0. Considering Personal Sound Space

From the street musician to the salesmen in the market place, pedestrians, schoolchildren or traffic, our individual experience is conditioned by the audible activities of others as well as the knowledge that we ourselves are audible. We are rarely aware of the extent to which this is the case. This aspect of our life as listeners is a fascinating object of sonic studies, especially as we enter new kinds of auditory spaces and as our potential for control over them diversifies.  

Our auditory interaction in physical or virtual space is subjective and complex. Many recent discussions have turned their attention to this individualized apprehension of the sounding world, including the character of what could be called personal sound space. This is meant to refer to an individual’s auditory experience, which entails not only what a person may be hearing or where they are hearing it, but also the social conditions influencing their apprehension.  It makes allowance for the way interactive situations and overlapping of sound spaces can change the conceptualization of one’s own aural circumstance. 

Some of these cultural studies have focused on the transformation of experience that the ability to personalize an individual sound environment affords, such Michael Bull’s account of personal stereos (2000) and iPod culture (2007), while others have their ear attuned to the sonic geography of sites and the relationship of the aural to urban space, such as Brandon LaBelle in Acoustic Territories (2010). The present consideration of personal sound space emerges from a similar nexus of cultural, historical and social conditions which accounts such as these involve. It is accented by an interest in how much we think of our personal sound space as our own: belonging to us, created by us, or even our property, whether or not it is contained as device or within controlled space. 

A useful way to think of personal sound space is to parse it in terms of sound space, personal space, and personal sound, whose individual uses are carried within the collective concept.  First, a personal sound space can be described as designating the sound space of an individual: the auditory conditions at one moment in time or stretch of time in relation to that person. In this way a (person's) sound space is bound to the listener and characterized by the various elements of their audition.  

Next, it can also indicate a sonic form of personal space which, abstracting beyond a purely aural experience, would be more analogous to an auditory extension of the body or a person’s sonic territory. Linking concepts of private ownership to the sound space of an individual creates an almost paradoxical but intriguing perspective. On the one hand it seems intuitive that we would have a sense of privacy, limits, and defensiveness in response to sonic trespass, however, unlike the walls of a building or surface of the skin, auditory boundaries are as material as a dissipating sound wave. We can feel the walls of a room and measure the edges of a property, but the edges of a space articulated in sound are often elusive. 

Personal sound, in turn, refers to the creative, expressive way that people construct their auditory environment, especially through modern instruments. This (space of) personal sound is linked to the way media and technological innovations have changed not only what a person’s ears have access to but to what extent they offer a new sonic control over a personalized space. This aspect of our personal sound space is especially characterized by the financial power dynamic that enables some people but not others to access means of spatial-acoustic self-determination. 

This parsing of personal sound space is meant to provide a framing of subjective auditory experience that integrates socially informed perceptions of space, boundary and power relations with perceptions of the auditory environment and personal audio technologies. In presenting a preliminary theoretical groundwork, it hopes to provoke further deliberations and empirical research into issues of aural power and privacy as well as cooperative sonic exchange in common space. The privacy of personal sound space is already recognized as a commodity which can be annexed and even licensed by commercial enterprises. Just as much as for other kinds of privilege, people are willing to pay for auditory authority: control over their personal sound space, whether for their preferred noise or silence. This motivates a retreat into fabricated personal sound spaces that can seem justified when labeled as self protection against the intrusive sound of the public arena. However, if public sound spaces as well as private are a communal creation – a sonic commons that is the product of all our activities (O+A 2009: 63) – then it does not seem productive in the long run to retreat into the non-communicative isolation of sonic cocoons. 


There are infinite ways we can attune our ears: choosing to listen with an attitude of entitlement and ownership or instead with sensitivity and a mutual recognition of each others personal sound space. Because of this, it is a responsibility of sonic cultural studies to continue critical examination of our present sonic social dynamics, not only to provide useful framing for our auditory experience but also to identify positive aspects and directions in which to improve shared sound spaces. We are rapidly gaining access to more powerful sound devices and means of affecting [or effect change in] the intimate sonic environment of other individuals. Changes in the sonic environment and forms of habitation demand more innovative ways to conceptualize our aural experience. Combine that with the ever-increasing possibilities for personalized acoustic design, and there has never been a better moment to consider the potential boundaries, uses and rights of personal sound space.

