two, affect and symbol, represent stable interpretations of sound: as embodied fulfillment or a denotative reference (a fulfillment in abstraction). Affective and symbolic categories of sound are stable only to the extent that the listener is able to interpret them in one or the other framework, even as they continually cross-reference each other. This does not refer whatsoever to the material characteristics or other objective determiners of the stimulus itself; I am simply referring to phenomenological stability, or the capacity of the subject to unify and maintain a temporary order in perception. To acknowledge a sound as present and yet not significant toward another end is what I refer to as “affective” listening.(3) To say ‘that sound is a bird’ would be a symbolic categorization, for instance. The determination of sound as excessive, on the other hand, holds no such intentional satisfaction. It is here, on the margins of perceptual experience, that the boundaries of intentionality and objective accomplishment are further ambiguated. 


The concepts of noise and silence in this definition of excess become more basic than in their general use, often conceived in terms of undesirable or external determinations. Here, instead, they emerge from the interplay of phenomenological intention and acoustic resonance. Their definitions represent two thresholds of what might be called an intentional listening spectrum. Noise is a liminal state of perception wherein the subject is unable to incorporate sound into a stable experience because the sound exceeds the listener’s expectations.(4) Silence is a reverse condition where the subject expects a sound to be heard but is unable to achieve such a perception (because of various factors including deafness, for instance). Neither concept requires an absolute condition or permanent attribution; indeed, by being defined relative to ever-changing intentions, these thresholds of auditory interpretability are liable to revision at every moment.


I am first acknowledging that sounds are not always fully incorporated into experience because of various perceptual limitations. Furthermore, deriving from the idea of phenomenological thresholds, these indeterminate perceptions become the excessive parameters that then guide acoustic responses and practices. The risk or threat posed to the listener is met with an equal force of revision, both of spatial acoustics and one’s orientation within it. Attempts to control sounds and our dispositions toward them are understood as efforts to negate these excessive experiences; in turn, they become the primary means by which sounds are actively organized subjectively and socially. 


In other words, various acoustic orders, be they aesthetic preferences, sonic-spatial configurations, or auditory habits of awareness, can be traced to a fundamental technique of the listening subject to resolve excessive perceptions into stable categorical objects. While never beyond the threat of excess, which is inherent in the margins of stability itself, these determined categories are nevertheless the bases of identifiable auditory experiences. In fact, within this system, stable phenomenological categories are the only access we have to perceptions as such; in excess, these distinctions merely occur as experiences of indefinable surplus, lack, or multitude. Thus, affects and symbols are the standard approximations by which auditory experience presents itself to us in the body, mind, and word. Excess marks the periphery of this fragile determination.

                                                Music City Excesses:

     Phenomenological Thresholds and Nashville Noise Regulations

(1) Attali, influentially, sees noise as a fundamental force not only in the history of music but as a prophet of subsequent economic orders. “The presence of noise makes sense, makes meaning. It makes possible the creation of a new order on another level of organization, of a new code in another network” (Attali 1985: 33).

(2) This does not contradict the categorizing and thus a generalizing of these subjective experiences, as evidenced in the excellent empirical and theoretical research represented in Sonic Experience (Augoyard, McCartney, Torgue & Paquette 2006). To claim that sound is a subjective phenomenon does not automatically relegate us to a solipsistic auditory epistemology.

(3) The affective category is the most fundamental to experience and yet the most difficult to characterize in theory, since it operates logically prior to abstraction or identification. In its simplest form, it is the assimilation of sound into the body; in Nancy’s terms, this ‘resonance’ is illustrative of a necessary architecture of listening (Nancy & Mandell 2007). As well, Goodman’s excellent foray into ‘affective contagions’ and other audio viruses highlights the manipulation of affection in pre-symbolic spaces (Goodman 2009). For my purposes in this paper, affective listening simply refers to the unqualified experience of listening directly with the body (aural or otherwise) rather than cognitively processing a sound as representative of some other object or event. This is particularly important when differentiating between cultural codes of music and noise, a primary task of this research. For more on this topic, see the 5th chapter of my dissertation (Butera 2010).

(4) My description is similar to D.C. Miller’s observation on noise, especially inasmuch as “the ear” is trained by social and psychological conventions, where “noise is a sound of too short duration or too complex in structure to be analyzed or understood by the ear” (Miller 1916: 22; Kahnn2001: 96).

Michael V. Butera

Acoustic Orders

The “Music City” ordinances I investigate in Nashville, Tennessee carry with them very specific rules regarding what type of sounds should be propagated in the streets and which others are to be limited. The attempt here is to establish, within my terminology, stable acoustic orders. In this example, music is the protagonist with noise and silence as its adversaries. The determining subjects under investigation are not only the individual people on the city streets and in the clubs, but also the institutional frameworks of governance and social policy that regulate such spaces. I am thus claiming that bureaucracies operate with at least a metaphorical phenomeno-logic of perception, processing and attempting to stabilize sounds for the purpose of homeostatic organization. The apparatus of the city listens and responds to the sounds it itself produces. The observable interpretations and behaviors of such governing subjects are the written legislations and enforcements that constantly prescribe our social spaces, changing the way we (might) sound. 


