A sound space is bound to the individual as a listener and to the state of their auditory surroundings. We are in a complex sonic exchange with our environments, making, muting, altering and auditing sound. The potential conditions and content of what we might be hearing has been undergoing massive changes in recent times: closing in through dense population as well as opening up through virtual means and the availability of private sound devices. This is as true of broad urban sound environments with their encompassing cultural situations as it is of sound spaces in their minutia.
Listening is one of the main perceptual relationships we have to the world around us, with information about space, people, objects and momentary changes flooding in from all directions. Far from being a passive experience, there are many levels of attention with which we attune our ears. We can hone in on sounds that are important, or blend [filter?] others out. This “crucial interface” with the environment, as Barry Truax describes it, is a practice that can be trained, developed and altered according to personal experience (2001: 15). Truax also contends it is a duty of a culture to foster competent auditory attention to our sounding world (2001: 58), that is, training ourselves to listen attentively is a human responsibility. As Jonathan Sterne points out, “sound is a product of the human senses and not a thing in the world apart from humans” (2003: 11). Sound exists because of the listeners who perceive, attend, process and further conceptualize it.
Through his account of recent auditory history, Sterne shows that the practice of listening is itself a medium through which issues of power, control and privilege can be portrayed. While hearing is a physiological construct, listening is a practical and social one and can be framed as a method that carries “a great deal of cultural currency” (2003: 137). It is active not only in the sense of various attendance levels, or the potential of training, but also through the understanding and cultural context brought to the experience. The apprehension of a sound space is influenced by all these elements of audition.
Our Audible Surroundings
Listening is greatly conditioned by the acoustic situation; so how we delineate our audible surroundings also determines what is audited. While soundscape is often used (such as in Michael Bull’s case study of the soundscape of the car) there are a few reasons for using the term sound space to delineate a sonic situation in relation to an individual instead of R. Murray Schafer’s well known coinage.
Soundscape is a foundational term of acoustic ecology, and Schafer’s attention was directed toward the massive changes that our environment had undergone on an acoustic level, primarily as a result of industrialization and technological culture. From the point of view of acoustic ecology, the acoustical changes of the environment are leading to imbalanced soundscapes, which can have stressful, unhealthy effects. Schafer generalized that as we increase our cities and lead ever more round-the-clock lives, our soundscape is increasingly lo-fi, having a low signal to noise ratio (1994: 43).The difference is not purely in volume level: a lo-fi soundscape is characterized by the high density that the overlapping of many sounds create. Characteristic acoustic signals are harder to decipher, and the audible horizon is contracted into an ambience of close presence. The usefulness of Schafer’s concepts is evident in their wide application, such as for technical and scientific research on environmental noise. However, while 'soundscape' is a valuable term for referring to the sonic environment, considering the dynamics of personal auditory experience and the bounds of sonic privacy in the urban common space asks for a different parsing of sonic experience.
The very density of the urban sonic sphere is one reason the term becomes difficult to use. Talking about elements of ‘the soundscape’ when confronted with the wide horizon of a mountain landscape is much more intuitive than talking about the ‘soundscape’ of my apartment building. There are so many overlapping and interspersed pockets of sonic events or possible regions of auditory experience that it seems more appropriate to refer to them as numerous sound spaces than as a collective. The same might be said for when we want to talk about the subjective experience of an individual in an urban setting whose mobility constantly redefines the spatiality of their audible environment.
As Jean Francois Augoyard and Henry Torgue state in Sonic Experience (2006), the term soundscape is “too broad and blurred” to use in every day situations or “at the scale of architectural and urban spaces.” They claim that the focus of acoustic ecology on precision and clarity “discredits a number of everyday urban situations impregnated with blurred and hazy (not to say uproarious) sound environments” (2006: 7). For someone comparing a natural landscape to an urban one, the buzzing ambiance of the city emerges like a background of noise that needs to be filtered away, but for those comparing one urban situation to another, this so-called noise is a given. To take into account physical space as well as the listener’s attitude, Augoyard and Torgue propose the sonic effect, as a new descriptive tool to apply at this level. If I were to apply this term to my own understanding of a sound space, I would say that the sound space is the region in which a sonic effect occurs. In a sense I understand sonic effects to be listener defined, and since listening is subjective then the sound space of a sonic effect is as well.
It is tricky to make qualitative claims about the soundscape of an area in part because two people sharing common geographical space might not share the same sound space at all. Even laying physical differences of hearing ability aside, the two listeners might have entirely individual associations to the various sounds, as well as focus on unique aspects. Secondly, even relative physical proximity can be negated by the use of headphones or earplugs. Simply put, if two people are sitting next to each other on a park bench, and one has headphones on, there will be a definite discrepancy in their auditory experience. Again, it does not exactly seem fitting to say that the soundscape in which the headphone wearer sits is a different one from her or his open-eared neighbor. However, to say that they have separate personal sound spaces does.