                         The Consideration of Personal Sound Space

          Toward a Practical Perspective on Individualized Auditory                                                                  Experience. 

Elen Flügge

I. Sound Space

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.

II. Personal Space

If sound and noise can be a social issue, and even a means of enacting bodily harm, then the issues that surround personal space should be relevant to auditory culture, and the rules of social dynamics and personal rights transferable to sonic interaction. The boundaries of an individual’s sound space, already subjective because of the diversity of sonic experience, become further conditioned by that individual'ssense of social norms and code of privacy. Anyone may have situations in which they feel their auditory bounds have been overstepped, but a defining factor of our personal sound spaces is what we perceive as intrusive and how we respond to the intrusion or intruder. A sonic intrusion, similar to a overstepping of other personal territory may be experienced as a violation of privacy and conceptualized in terms of ownership of the auditory region surrounding one’s person. In this way a cue is taken from the socio-spatial construct of personal space. Just as invisible boundaries of social distance and personal space can be revealed by the act of coming up against those limits, the same is applied to personal sound space; vague as sonically-based boundaries may be, it is possible to find instances in which they are exposed by being crossed.

(Social) Space and Style

Intrusion, not only in the form of unwanted sound but in the trespass of boundaries of all kinds, is an urban theme for good reason: There are more people sharing the space of this world than ever before and the amount of human networking is immense. “Space” is applied to all manner of areas or extensions both material and ideological: public space, domestic space, transitory space, conceptual space, cyberspace, outer space and so forth. The less space of any kind there is to share, the more it becomes an issue regarding use, value, and ownership.

The first ‘space’ implied in personal sound space is that type of physical extension, i.e. of a body or medium. Sound is vibration though a medium and thus needs extension; in this way sound is a spatial phenomenon.  So in one sense, the space of personal sound space is the aerial-material region extending around an individual. The second kind of space is the socially circumscribed region of personal space, the common name for the culturally influenced, individually determined boundaries of privacy and bodily proprietary rights relevant to an individual within a social setting.  It is an abstract of physical space that is constructed in social space. 

The concepts of personal space and social spheres are bound up in an idea of a spatiality that emerges through a network of communal interaction.  This idea is created through behavior, behavioral products and the relational process itself, while still located within other fields of space. To Henri Lefebvre, who was concerned with the so-called ‘space’ of social practice that includes aspects of other separately apprehended fields, including the physical, geographical, and mental-ideological (2007: 11-12), this space is “not a thing among other things” but rather “subsumes things produced and encompasses their interrelationships in their coexistence and simultaneity” (2007: 73).This space is not nothing, or emptiness, but on the contrary, necessitates something whose extension engenders it. Social space can be expressed as a social product, created through the dynamics of communal behavior (2007: 26).

This description characterizes something dynamic and fluid, instead of set or static.  Indeed, Lefebvre describes three interwoven levels of (social) space: public, private and the mixed or mediating. The last category, mediate, is exemplified by various kinds of transitional areas, passageways and places of exchange. Each of these spaces holds elements of the other levels, so none are ever absolute in their character as one or another category of space (2007: 155-58). 

We use spaces behaviorally in a variety of ways. It is our projection and understanding that to a large extent defines them. If we are going from one end of a street to another and pass through a square which other people use as a meeting point, then the space can be both transitional and public, identified in accordance with our experience. Each person has their own way of delineating space through their own agency as a consumer of the space. As differentiated by De Certeau in his description of the rhetoric of walking: “Style and use both have to do with a ‘way of operating’ (of speaking, walking, etc), but style involves a peculiar processing of the symbolic, while use refers to elements of a code (1988: 100).” What he cites can be described as an individualistic network of comprehension and use of what is afforded to that person, their personal method of consumption, i.e. their style. 


In a world filled with individual methods of consumption (and potential spaces to be consumed) the interweaving of these levels of space is more enmeshed than ever. With a pocket-sized gadget we may decide to engage in intimate communication with almost any one person, or open information to a virtually infinite public over the internet. In a sense, the various social spaces are contracting at the same time as they are multiplying. The space of culture is becoming saturated and increasingly self-absorbed. Through being given greater opportunities to exercise territoriality, our social space is collapsing inward. 