As technologies of power and social phenomenologies of interpretation, such regulation aligns with the distinctions I have proposed between stable and unstable auditions operating within the individual listener. The excesses and responsive orderings on the street provide a fascinating example of how phenomenological thresholds of audition correspond not only to material acoustic practice but also to prescriptions at the legal level. Perhaps most interesting in this example is not that Nashville merely regulates loud sounds, as most cities do to various degrees, but that it is so explicit in its preference for constraining certain sounds and encouraging others to disseminate throughout the local space. Acoustic orders, however temporary, hyper-local, and antagonistic they may be, nevertheless reflect strategic ideologies and sedimentations of cultural practice. They are never total or completely stable, always open to excessive tactical revision. The individual, as auditor and sound producer, finds itself simultaneously absorbing and reappropriating for its own use the fleeting sounds of this dialectical politic. 


When various modes of listening are juxtaposed in practice, we can observe the development of acoustic order as an emergent tension between excesses on both sides. I am pursuing an understanding of acoustic orders as configurations of practices that result in identifiable spatial sounds. By limiting excess, they bring audible sound within the realm of the affective and, especially, the symbolic. Never operating in merely one field or the other, aesthetic codes and practices necessarily reference the personal embodiment of meaningful experience as well as the material conditions of such contingent productions. As well, despite doubts we might have as to the ‘authenticity’ or political motivations behind such cultural determinations, we can nevertheless trace a clear line to the phenomenological experience of individuals as they attempt to make sense of music, art, and other intentional creations. 


To start with phenomenology is to circumvent without neglecting these circumstantial considerations. It provides not only a richer account but also a further ontological justification for a general theory of aesthetics’ existence, especially in musicology (Clifton 1983; Dufrenne 1989). Additionally, these fields benefit from a theory of acoustic order inasmuch as it provides a coherent account between individuals’ internal experience and cultural codes of appropriate activity. If, as I claim, the same organizational and categorical logic applies from phenomenological interpretation to social configuration, pathways of influence and power can be traced consistently from one discipline to the other. 


The definition of acoustics I am using here is quite broad. When the sonic practices and auditory responses of subjects are involved, acoustics extends far beyond its architectural foundations into a dynamic theory of contextualized sound. As such, it can operate as a discursive bridge between otherwise distinct spheres, applying equally to traditional music artifacts (songs, compositions) as to spatial determinations in everyday life (the aesthetics of the living room, for instance). While music as art may often push the boundaries of such appropriate codes, it nevertheless remains stable to the degree that it can be catalogued as an aesthetic object or project at all. Similarly, the individual by attempting to appropriate the private habitat of the home will go to various lengths to control the acoustic environment: through stereos (positive aesthetic construction), entrances (doors and windows as acoustic orifices), insulation and earplugs (negative aesthetic construction), or isolation (proximity as spatial response). 


As Lefebvre proposes, we might study these simultaneous micro/macro patterns as rhythms between multi-layered spaces (Lefebvre 1991; Lefebvre, Elden & Moore 2004). Lefebvre differentiated between three overlapping spaces operating in society. Spatial practice refers to the formation, cohesion, and operation of a specific site. The focus here is on the ways in which individuals, symbols, and institutions are brought together in a functional working manner and what real or “lived” relations are developed therein. The concept of representations of space is a view of the orders and codes of production, what he terms “frontal relations.” In a sense, this steps away from spatial practice to observe dynamics of various forms of capital that have organized labor (taken generally) in particular ways. In order of abstraction, then, we arrive at the third distinction of space: representational spaces. Here, representations are not seen as modifying a particular (material) space but, instead, representation is the space itself. Or, in Deleuzian terms, it is a distinctly virtual construction and operation (Ansell-Pearson 2006).

In Lefebvre’s account, everyday practices and contextual resistances are necessary to consider when we attempt to outline broad social patterns, which includes acoustic orders. Not surprisingly, I read Lefebvre as a phenomenologist of the social. His spatial logic and cultural practices of appropriation align quite well with more traditional phenomenological research on individual perceptual techniques as well as the essential embeddedness of the everyday found in the existentialist phenomenologists (Clucas 2000). Continuing Lefebvre’s project, I argue that public habituations of practice often correspond to the establishment of private and semi-stable perceptions through the reduction of excessive affects. Producers and audiences become agents of new acoustic orders through the temporary sonic appropriation of space. 


Depending on the aesthetic desired by the subject or the excess to be negated, differing acoustic orders are simultaneously developed as tactics of auditory practice. Depending on the listener’s spatial location, these orders will be more or less apparent and effective in defining interpretations. Thus, I am making the case that the determination of a piece of music as music, a genre, or other formulation is analogical to the construction of a particular acoustic environment, be it a personal dwelling or commercial establishment. Orders of aesthetic response and agency pervade these diverse auditory/acoustic customs. The idea of acoustic orders as micro-political operations brings us to de Certeau’s distinction between strategies as appropriated spatial codes (the ordinances, for instance) and tactics as the practices of individuals as they attempt to navigate such regulated spaces (De Certeau et al. 1998). Without abandoning Lefebvre’s tripartite spatiality from which it is drawn (Lefebvre 1991), we see here a further move to illustrate everyday agency at the root of social activities and structures. While there may be condensations and sedimentations of practice in various laws, parameters, or customs, these are always negotiated in practice. No less in acoustic space than the visual, standards of appropriate behavior are made apparent throughout various social regulations intended to establish norms and boundaries.

