Designing Our Sonic Lives

                                                                Vincent Meelberg and Elif Őzcan

Long ago, the mice held a council to discuss how to outwit their common enemy, the Cat. The mice knew that the Cat was sly and that she always approached them quietly, and they were frightened by these sudden encounters. After long discussions, one young and enthusiastic mouse raised his hand and proposed: “All we need is a sign that the Cat is around,” and continued, “Let’s fasten a bell round the neck of the Cat. This way, we’ll be warned by the jingling sound and have enough time to reach our holes before the Cat reaches us.” This proposal was met with cheers, until an old skeptical mouse asked, “But, who is to bell the Cat?”


In this old fable, Aesop tells a story about impossible solutions by presenting an obvious case for sound design with a cat bell. Belling the cat is considered a problematic idea from the perspective of the old and conservative mouse. But is it really that problematic? The young mouse knows something about sound and its function. He realizes what effect sound can have on the mice and comes up with a proactive solution. What he does not know is how to put the bell on the cat. More precisely, the young mouse has a concept for a warning sound but lacks the knowledge to materialize his concept and implement it as a complete product, i.e., a bell attached to a ribbon, placed around the neck of the cat. 


What has changed since the time of Aesop in terms of sound design? Aesop describes a bell that is intentionally designed to produce a sound, a warning sound that signifies a cat and therefore is associated with danger. Hearing the bell sound is meant to elicit emotions, such as fear, and is supposed to provoke certain behavior, such as flight. Our responses to sonic objects have remained the same over the years except that our modern world is increasingly populated with objects that emanate sounds. These objects, such as an alarm clock, telephone, or microwave oven, not only intentionally produce sounds but also consequentially, as is the case with cars, coffee makers, beds, switches, hairdryers, wooden floors, elevators, and so on. All these products emit sounds when we physically interact with them. Their primary function, however, is not to produce sound; sound is just a by-product. Yet, contemporary human sensibility desires that the by-product is also designed.


“Design” is a word that implies intention. Something that is designed is intended to have a particular form and/or function. According to Paul Ralph and Yair Wand (Ralph and Wand 2009), design is a specification of an object (for instance the sound of a traffic light for pedestrians), manifested by some agent (in this case the sound designer). This object is intended to accomplish goals (to signal whether or not pedestrians are allowed to cross the street) in a particular environment (outside, in a noisy environment). The design uses a set of primitive components (timbre, dynamics, rhythm, pitch), is supposed to satisfy a set of requirements (the signal needs to be clearly audible, alert the pedestrian, but need not be too alarming), and is subject to some constraints (cost, maximum loudness, must not interfere with other sonic signals). In short: the act of designing entails thinking through what the design is supposed to do, in which settings the design is supposed to function, and what the possible limitations are. 

Many sounds in our daily lives are designed in this way. Imagine hearing a Nespresso coffee maker preparing a cappuccino. This sound is familiar, the kind of sound one would expect a traditional coffee machine to make, elicits all kinds of pleasant associations, and enhances one’s desire for a good cup of coffee. Its sound, however, is not solely the result of the mechanical processes that are necessary for preparing this hot beverage. Instead, the sound is tweaked in order to make it sound more pleasant. The functioning of the device would sound different from what we would expect a coffee machine to sound like. The sound the Nespresso coffee maker actually produces appears to be designed to evoke particular associations and feelings related to coffee and works as a metaphor for pleasant experiences.

Sound in our daily lives is, for example, used to demarcate places, to invite people, or to exclude certain individuals. Also, sound can influence people’s mental state, to calm them, to excite them, to convince them to stay longer and spend more, or to warn them. Sound is omnipresent and invites design; designers respond to this challenge and even embrace it. So, something now operates differently than in Aesop’s time. This special issue shows that there are more enthusiastic mice who are less skeptical. Sound design practitioners (both researchers and designers) have started to cover a wide range of topics and domains within sound design. Sound design can be found in Intensive Care Units, in our kitchens and on the street; it can be taught and learned. Games, animated and non-animated movies have designed sounds. Sound designers discuss their challenges; researchers explore them. The designed sounds can be poetic and real, aesthetic and functional, synthetic or tweaked, musical or mechanical. Sound permeates the visual world, just as the visual pervades the sonic. Their relationship is sometimes complimentary and sometimes inhibitory. And, sound design is multidisciplinary. The contributions in our special issue show this diversity.