Our use of space determines social space, and in turn, our concept of social space redefines other forms of social interaction and communication, even those consumed in virtual form.  The style of this use of social space can be expressed in territoriality, a determination of property and propriety in many dimensions.  Territoriality is a useful frame of reference for this invisible and variable ‘bubble’ of personal space because it implies boundaries, ownership and the potential for trespass. 

Interpersonal relations are spatial, and freedom of space and personal distance are markers of authority. In discussing such markers of dominance, Nancy M. Henley notes the dynamics which correlate status and spatiality (1977: 28). As she succinctly puts it, “…the social elite is the spatial elite.  Privileged people just plain own more space than the less privileged. And they own it in many ways” (1977: 30). This could be the boss with a larger office, the corporation buying more media space or the famed celebrities given more room on the pages of magazines. To go a step further, if the power dynamics that underlie social spatial politics can be found on the sonic dimension as well, one might rephrase this to say that the social elite is also the sonic elite. 

A colleague of mine related the observation that different volume levels of cell phone rings and conversational privilege in her work place corresponded to the worker’s status.  Her superiors had loud ringtones and had no qualms about taking calls publicly audible to other workers.  Meanwhile, unspoken expectations dictated that my colleague herself have a discrete ringtone and take her calls in the next room. When an intern who recently joined them had a loud ringer volume and held her conversations with a level of publicity that mirrored her superiors, this came off as inappropriate and insensitive. If one can relate this to the ownership of space, it would seem that the intern infringed on the ‘territory’ that her bosses sonically ‘owned.’ It is situations like these with which research into personal sound space could be concerned.

Social Distance, Sonic Behavior

Structures of privilege and a dynamic of ownership can be applied even to areas of privacy around an individual’s body (Henley, 1977: 30). Personal space can be described using zones of intimacy such as those articulated by the sociologist Edward T. Hall in The Hidden Dimension, to which Henley refers in her discussions of social space. These dimensions, split by Hall into intimate distance, personal distance, social distance and public distance, are put in terms of the physical space around a person in regard to various contexts, ranging from touching to a distance of 25 feet (7-8 meters) or more. Each zone is also further split into designations that take into account the relation of the people in those particular contexts. 

To cite one example, Intimate distance is that which one might share with a partner or very close friend, usually in a private setting, as it would be deemed inappropriate in public. It is worth adding that an exception to this is places where it is so crowded (a subway car for example) that intimate distance is unavoidable.  In this case, there are other methods which people use to metaphorically distance themselves from strangers such as by not meeting anyone’s eyes (Henley, 1977: 33). Depending on the nature of an interaction, the identity of the people involved and the character of the physical place, we modify our behavior and spatial position; speaking with a stranger we would maintain a greater distance than when conversing with a friend.  This works in an inverse direction as well: by deciding on a certain level of distance or spatial dynamic, we can change the character of an interaction (Henley, 1977: 33). 

One can contend that the same occurs on the sonic realm, but this is where translating the concepts of social dynamics, personal space and social distance to the sonic level becomes interesting. Take the case of a crowded train, in which we are unable to maintain a respectable distance from strangers and thus try to compensate by other means, such as making sure our bodies do not touch. This might work with certain modes (for example averting gaze), but sonically it is problematic. Simply not looking at a stranger who is sitting in your intimate sphere will not cut out the sound of their breathing (thus a retreat into headphones). There is a degree of antagonism between these different spaces – physical, social, and sonic – that all overlap at one site.

To return a moment to the discussion of sound spaces: These can also be approached from aural architecture (or auditory architecture), which puts in focus the audible components of a constructed environment and the way such design can affect what we hear and how. Authors Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter describe aural architecture as emerging from “the composite of numerous surfaces, objects, and geometries in a complicated environment” which alter the way sound from various sources interact within the space and give it an identifiable aural personality (2007: 2). Related to the idea of a personal sound space, Blesser and Salter discuss an auditory spatial awareness, which is not only an ability to judge dimensional aspects of a space based on acoustical elements but an experience that is “emotional and behavioral” as well. This awareness enables our orientational and navigational abilities, as well as influences our aesthetic response to a space, including the reception of the sounds that occur in that environment.  Even further, they state, this awareness has implications for our social behavior (2007: 12). A basic example would be the way we modulate our voices if we hear that a space tends to echo, or amplify, or mask them. 

Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter also use Hall’s model of social distance in considering the social aspects of experiencing sound. They recognize that spatial boundaries and areas can be perceptual concepts delineated through social factors as well as physical. If you are speaking with a person in a crowded room and are able to concentrate on their voice alone, then this area in which the other person is audible creates an experiential region, a territory whose boundaries are sonically determined. The authors construct a description of the environment in which the acoustic horizon (the distance to which one can perceive a source) of many auditors overlap and enter the acoustic arena (the distance to and around which a source is audible) of countless sonic events.  In this way a form of sonic spatiality emerges. 

From the point of view of aural architecture, the physical construction of a space has the potential to add to or detract from already present experiences of sonic spaces. Cultural norms imply particular ownership rules for the sonic spheres that correspond with the social spheres (such as those described by Hall). Almost any social exchange can include and determine rules for sonic behavior and control; by the tone of someone’s voice, a simple look, or a direct request, people can adjust and influence each other’s behavior in turn. According to Blesser and Salter, in order to be ‘useful’, the character of an acoustic space should align with the socio-cultural norms, namely those that determine appropriate social distance (2007: 34). From the architectural standpoint, it makes sense to consider the quality and character of the sound spaces that might emerge in a new structure. If the proper sound space is not available, then the desired social space is precluded (2007: 35). By virtue of sonic factors, the acting social dynamics of a location can be determined. 

A personal sound space is related to this in that it is such a space whose bounds are constructed in sound and whose dimensions may be determined by the individual as the sonic space which they possess, taking into account their present context as regards the various extra-auditory factors that this implies. This concept is concerned with the point at which emotional ownership, territoriality and possessiveness affect the conceptualization of the surrounding audible environment.  

Property, Ownership and Spatial Authority. 

People occupying a particular sound space will change their social behavior in accordance with the sonic character of that space as well as change the social space through their sonic behavior.  Thus, it seems reasonable that many aspects of social spatial interaction might be shared with personal space in auditory terms.  Just as people show dominance by controlling physical space or position, it seems individuals can play with domination of the sound space. A ‘right’ to take up space might seem to correspond to a ‘right’ to sound, a staking of sonic territory.  


In physical space, territory can be handled like property, with proof of ownership articulated in measurements, physical markers and contractual forms. Though a sound space is not outlined in quite the same way, territoriality is still evident. As mobile people, we migrate on a daily basis in and out of places with various levels of privacy. When we venture out, we release much of our control over what might happen in our vicinity: how people behave, the design of a space and how it might sound. It is not surprising that some of the people who have the least authority over their space are, in other terms, also the most sonically victimized. A classic example is prisoners, punished either by loudness (Keizer, 2010:5) or by silence (LaBelle, 2010: 67-9). If we recognize the sonic experience of those without other forms of authority [autonomy, agency, self-determinacy?] as another example of their loss of privilege, then the opposite becomes true: we recognize having sonic control as a privilege, and one that is desirable as well as marketable.

III. Personal Sound

As far as my experience on the public transportation systems of New York and Berlin goes, no one sits next to a stranger if they can possibly help it. But we hear each other nonetheless: coughing, talking, listening to music, shuffling and digesting. If maintaining social distance despite physical proximity is culturally desirable, the sounds of another person, no matter how spatially removed, are a challenge to this. Common sound space collapses physical separation in a communal auditing. My voice pierces the membrane of the other; their sounds are a part of my intimate sphere.  It is no wonder that in the cramp and clamor of urban life we seek ways to fabricate this distance. There are good reasons why the use of headphones and cell phones proliferates on crowded city trains.  Social distance, territory, and sonic ownership have a history that is wrapped up with techniques of listening and audio technologies.

Personal sound refers to the devices, methods and systems offered to us as accessories, solutions and even necessities of modern life. We can read the materialization of personal sound space in the artifacts of the sound reproduction (as well as sound repression) industry.  These material objects codify preexisting listening attitudes and provide a document in which to read these attitudes as cultural practice. 

For those with the means, there is an increasing possibility to control one’s auditory world. The notion that we can isolate the auditory mode from other senses was a presupposition of early sound reproduction technologies, which then in turn actualized its independent use and manipulation. Today, our houses hold personal stereos, automobiles boast premium sound systems; podcasts and internet radio can be accessed by computer or through the mobile listening devices that are thoroughly integrated into everyday culture. The possibilities for private audition, as well as individualized sonic content, are innumerable.