This picture was taken in front of the Bridgestone Arena, home of Nashville’s hockey team. To the left you’ll notice the sign for the Nashville Convention Center, behind which is the renovated red-brick Ryman Auditorium. Lower Broadway and the honky-tonks extend from here down to 2nd Avenue, where the buildings end to the far right. Looming overhead is the AT&T Building (known locally as the Batman Building), a symbol of communication power and corporate prestige. Notice the group of convention attendees walking across the street, just leaving Legends’ mid-day live music offerings.


Nashville and the Regulation of Excess

The peculiar case of noise regulation in Nashville, Tennessee illustrates these strategies quite clearly. In 2008, two ordinances were passed specifically targeting the central downtown area, famous for its honky-tonk bars, country music tourism, and general nightlife every day of the week. Walking on “Lower Broad” or 2nd Avenue, day or night, is a unique auditory experience even without entering any particular commercial space (see Appendix). Along these streets, you hear two primary types of establishments. The first type, iconic to Nashville’s image as Music City, is the country and bluegrass venue. On each side of the road, bands are stationed onstage, often with their backs to the windows and sidewalk, their music spilling out into this public space. Especially on warmer nights, when the windows and doors are opened, the music can be quite loud outside the venue. Nevertheless, the goal of such extension is to entice spectators into the space to support the business. Since the 1960s, the honky-tonk bars have been cultural markers of Nashville’s reputation; tourist nostalgia supports what remains a contemporary and relevant musical scene even beyond these bars. Often the musicians on this circuit are also the studio performers or artists recording on Music Row, where many of the record labels and recording studios reside. 


The other type of business that often makes itself audible on the street level is the disco or karaoke bar. Some of these are on 2nd Avenue, which is the street perpendicular to Broadway and close to the riverfront, and on other side streets in the vicinity. Playing mostly prerecorded pop-country and dance music, these clubs sometimes have speakers on the outside as well as the inside of the building. In the case of karaoke bars, the prerecorded music is only half of the equation. Amateur singers’ voices, now broadcast into the street, affect the classification of such music as prerecorded (a distinction which will become quite important in a moment). In a nearly identical marketing strategy to the honky-tonks, the karaoke and disco seek to attract the passerby’s attention through an audio invitation. However, these establishments often do not have clear windows on the front; the only indication of what the club offers is through the sign, the speakers, and the bouncer at the door. 


Both socio-economically and in the cultural identity of Nashville, the former are favored and protected explicitly by noise ordinances. I’ll mention two specific examples that are instrumental in illustrating this distinction set in recent legislation. The first ordinance(5), passed in September 2008, added a condition to the existing downtown noise regulation(6) to specify that sounds must not be “plainly audible” at particular distances from its source in a venue, business, motor vehicle, or other location such as a special event. Interestingly, this subjective determination of the audible replaced what was previously an “objective” 55 dBA limit. The shift from objective determiners to subjective approximations could be aligned with the notion that sounds are perceived as such through phenomenological context and not merely as external facts. To be audible is to be attended to and recognized within a system of appropriation, whether that system condones or condemns the specific sound in question. However, as we will see, quantitative measurements are often much more suitable to maintain strategic boundaries than subjective judgments (Bijsterveld 2003). 


This amendment also retained from previous laws the exception for particular permitted establishments in downtown Nashville. Only five months later, another ordinance(7) amended this further to include specific restrictions as to which types of music and therefore which establishments would be regulated. Keep in mind that these regulations are pertaining to specific city blocks of a downtown area, and thus are targeted precisely at certain businesses and their contribution toward the identity that Nashville policy-makers wish to encourage or discourage. Specifically, this updated ordinance resets the decibel as the legal unit of measurement, stating in section B-3 that


All prerecorded music shall be limited to the 85 Decibel limit (A weighted), regardless of the source including, but not limited to: vinyl records, compact disks, digital video disks, digital audio players, hard drives, solid state memory, tape drives, radio sets or television sets. Such sound measurement shall be taken at street level fifty linear feet from the outside wall of the structure within which the noise is produced. Notwithstanding the foregoing, live music is expressly exempt from the 85 Decibel limitation. Live music shall mean that musicians, instruments and singers will not be prerecorded.(8)


This distinction is quite important for determining this urban space according to authoritative strategies. While objective determinations are set in order to restrict some sounds, subjective allowances are maintained in order to allow for (profitable and desirable) exceptions. In this scenario, multiple overlapping agents are contributing in various degrees to the acoustic ordering of the city. This is a noise ordinance; more specifically, an amendment to the “Excessive Noise” section 11.12.070 within the Nashville Metropolitan Code, written by legislators rather than lay citizens or businesses. As such, it prefigures the interpretation of these public sounds toward regulation rather than, say, free sonic expression or overt commercialism. This code restricts certain sounds in public spaces, regardless of the intent (capitalist or aesthetic) of the originator, based on a negative excessive attribution. A classic musical hit within the karaoke bar transforms into noise pollution a few feet into the street, a discursive distinction that becomes clearer as the ordinance is read further. The juxtaposition of even these two very different acoustic orders, fifty feet apart, is a crucial example of how tenuous such regulatory exclusions can be. 