The advantage of speaking about the auditory environment in terms of sound spaces is that it focuses more on the interaction of the individual auditor with the space and what that situation sonically affords, rather than expressing a judgment about the quality of the acoustic environment. Objective measurements, such as those of amplitude, are often used in accounting for the quality of soundscapes and acoustic characters of architectural spaces, but from an individual’s perspective, auditory experience can be as varied as aesthetic taste. Using the term personal sound space allows potential for the myriad of auditory identities a space may have for a listener.
Our sound spaces are filled with so many layers of potential sound that what is interesting is not just this content of our sound space but how differently a person might hear it. Many sounds that comprise the ambiance of our sound spaces are types of drones or hums; others are background sounds we choose ourselves, such as the use of television and radio as accompaniment media; and yet others might be acoustic signals, such as sirens, which can belong to the background atmosphere or be picked out and focused on instead. In this case, experience may be a deciding factor in the identity of the sound. An urban resident who lives near a hospital might hear an ambulance siren as simply one of many common background elements, while for a newcomer to this environment each wail might be a striking note of trauma and death. One person’s familiar background sound is another person’s disturbing noise.
Noise is a metamorphic concept that accents the experience of a sound space as much as it is defined through socio-culturally informed attitudes. It is also a thread that ties sound space to personal space due to the fact that it can be an aural experience of intrusion demanding socially normative responses. The word can refer to a broad range of sonic characters, from neutral “sound” to loud clamorous “din,” and can even have visual and social referents. In many cases it tends toward disruptive connotations but exactly what kind of acoustic phenomenon it refers to, and the way it is framed, can be dependent on the auditor as well as the social context and cultural attitudes.
To acoustic ecology, it is a pollution; in an apartment building, it can be a signifier of latent social dynamics; in modern noise abatement legislation, it is distance and amplitude; in political terms it can be violence, as in Attali's articulation, a disturbance that disconnects, and in its own way, kills (1985: 26). There are sonic correlates to signs of respect and disrespect already part of our culture and the politics surrounding noise laws, particularly in urban environments, show that there are threads of freedom, body rights and property interwoven in sound relations.
That much of the discourse of acoustic ecology follows leanings of the broader environmental movements can be heard in the articulation of noise as pollution, an analogy that can be drawn in various ways. Just as we have polluted our air with exhaust fumes or water with factory waste, we are polluting our sonic environment with noise. Its negative effects over longer periods of time are to obscure the characteristic auditory images that define a listener’s relation to their environment. Thus, our own actions and modern industrialization are leading to an imbalanced and damaged [acoustic] environment in which we ourselves will suffer. Articulating noise in this way intimates that it is a humanly caused by-product of industrialization, that it is decidedly negative, dirty, and should be filtered or removed.
Though it may be in some ways intuitive to frame noise as an environmental issue, it enacts a strange effect of distancing noise from the individual, including the individual who might be the source. It is hard to remember that the products we use on a daily basis, food we eat, cars we drive, are root causes of the heavy traffic or industrial sounds that are someone else’s “noise pollution.” Besides the difficulty of conceiving of noise in global community terms, this also seems only to validate as noise those sounds which disturb more than one person, or are more broadly offensive. But there is not just traffic or airplane noise, there can also be the ‘noise’ of an upstairs neighbor rearranging furniture in the middle of the night.
The importance of noise to the discussion of personal sound space is that it can be defined as an auditory intrusion or interruption of a sonic privacy. If it is framed as an issue of persons that emerges from the way people treat each other individually, instead of as a global pollution, more people might realize their own complicity in the “noise” of the common sonic space. When applied to an individual’s sonic experience, instances of noise serve to open the discussion of auditory boundaries. An intrusion requires something to have been intruded on: an individual’s personal sound space.
Because noise is wrapped up in personal and social values, an official complaint of noise can reflect certain cultural attitudes toward sounds and their sources. People have been complaining about (and thereby defining) noise for a long time. For example, according to Schafer, a large amount of noise abatement legislation in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries dealt with the subject of outdoor street music (1994: 66). While today you might face an accordionist in the cramped space of a Berlin subway car, in that time you might have had a musician serenading in the street below your house. Schafer cites a letter from the late eighteen hundreds signed by respected writers of the day which included a plea to end the harassment they were suffering at the hands of street musicians. The claim was that these performers were intentionally targeting the houses of certain intellectuals, who especially required an undisturbed atmosphere, with the goal of coercing those writers into buying-off the musician (1994: 66). In other words, these writers were offered silence as an exchangeable good. This account shows first a recognition that one can intrude on a personal space (and peace of mind) through noise (in this case ‘music’) and second that this personal sound space (of the writer) could be owned or annexed for financial gain.