Isolated Audition and Privatized Sound 

Personal sound in this context is concerned with those devices that mediate our listening habits and with which we control or create our auditory space. The use of some sonic technologies and their role in consolidating prevalent attitudes toward personal space, privatized listening, and auditory control have already been given much consideration. Notably Michael Bull’s qualitative analysis of the use of personal stereos and iPod culture (2000, 2007), as well as Sterne’s genealogy of audile technique and early audio history (2003). 

According to Sterne, the origin of various sonic accessories today is rooted in the early study of audition and attention to ways of listening (2003: 73-77). Many devices emerged as instruments for the development of listening as a technique.  Sterne approaches the conceptual development of modern auditory culture through these tools for listening practice. 

One of the tendencies of modern sound reproduction technologies is allowing for and encouraging the isolation of a listener in his or her own sonic world, a fabricated personal sound space.  Because isolation was a way to optimize listening as a technical skill, this was one important aspect of the development of audile techniques. Sterne shows this through the example of the initiation of the stethoscope as an early device for medical listening (or auscultation) as well as the use of the headset by telegraph workers and radio listeners as a way to functionally and aesthetically improve the experience. A second element of Sterne’s account is the reconfiguration of spatial relations that listening technologies and techniques afforded, as well as their dependency on attitudes of social distance, which aided in the creation of new private auditory spaces.  

To use Sterne’s example of auscultation, listening became instrumentalized by the stethoscope. Developed to improve the accuracy and ease with which a physician attended to a patient’s body, the stethoscope also facilitated [or actualized, embodied] the current social perspectives on distance between doctor and patient, mediating social distinctions by removing the likelihood of direct physical contact that might be deemed inappropriate. It made materially possible the measure of personal space that common social decency expected. In redrawing their auditory space, doctors redefined their physical and social spatial relationships with patients as well (2003: 72). 

Like auscultation, sound telegraphy and later telephony were ways that personal spaces and spatial relationships could be redefined through audio technologies. Hearing a heartbeat at arm's length or the voice of a person many miles away collapses physical distance into the intimate sensation of sound. 

The separation of a listening environment as an aspect of listening practices lead to a reconfiguration of private sound space. In order to realize the ideal of auditory precision, an “individuation of the listener” must occur for the optimization of the technical practice. Thus: “The auditory field produced through technicized listening (whether by convention or by prosthesis) becomes a kind of personal space” (2003: 158). In the case of a headset, seclusion works in both directions. On the inside, the listener is sequestered from the distracting or unwanted ‘noise’ of the exterior space, and on the outside, listeners are isolated from the auditory signal of the headphones. Sound technologies such as the headset also reconfigure sonic propriety, doubly determining who is allowed to listen in, as well as who is kept out (or allowed to remain undisturbed). 

Controlling Commodities

The last aspect of the development of listening practices was the redesignation of this private auditory space, or the content thereof, as a commodity, tethering sound spaces to monetary values and structures of entitlement. Divisible sound space could be bought and sold as an object that people want, or want to access.  The headset with its “sonic equivalent of private property” (Sterne 2003: 159) bore innate cultural attitudes toward personal space, privacy and entitlement and substantiated “a bourgeois form of listening” in which a person “could own their own acoustic spaces through owning the material component of a technique of producing that auditory space” (2003: 159-160). According to Sterne, the reconfiguration of auditory space as a personal, individual experience was actually a “precondition for the commodification of sound” because “commodity exchange presupposes private property” (2003: 155). In order for companies to make a profit on a personal sound device, the idea of a private sound space being ownable had to be already present, and desirable. Though this kind of ownership may bring walkmans and mobile audio devices to mind, the parsing of audible space in terms of property (the personal) as well as propriety (protocol) was established long before. 

Once auditory space is segmented, it can be put in a variety of personal sound ‘packages’ that grant authority or entitlement to various degrees. Just as being proprietor of a physical room delineates a realm of authority, this element of control compounds sonic-spatial property as well.  The wearer of a headset or the people sharing a telephone conversation are privy to a sound space over which they have the say: their fingers on the volume button, the choice of content, and the choice of setting. In this way, the proliferation of auditory devices strengthens our sense of a personal sound space as a territory that is or that ‘should be’ ours to control.