This Nashville situation is much more complex than merely a restriction against particular bars and clubs, however. A slightly longer quote within Section 1 of the ordinance displays the intentions of the legislation more explicitly.


The purpose of this ordinance is to protect and improve the organic, live music product of Nashville, which has made the city synonymous with Music City worldwide, while providing for effective means of communication, consistent with constitutional guarantees. Additionally, the regulation of sounds and noise will have a positive impact on traffic safety, police enforcement and enjoyment of the community.

Music City attracts more than 11 million visitors each year, who collectively spend $4 billion a year. […] The experience downtown is carefully calculated, with venues that promote true live music – in both voice and instrument – purposefully not charging admission and frequently opening doors and windows so that the live sounds can be easily enjoyed by passers-by. [The] downtown district has become a haven for live music enthusiasts and the ambiance of the live performance continues to be an anticipated and expected sound in the area.(9)


A few key elements stand out in this statement. First, we see the direct privileging of the “organic, live music product” of Nashville and the importance that holds for the city’s identity and tax revenue. This product is “carefully calculated,” utilizing various aesthetic standards that are taken to be legitimate (Country, Bluegrass, Oldies) while excluding many others. It is also institutionally specific, favoring licensed venues over individual buskers, for instance. Second, the welcoming accommodation for particular businesses to be sonically projected into the street “so that the live sounds can be easily enjoyed by passers-by” further exhibits the preference for a certain musical and acoustic aesthetics over others. These are live sounds to be enjoyed, not noises to be constrained. Consider this in relation to the following remarks, which target the clubs and bars on other streets.


The Metro Nashville Police Department has a history of calls to bars and clubs that broadcast music/sound using outdoor speakers. The noise levels from the outdoor speakers are a safety issue for Police Officers. These noise levels create hazardous conditions, as the Police have difficulty maintaining public peace and safety […] Due to the levels of music/sound volume from outdoor speakers, the Officers are unable to hear or talk on their radios. Officers are unable to give commands to individuals or crowds as they are unable to yell loud enough to be heard over the speaker volume. Often, the noise is so loud even an Officer’s whistle cannot be heard. Crime victims, fight victims nor the general public are able to communicate with Officers, including hearing, talking or yelling due to the noise level. These occurrences are not rare. The Police Department’s actual number of calls for 2008 to just 3 of the clubs with outdoor speakers are: Buckwild [sp] 131 calls, Faded 115 calls, Fuel 114 calls.(10)


Notice at the beginning of this section the distinct shift in terminology from “live music product” to “music/sound,” immediately interpreted as “noise.” This “broadcast” creates “noise levels” which are explicitly dangerous to police officers and potential public victims. What is on one street the sweet sound of music and tourism dollars is now, on the other, a dangerous weapon that threatens public welfare and safety. To be clear: both projections of sound are considered to be “music” according to the proprietors of these establishments, though only one is deemed worthy of protection under the law. The other is explicitly targeted, even by name (Buck Wild, Faded, Fuel), as problematic and therefore worthy of further regulation. 

Buck Wild, a bar on 2nd Avenue, now focuses on karaoke to lure in patrons from the sidewalk. While there are no apparent outdoor speakers at this time, the indoor speakers are just next to the door, allowing the public to hear the music from the stage quite clearly.


It may be the case that more public complaints and violence do occur in such areas. What concerns me here, however, is the rhetoric by which the legislation seeks to categorize and varyingly restrict certain forms of sonic expressions in the urban public space. The ordering of street acoustics is brought to the fore in this example, though not merely as an arbitrary distinction between musical styles. Local economics, cultural and racial preferences, residential and commercial interests, and histories of aesthetic traditions are just a few of the factors that come to bear upon this issue. I’d like to read this situation through the methodological trajectory I set forth at the start of the article. Though brief, it demonstrates the applicability of the concepts of excess and acoustic orders beyond their preceding hypothetical construction. With Goodman, I am looking not so much at stylistic construction or sheer volume but rather at the “politics of frequency” evident in spatial configurations and institutional reactions to sound.(11)


I am claiming that the Nashville noise ordinances are explicit manifestations of acoustic orders that are otherwise implicitly performed in these spaces already (and despite the regulations themselves). They are not, however, the only acoustic orders operating in that space. The experiences of the individuals who habituate this environment, from the police to the passer-by to the resident upstairs to the owner of the club to the musicians and DJ’s themselves, constitute some of the multiple motivations for regulating such spaces. Yet, from the short list of actors in this description, we can easily see quite contradictory perspectives and abilities to enact change. Who “holds” the power in this milieu is unclear; the fact that various actors are capable of shifting practices and laws necessitates a dynamic understanding of how acoustic orders are negotiated in everyday situations. 