Sonic Power Dynamics and Violence
An important aspect of noise in the sense of an intrusive sonic event is the way power relations can be expressed through it. Behind such a noise is a person causing it directly or indirectly, someone else perceiving and labeling the sonic effect ‘noise’ and occasionally a conscious use of a sound as noise, a phenomenon that personally affects another individual. Consideration of noise within a culture can be revealing because it is, as Garret Keizer claims, an issue of the “weak”: “as noise affects our bodies, it also affects the body politic” he states, and further, “noise is political because peace and quiet are forms of wealth subject to the laws of supply and demand” (2010: 243-44).The account of what is considered noise, who is making it and who is affected, can be an account of power dynamics on multiple levels.
Connecting noise with power and the politics of control was part of Attali’s account of its role in music, and its interplay with political dynamics. He states that “…noise is violence: it disturbs. To make a noise is to interrupt a transmission, to disconnect, to kill. It is a simulacrum of murder.” (1985: 26). Noise is contextual, defined through a system and the way that system is upset. In this sense, it can retain the abstract meaning of an interference as in the impurities of an audio or even visual transmission. But noise can also be associated with physical pain. Sound is a physical phenomenon and under certain conditions can literally do damage. The subtle violence that noise insinuates can become palpable and destructive through its engagement as a weapon.
Steve Goodman, who in Sonic Warfare follows the (mis)use of sound as violence, cites many forms of acoustic weaponry (such as long range acoustic devices or LRADs) which actualize the potential harmfulness of sound (2010: 21). With a growing use of sonic weapons, this ‘simulacrum of murder’ is realized in the context of genuine bloodshed, being used as an “immaterial weapon of death” (Attali, 1985: 27) in material war. The potency of using sound in an intrusive way is even exemplified by accounts of institutionalized use for manipulation (Greenberg and Dratel, 2005: 568). Even if they are not literally making ears bleed, loud noises or disturbing music can be considered rudimentary non-lethal weapons among other tools of violence and can be combined with forms of inhuman treatment in a way that constitutes torture (Koplow, 2006: 58-59).
Putting aside extreme instances of sound whose ability to harm comes from physical properties, another denominator of sonic violence seems to be control. People exuberantly subject themselves to noisy high volumes all the time. As long as it is their decision, that is one matter. On the other hand, most of us know the frustrating experience of being at the mercy of any sound we wish we could not hear. What changes annoying experiences to intolerable ones is often linked to the inability to do anything about it. If a sound need not be loud in order to be oppressive, then perhaps this hinges rather on its power to infringe on a person’s agency over their sound space. If so, there are countless minor sonic violations that can occur in sound spaces of all kinds, even in that most contracted form of personal sound space which exists within (and is a creation of) our own body.
This is the intimate sound space that Oliver Sacks has studied in his cases of neurological conditions involving music, especially music heard inside the mind. Some of these cases involve the feared catchy tune, the earworm, a translation from the German ‘Ohrwurm’ and an appropriate name for a common auditory pest. Earworms are examples of how even our most intimate sound space, our body, can escape our control or be manipulated from without. According to Sacks, our current auditory surroundings, with its prevalence of catchy tunes, makes us increasingly susceptible to these annoyingly sticky auditory pests (2008: 53). We are in danger of these infectious parasites simply due to the input we might be subjected to almost everywhere and everyday.
Earworms have become a tool for sonic branding as they are engineered to hook onto the ear of their host (i.e. potential customer). Goodman likens them to a viral epidemic that accompanied the colonization of the auditory sphere by modern capitalism (2010: 129). If these can be articulated as weapons of sound, used to catch our attention and infect our minds at the auditory (and psychoauditory) level, then even in the case of earworms, we see a sonic power dynamic. This struggle can move from one taking place between an individual and an outside stimuli to one existing within a mind, various parts of consciousness trying to control others. Struck by an earworm, a person is not even left the choice to plug their own ears. Our authority over our personal sound space is being annexed from the inside out by, as Sacks points out, a ubiquity of institutionalized, commercialized and seemingly innocuous signals and jingles (2008: 53).
A person need not be affected by conventionally intrusive noise to have their personal sound space in some way imposed upon. It is possible for oppressive sonics to come in the guise of a two-second cheery tune. Even this can be a means of compromising an individual’s audio agency. At times, this agency is then ‘returned’ to the individual, offered through the plethora of audio devices that allow for the composition of one’s own sonic world: a return of control over personal sound space. But even these tools exist within a context of social dynamics and are embedded with the preexistent attitudes of their cultural origin. Their creation is informed by the way we perceive the state of our sounding world, our role in it and especially, our needs.