These devices are often presented as providing a return of personal freedom and expressivity. Within the world of a simple square object, a screen and headphones, one is omnipotent. But the widespread use of personal audio devices and their commercialization is ambivalent. Their use can be read as a retreat from a public arena (over which we are losing sonic control) into a sphere of private authority, or else as complicity in a broader auditory oppression. That we are expected to ignore or otherwise accept the sounds around us over which we have (supposedly) no control is an implicit acceptance of the idea of powerlessness in the public arena, a complicity supported by the retreat into the acoustic realm of our own medial creation, i.e. consumption. Put this way, these devices can be revealed as cogs in a machine that acts on the level of the aural, enabling an intrusive auditory burden to encroach on our personal sound space. It coerces us by the offering of a way ‘out’ of the clamor, a supposed solution which often acts on the level of just one sensory mode of one individual, and thus does nothing for the full multi-modal and multi-person scope of the situation.  


Consider the case of noise-cancellation headphones.  These can be read as a culmination of attitudes toward sound and noise. They function through passive and active noise reduction: a material filtering of sound as well as the calculated production of an inverse wave directed at incoming frequencies in order to cancel them out. This means they are most effective for relatively consistent sound: those mechanical drones and hums ubiquitous in urban ambiance. 

Importantly, they operate at the level of the individual.  They do not alter any sound at its source but only the reception of the surrounding sonic environment for one set of ears. They are perfect for the suburbanite who does not want to be disturbed by a neighbor’s leaf blower or the jet setter who wants a quiet flight. The suburbanite is freed from directly criticizing their neighbors’ noise (or use of the leaf blower), and the plane passenger can edit the inconvenient audio out of a convenient transport. Consider what the effect might be for a community if the money invested by developers and consumers in noise-cancellation headphones were instead put toward designing sonically less intrusive machines: quieter lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, washers, drills, etc. (Or if our suburbanite, instead of putting a pair of headphones on, went so far as to talk to his neighbors about how they might work on better sonic habits.) In a sense, although labeled as active noise reduction, noise cancellation headphones are active only for one set of ears, which makes them on the broader scale still a symptomatic (passive) response to sonic intrusion. A noise reduction apparatus for a personal sound space as well as a reduction of a personal sound space by a single apparatus. 

These factors, along with the fact that many pairs of these headphones still count as luxury items, makes them material proof of a sonic-social state of affairs: noise abatement, aural control and rights to personal sonic comfort are desired on the individual basis. Solutions are then limiting, non-communicative, and available according to means. 

Another indicator of our attitude to personal sound space is the automobile: a mobile audio device, a shell, a status object and site for the development of an immersive media experience. It is a consumer object that causes the greatest percent of urban din, while simultaneously offering the perfect autonomous escape from the noise. It is the epitome of the individualization of personal space in the form of property and is interlaced with ideals of individual freedom and expressivity. For a detailed case study see Michael Bull’s account (Bull 2003). Attempts to develop it as a site for immersive sound systems such as wave field synthesis render it a capsule for infinite sonically determined spaces (predicated, of course, on access to other exclusive luxury). 

Further, alongside the process of integrating electric cars on the streets comes a debate over how such cars should sound, how much, and why. As objects, they are exemplary of the themes of personal sound space, because in determining the sonification of a personal instrument, we determine a larger aspect of how our world will sound.  All these issues touched upon - intrusive sounds in the environment, the stress of noise, social issues in regard to the safety of pedestrians and the codification of cultural attitudes in personal sound and on sonifying technologies - meet in the question of the new sound of the electric automobile. 

Sonic Cocooning

Blesser and Salter point out that sound spaces are similar to resources and can be shared or exploited, controlled or wasted.  They describe the desirability of small private acoustic spaces in modern society as “an ethnocentric bias resulting, in part, from advances in technology and changes in social structure, not just from elevated concepts of personal freedom” (2007: 29) and acknowledge that electronic media and communications technology has changed the way people cooperate within shared auditory spaces (2007: 27). With noise cancelling headphones, anti-noise windows, immersive wave field synthesis systems for luxury autos, trends seem to lead to more complex forms of sonic cocooning. It gives the impression that our mutual harmony and peacefulness as a society is predicated on an increasing amount of aural segregation. We make our ears as inaccessible as a face behind a veil. But despite the potential for intrusions, this need not be the case. We should not use a feeling of protection for our personal sound space as an excuse for ignorance or isolation. 