To merely claim that regulations order spaces is uncontroversial, at best; what I am seeking is an explanation for how subjective preferences are transferred from one realm (the listener) to another (the regulation). In a fundamental sense, the theory of phenomenological thresholds and excesses applies throughout this case. Whether in terms of the structure of the law (“plainly audible” or 85 dB as limits) or in the lived experience of residents in the vicinity, contestations of interpretation depend on differences in aesthetic preferences and degrees of tolerance. To interpret the sound emanating from an establishment as beneficial music or harmful noise is to determine the thresholds of appropriate expression; in other words, acoustic orders are essentially property relations and boundaries on various personal, economic, and governmental levels. 


As I mentioned, Lefebvre’s three spaces allow for a particularly rich account of how acoustic orders overlap and entangle (Lefebvre 1991). The activities of individuals in spatial practice as sound producers and auditors cannot be divorced from prescriptions of law, or what he calls representations of space. Not only does the law predetermine which sounds are appropriate, but it favors specific sounds over others in terms of a largely economic benefit to the city and the preservation of a certain cultural reputation. In Nashville, such distinctions are formed by targeting nostalgic references to a place and time now largely bygone. The Old South, the Wild West, and the early days of Rock ‘n’ Roll are caricatured and sold as commodities.(12) The Hard Rock Café, not surprisingly, stands at the intersection of Broadway and 2nd Avenue. Additionally, representational spaces abound in such an environment; the tourist industry is, to a large extent, dependent upon such constructions of meaning and nostalgic significations. To walk along Broadway at night is to constantly inhabit such contradictory acoustic spaces.


What might be most intriguing about this cultural construction is the fact that much of it has only been accomplished in a polished form very recently. I mentioned previously that the honky-tonks started in the 1960s, which is the case for a very few of them. At the time the Grand Ole Opry (initially a platform to sell insurance!)(13) was still running out of the Ryman Auditorium downtown. This was the center of the live music scene and the main live-music attraction; the honky-tonks just around the block played mostly jukeboxes. When Gaylord Entertainment moved the Opry to the center of its theme park, conference center, hotel, and (now) shopping mall just outside the city, Nashville’s downtown nightlife experienced a significant recession. Broadway and 2nd Avenue were rife with dark bars, porn shops, and heightened crime. In the 1980s the streets began to fill with more live music and other attractions, though these were often inaccessible to a general public desiring more polished cultural experiences. It was not until the 1990s that the city and businesses started investing heavily in this area to revitalize it as a commercial district, forming what is now a bustling, loud, and bright arcade. Not surprisingly, the most successful honky-tonks are closest in proximity to the Nashville Convention Center and the sports arena. Thus, the nostalgia felt by the urban audience today refers to a live-musical heritage that is only recently realized as an identifiable commodity product. The homogeneity of the Lower Broad experience offers a predictable and stable experience for locals and visitors alike.


Layla’s and Robert’s Western World are two of the most iconic honky-tonks on Lower Broad. Live music, mostly Country and Rockabilly, is played from the early afternoon well into the night, the floor then filled with dancers. Though many of the neon and signs are relatively new, they evoke a carnivalesque nostalgia favored by the local government.


Furthermore, in terms of phenomenological excess, we should be careful to discern between the various roles that individuals play in these scenes and the auditory habits that define them. The tenant in the apartment above the honky-tonk, for instance, expects a certain type of sound every night: guitars, drums, banjos and harmonic voices, muffled by floorboards and street noises. These venues have been in constant operation for many years and thus provide a stable, expected acoustic order, one that the tenant presumable accepts as normal or even pleasurable. In Jonathan Sterne’s terms, this predictable urban media might be considered a “nonaggressive music deterrent” along the lines of Muzak (Sterne 2005), intended not only for safe commercialism but simultaneously operating as a gentrifying barrier to class integration. The familiarity of these acoustics engenders a safe feeling in the urban space, much like streetlamps provide an aura of protection against violence.


On the other hand, a tenant living above a new nightclub who just installed external speakers on the building now has to cope with an unpredictable ‘intrusion’ into what was hitherto considered private acoustic space. Expectations or, in phenomenological terms, intentions, must change. Though the decibel levels may be the same between the honky-tonk and the club, the effect is apparently quite different (if the laws under analysis are taken as an indication of the local public’s will). The clubs represent an excessive presence in terms of a public aesthetic, even though it is regulated in terms of loudness and only implicitly in terms of style. The preparation of the ordinance states clearly the bias toward the live-music tradition and against pre-recorded entertainment. The letter of the law takes it as a matter of fact that such distinctions are significant and justified.


The proprietors of these establishments, however, have quite different motivations than the apartment dwellers. To be silent is to be bankrupt, literally on the bottom line. If silence is a state of lack relative to intentions, these intentions must be manufactured or produced by way of compensatory noise. To form a desire to hear the music, listeners must first be interrupted from their stable auditory positions as flâneurs or dazed tourists. Both the honky-tonks and the clubs are attempting to be explicitly excessive in order to draw in new customers. If they cannot interrupt the blasé ears of the crowd, no beers will be sold and the system presumably collapses. Again, the law discerns quite differently between their broadcasting styles; the honky-tonk represents a legitimate, even strategic, operation whereas the club must resort to surreptitious tactical moves. In de Certeau’s terms, we can observe the strategies shared between lawmakers and honky-tonk owners as evidence of a certain hierarchical ordering of acoustic practice in the urban space. Nevertheless, such alliances are never completely effective at regulating this space. This is why these laws were introduced recently; a change in acoustic tactics on the street level prompted the adjustment through the agency of residents, the police, and of course the lawmakers as well.


Thus, we can see two primary forms of excess at work simultaneously and in opposition. The silence that the venue owners recognize by keeping the sound indoors causes an acoustic move to be enacted: open the doors and windows, install external speakers, etc. In response, other listening subjects reconfigure their reactions to these various acoustic practices. In the case of the honky-tonks, the sound is received largely as a legitimate feature of downtown Nashville. As such, it remains within the aesthetic sphere between affect (the enjoyment of the sound, for instance) and symbol (music as representative of a nostalgic local identity). In the case of an interpretation of these sounds as noise, however, residents shut doors and windows, call the cops when they feel violated by particular sounds, or move to create laws against the sounds’ propagation in the first place. Of course, these laws are certainly not representative of the desires of all involved; the owners of Buck Wild, Faded, and Fuel, for instance, surely would have preferred a different code. In fact, since this legislation the latter two have gone bankrupt and the former has transitioned into a more mainstream Nashville establishment, albeit with karaoke. These ordinances are not merely evidence that acoustic contestations are significant enough to warrant specific spatial and cultural regulation, but also that such legislation seems to be effective in shaping the commercial soundscape of the city. The maintenance of acoustic order, as the negation of excess, necessarily excludes those outside the strategic mainstream. 



More specifically in terms of musical production, these laws prescribe what form of instrumentation is appropriate through explicit reference to (re)productive technologies. Whereas, “[l]ive music shall mean that musicians, instruments and singers will not be prerecorded,"(14) within which standard acoustic and electric instruments are categorized, it remains unclear what the status of non-traditional instruments would be. Technically, this would exclude any instrument which utilizes samples, including common electronic keyboards. In the case of the DJ turntable, where a reproductive technology is transformed into a productive instrument, this separation between live instrument and recorded music becomes nearly incomprehensible. Nevertheless, according to the ordinance, “vinyl records” are considered prerecorded music rather than an instrument and thus fall within the 85 dB limit. Might there be an inconsistency here, or at least a potential bias in favor of standard musical practice and against innovative or artistic sonic expression, even against styles associated with certain sub-cultural styles and scenes? As various technologies blur the lines between performance and reproduction, becoming embedded in multiple cultural practices, such distinctions may no longer be beneficial or justifiable.

(5)  (“ORDINANCE NO. BL2008-259,” n d)

(6)  (“ORDINANCE NO. BL2006-1138,” n d)

(7)  (“ORDINANCE NO. BL2008-306,” n d)

(8)  (“ORDINANCE NO. BL2008-306,” n d)

(9)  (“ORDINANCE NO. BL2008-306,” n d) §1

(10)  (“ORDINANCE NO. BL2008-306,” n d)

(11)  “Such a method crashes the codes and structures that organize the cultural analysis of sonic and music culture as text, plunging instead into the materiality of sensation, revealing, on the way down, the operations of power that distribute vibration and produce sonic effects” (Goodman 2009: 199-200).

(12) We might compare such commercialization to the various postmodern discourses on Disneyland and other theme parks (Baudrillard 1994; Sorkin 1992; Mitrašinović 2006), though the integration of Nashville’s music scene and heritage into its core economy poses new questions concerning the embeddedness of aesthetics in more commonplace economic strategies. For example, see Taylor’s discussion of the sacred space of Doo-wop nostalgia in Sound Souvenirs (Taylor 2009).

(13)  For an interesting account of the famous show’s origins, see: (Wolfe 1999).

(14)  (“ORDINANCE NO. BL2008-306,” n d) Section B-3

Street Performers and Cultural Coherence

Another significant but marginalized player in this field is the busker or street performer, ubiquitous on Nashville’s sidewalks day and night. In a standard form, these musicians operate outside of traditional capitalist venues in front of which they often stand and sing. Unlike many other cities, however, their styles often align coherently with the commercialized music being sold just a few feet away.  A veteran busker, who has played mandolin in a single spot near the iconic Robert’s Western World for over 10 years, talks about his experience in both nostalgic and hopeful terms:


I do this to continue a tradition. This is Nashville’s heritage and I want to help preserve it. Sure, it doesn’t pay much. It used to. I used to make $10 an hour; now I make more like $3.50 when you really figure it out. But that’s ok if you’re doing what you love... People just don’t care like they used to. You really have to hit them over the head with it to get them to hear it. They just walk and take pictures. They’re not really interested. They just have this cool way of walking and ignoring what’s around them, all this great history. (personal communication, April, 2011)