Being given the choice, would we really opt for complete control over our personal sound space?  Such authority would mean the loss of the pleasant aural surprises, the positive intrusions that might cross our private auditory borders. The sonic effects that penetrate this envelope of our personal auditory environment are not necessarily unpleasant or unwelcome.  In fact, we can be provoked by phenomena in our sound space that are inviting and pleasurable. 


In this listener’s opinion, the total authority over an isolated personal sound space would not be more desirable in the long run compared to a personal sound space including the occasional overlap and influence of others. An opened (if vulnerable) awareness and some efforts at auditory etiquette must be more valuable than the use of personal technologies to further parcel private sound worlds in a cycle of sonic cocooning. We need this interchange and even intrusion. We seek it in the public sphere as much as we seek protection in reclusive media. Just as we may change our path in avoidance of unwanted sonic effects, we can turn to follow our ears. Enticed to uncover what would not have entered our field of vision, we can choose to follow the irritations, the everyday siren-songs of the city. 

0. Listen in

The above consideration outlines a definition of personal sound space as a way of conceptualizing the auditory environment of an individual with an emphasis on their conscious participation in a dynamic social exchange within that space. This concerns the individual, their mental and bodily experience with sound as well as their socio-political position as a person with potential aural entitlements. It is written in the hope that exploring the conditions of personal sound space will support useful directions of study in our rapidly changing sonic culture and is intended as preliminary groundwork for the development of more focused research on how sonic behavior functions in common space. Such research, leading toward a theory of sonic social dynamics,  would consider facets of aural experience by forming questions concerning the nature of our personal sound space. Questions such as: what happens when the boundaries of personal sound spaces, like the boundaries of bodily personal space, collide in the public realm? Or, what turns a sound into an intrusion and what factors determine how we respond to it? It looks beyond case studies of insular mobile audio devices by asking how our personal sound space might be influenced when we are not using such devices, in light of the fact that we do have the option to (not) use them.  

The next step would be to design studies which can further clarify these questions and through which we can investigate particular ways people act to influence, change or preserve this personal sound space. Case studies might take a variety of forms, such as interviews with ‘nude-eared’ pedestrians or auditory protocols in particular urban sound environments. A survey of the residents of an apartment building and their sonic experience could lead to a report on the general satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the auditory environment, including impressions of neighbors, which could then lead to focused steps for improving the quality of residents' sound spaces. Combining measurements and characterizations of auditory conditions, including aural architecture and cultural context with first person accounts and self-report would be an important aspect of research into personal sound spaces. 

One use of analyzing sonic social behavior in the public realm would be to identify patterns from which one can create practical guidelines for auditory etiquette. Consider the ways we might benefit from an awareness of our personal sound space and interaction with that of others; simply a wider use of  the concepts may provide individuals a way to articulate feelings of intrusion at certain sounds and identify their role as auditor and as audible. Ideally, it could help initiate awareness of ways that we are in complex auditory interactions and share a sonic commons, with people we do not directly see or touch. 

A further step would be working toward a code of sonic human rights. Research can be focused on how much agency individuals have over ‘their own’ sound world and who or what else holds power over what they may hear or what they may not hear. This could be combined with research done on the health effects of noise as well as qualitative documentation of sonic conditions of public spaces. 

Another practical application of research into personal sound space would be in the area of noise abatement.  Airplane and train noise are common examples of urban disturbances in which companies invest many resourcestoward researching and abatement. While much investigation focuses on amplitude, area of audibility or character of sound, not enough attention is given to the social relationship of people with particular forms of 'noise'. Adding a focus on the individualized apprehension of these sounds could prove productive for both the institutions and the residents of effected areas. Aside from cases in which health is compromised by physical effects of sound, could a train company affect the number of people 'disturbed' by their trains by not just blocking the noise but by influencing the conceptual relationship people have with the sound? Research in this direction could involve surveys and interviews that relate the auditory impressions of individuals effected by train sound with their other living habits and socio-economic status. This could lead to more innovative methods of noise abatement. Would giving unlimited travel passes to residents living in direct proximity to a train line change the way they perceive the sound by influencing their sense of ownership or control over it? 


There are surely limits to the degree to which we can conceptually define our personal sound space (and some amplitude and intrusion cannot be counteracted by wishful thinking) but it is important to investigate where those limits are. The more we can learn about our auditory habits and behavioral responses to sonic conditions, the more we can develop better habits and design products or urban-architectural spaces conducive to attentive, communicative listeners.     


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