Outside the realm of capitalist appropriation, the music performed live on the streets is ephemeral and hyper-local. Most of these musicians do not use amplification, relying instead on acoustic instruments and the authenticity they invoke. As unlicensed micro-venues, they remain peripheral to the central strategic struggles I previously outlined. Acoustically competing with electronically amplified establishments is no easy task, as well; the louder the street becomes the less likely the individual is to be heard. As LaBelle describes in his discussion of buskers in London, many have taken to the underground to appropriate that unique space and its echoing presence (LaBelle, 2010). And yet, in Nashville there is no subway; only throngs of tourists on the street level eager to tap into the aura of authentic musicianship. 


This street musician, playing in the early afternoon on Lower Broad, has been performing here for over ten years as a primary profession. He also has CDs for sale from his open mandolin case. 


Nevertheless, for the Nashville busker, such authenticity seems to come at a price: the stage just inside the window. As he stated, the public is decreasingly likely to pay attention to his music, presumably because the venues offer a more legitimate and recognizable experience. As another street musician put it, “We might not be famous or gettin’ rich, but that’s not all that Nashville is about. Or at least it shouldn’t be but, you know… You have to make your own stage here, even on the street” (personal conversation, April, 2011). This tactical appropriation by the otherwise unempowered is generally a welcomed addition to Nashville’s cultural identity. This is not equally the case throughout US cities, however, where musicians must sometimes acquire licenses before being allowed to play publicly.(15)



The disproportionate number of musicians in Nashville makes it difficult for even reputable artists to maintain a career. Street performing offers an opportunity where none other might exist, however quiet and modest it may be.  Finding gaps within the noise of the bars and the silence of the alleyways, they attempt to embody as individuals what the honky-tonks intend to sell as commodities. As long as they stay within a certain acoustic style and volume, they generally go unnoticed by the authorities and the local laws. They remain excessive in relative silence.(16) If anything, their caricatured presence as amateur musicians lends even more credence to the authenticity of the bars behind them, inside of which hits from the past are professionally staged and performed. Rather than an excessive distraction, they become yet another invitation to consume a nostalgic cultural production. 

(15)  As in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where performers must pay $40 and submit a detailed application (“Street Performer Ordinance - Cambridge, MA,” 2011).

(16)  In December, 2010, the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau proposed legislation to restrict personal sound amplification in public spaces downtown. This is intended to silence street preachers and the like, which are seen as a threat to the tourist industry, but the wording of the bill could have significant effects on street musicians as well. These details are still in negotiation (Garrison 2011).


The labeling of Nashville as Music City(17) thus carries with it explicit cultural codes of appropriate acoustic practice. In this example of recent downtown noise regulation, such disciplinary controls are quite apparent. To maintain a particular acoustic order for the sake of cultural capitalism requires boundaries to be defined and enforced, in both cases by eliciting help from the local government and police. The fact that the favored musical styles are nostalgic in this case is somewhat arbitrary, or at least merely contingent upon the specific history of Nashville. What matters here is that a particular style has been chosen above others to be explicitly supported by the state apparatus, securing a stable taxable economy by providing a predictable auditory experience for residents and tourists. This provision is enabled by unambiguous exclusions of certain sonic practices, notably dis-ordered acoustic spaces like karaoke bars, dance clubs, and street corners. Capitalist efficiency yet again finds a home in public aesthetic codes, minimizing excess and maximizing profits. The acoustic order of Music City, at least according to its recent regulation, clearly channels its sonic spaces toward these stable, predictable perceptions. Its excesses, however much they may also contribute to its sustenance, must be kept out of sight, mind, and earshot.



In this paper I have outlined a theory of auditory excess that extends from perceptual phenomenology to the acoustic ordering of sound. I believe that this concept of excess and the techniques by which we attempt to control it are at the root of many of our acoustic activities, guiding not only positive generations of sound but also its exclusions and isolations. Necessarily embedded in social contexts, receiving and habituating sounds in phenomenological and spatial practice, and redetermining future conditions for sounds to occur, the listening subject is always threatened by various auditory and acoustic excesses. Whether on the level of the person as organ-ism, the business as an organization of capital, or the organized city, the tension between stable sounds and those which cannot (yet) be incorporated is more than apparent throughout everyday urban life. Despite the attempts by Music City to codify and legislate this stability, it is constantly negotiated in practice. To resolve auditory excess in acoustic order is a temporary and unstable activity, much like the transience of all sounds, subjects, and spaces. 

(17) For a comparison of this terminology to Austin, Texas’ similar slogan, see: (Porcello 2002).

On Monday, April 25th, 2011, at 8:30pm, I recorded a walk from the Nashville Convention Center on 5th Avenue ( down the north side of lower Broadway, and then left up 2nd Avenue to Commerce Street. The start and end points were chosen because they are both places where music and information about Nashville are continually broadcast from small speakers on a sign and communication utility box. This was a rather quiet night for the area, which enabled me to record the music more clearly than would be possible on a weekend because of street traffic and pedestrians. No additional processing or editing has been done to the track. I have inserted comments on SoundCloud designating particular locations and events that happened along the way.



Ansell-Pearson, K. (2006). “The Reality of the Virtual: Bergson and Deleuze.” MLN 120/5: 1112-1127.


Attali, J. (1985). Noise: The political economy of music (trans. B. Massumi). Manchester: Manchester University Press. 


Augoyard, J. F., McCartney, A., Torgue, H., & Paquette, D. (2006). Sonic experience: a guide to everyday sounds. Montreal: McGill Queens University Press. 


Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. 


Bijsterveld, K. (2003). “The City of Din: Decibels, Noise, and Neighbors in the Netherlands, 1910-1980.” Osiris 18: 173-193.


Bijsterveld, K. (2008). Mechanical sound: technology, culture, and public problems of noise in the twentieth century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 


Brambilla, G., & L. Maffei, (2006). “Responses to noise in urban parks and in rural quiet areas.” Acta Acustica 92/6: 881-886.


Butera, M. (2010). Techniques of Listening and Acoustic Orders (Doctoral dissertation)., Blacksburg, VA: Virginia Tech. 


Cage, J. (1961). Silence: lectures and writings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 


Clifton, T. (1983). Music as heard: a study in applied phenomenology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 


Clucas, S. (2000). “Cultural phenomenology and the everyday.” Critical Quarterly 42/1: 8-34. 


De Certeau, M., L. Giard, P. Mayol and T.J. Tomasik (1998). The practice of everyday life. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

De Coensel, B. and D. Botteldooren (2006). “The quiet rural soundscape and how to characterize it.” Acta Acustica 92/6: 887.


De Visscher, E. (1989). “Thereʼs no such a thing as silence … John Cageʼs poetics of silence.” Journal of New Music Research 18/4: 257-268.


Dufrenne, M. (1989). The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. 


Garrison, J. (2011). “Bill to quiet street preachers warning of the apocalypse could have unintended results.” The City Paper, Nashville. 


Goodman, S. (2009). Sonic Warfare. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 


Ihde, D. (2007). Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound (Vol. 2). Albany, NY: SUNY Press. 


Ising, H. and B. Kruppa (2004). “Health effects caused by noise: evidence in the literature from the past 25 years.” Noise and Health 6/22: 5-13.


Jaworski, A. (1997). Silence: interdisciplinary perspectives. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Press.


Kahn, D. (2001). Noise, water, meat: a history of sound in the arts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Kryter, K. D. (1985). The effects of noise on man. Maryland Heights, MO: Academic Press.


LaBelle, B. (2010). Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life. New York, NY: Continuum.


Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. Hoboken, NJ; Wiley-Blackwell.


Lefebvre, H., S. Elden and |G. Moore (2004). Rhythmanalysis: space, time and everyday life. New York, NY: Continuum.


Losseff, N. and J. Doctor (2007). Silence, music, silent music. London: Ashgate.


Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Phenomenology of Perception. New York, NY: Routledge.


Miller, D. C. (1916). The science of musical sounds. New York, NY: The Macmillan company.


Mitrašinović, M. (2006). Total landscape, theme parks, public space. London: Ashgate.


Nancy, J. L. (2007). Listening (trans. C. Mandell). New York: Fordham University Press.


ORDINANCE NO. BL2006-1138. (n.d.)


ORDINANCE NO. BL2008-259. (n.d.).


ORDINANCE NO. BL2008-306. (n.d.)


Porcello, T. (2002). “Music Mediated as Live in Austin: sound, technology, and recording practice.” City & Society 14/1: 69-86.


Schaeffer, P. (1977). Traité des objets musicaux: essai interdisciplines. Paris: Editions du Seuil.


Schulte-Fortkamp, B. (2002). “The meaning of annoyance in relation to the quality of acoustic environments.” Noise and Health 4/15: 13-18.


Sorkin, M. (1992). Variations on a theme park: the new American city and the end of public space. New York, NY: The Macmillan company.


Stansfeld, S. A. and M. P. Matheson (2003). “Noise pollution: non-auditory effects on health.” British Medical Bulletin 68/1: 243.


Stansfeld, Stephen A. (1992). Noise, noise sensitivity and psychiatric disorder: epidemiological and psychophysiological studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Sterne, J. (2005). “Urban media and the politics of sound space.” Open: Cahier on Art and the Public Domain 9: 6–14.


Street Performer Ordinance - Cambridge, MA. (2011, April 25). City of Cambridge - Arts Council - Permits.


Taylor, T. D. (2009). “Performance and Nostalgia on the Oldies Circuit.” Sound souvenirs: audio technologies, memory and cultural practices (pp. 94-106). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.


Wolfe, C. K. (1999). A good-natured riot: the birth of the Grand Ole Opry. Nashville, TN: Country Music Foundation Press and Vanderbilt University Press.


Wrightson, K. (2000). “An introduction to acoustic ecology.” Soundscape: The journal of acoustic ecology 1/1: 10–13.