In their paper “Alarming Atmospheres: Embodied Sound Habituation as Design Strategy in a Neuro-Intensive Care Unit,” Marie Højlund and Sofie Kinch discuss strategies to help children get accustomed to hospital sounds, which can often be quite alarming and disturbing to them. These sounds need to be alarming, since they have a crucial signaling function for the hospital staff. Consequently, the sonic environment created by these sounds is informative for the staff, but may be unsettling for visitors, especially children. Højlund and Kinch explore the possibilities of helping children to focus on meeting their relatives in the ward, directing the alarming sounds into the background of attention. The authors suggest a strategy in which children are given the opportunity to not only listen to sounds extracted from a chaotic soundscape, but also to rhythmize them through embodied gestures, to be able to synchronize them with their own rhythms. In this way, the authors assert, the children can habituate the sounds and direct them to a background listening when faced with more important tasks. Following this strategy, a piece of interactive furniture called Kidkit is used, an object that is able to project sounds, to be moved, and to take on different shapes. As a result, Kidkit creates an interactive (sonic) environment in which a child can learn to cope with alarming, disturbing sounds or maybe even ignore them in order to focus on the encounter with their relatives.


Apart from the impact sonic environments can have on listeners, this paper points out another important aspect of sound and sound design: the fact that sounds may stimulate interaction. Human beings are programmed to respond to sound. If we hear a sound, we almost always feel the urge to look for its source. This is one of the reasons why sound is so effective as a signal. It immediately triggers our attention, because sound represents an event, a happening that might be of interest to us. The reassuring bell sound of my microwave indicates that the food I put in it has been properly heated and that I am supposed to get it out of the microwave. The clicking sounds my smartphone produces when typing on its virtual keyboard give the impression that I am actually pressing physical keys, which help me in typing more accurately. In short, sounds enable the embodied interaction - which Paul Dourish defines as interaction with objects that occupy our physical and social world (Dourish 2001) - between human subjects and nonhuman devices.


In “From Foley to Function: A Pedagogical Approach to Sound Design for Novel Interactions,” Daniel Hug and Moritz Kemper propose a new way to teach design students how to create new sounds that stimulate interaction.  The authors intend to encourage design students to produce what they call “sounds for tomorrow” in an explorative way. Hug and Kemper stress the need to counter the tendency toward scripting interaction sequences early on by emphasizing an open dialogical exploration through what they call “ad-hoc improvisation,” which also stays open to changes in aesthetic directions. Furthermore, the authors stress the need to appreciate “quick’n’dirty” low-tech solutions to avoid a technical bias and the resulting impact on aesthetic and conceptual decisions. Technique should follow the intended function of sound, not the other way around. In this way, an approach to sonic interaction pedagogics that is guided by sound, instead of a technologically-led methodology, is realized.


Karen Collins and Bill Kapralos address a similar issue. According to these authors, a solid education of sound design for designers is sorely needed. In their contribution, entitled “Sound Design for Media: Introducing Students to Sound,” the authors maintain that, despite the importance of sound within multimedia applications and the fact that digital art, video games, film, branding, and product design today all require some understanding of the sonic realm, art and design, students often complete their degrees without following a single class related to sound and its perception. In their paper, Collins and Kapralos introduce several exercises undertaken in interdisciplinary sound design courses taught to undergraduate designers, artists, and game developers with the aim of illustrating a so-called scaffolding approach to teaching about sound. These exercises, the authors claim, help to aid in the future development of creative sound designers.


And our culture does need creative sound designers. Not only to create the sonic environments we inhabit or to create coffee machines that are also pleasant to the ear, but because sound design is a crucial element in virtual experiences such as games and cinema as well. The veracity and/or power of the pseudo-environments created within these media can be greatly enhanced through an appropriate design of the events that can be heard. Creative sound design can add extra layers of expression and signification to a movie, especially because movies present us the possibilities of a poetic world and lure us into lives that belong to others.


In “The Sonic Lifeworld: A Phenomenological Exploration of the Imaginative Potential of Animation Sound,” James Batcho explores the creative possibilities of sound design in animation. He observes that the wonder of animation lies in its ability to create entirely new worlds that exist only in the imagination. Much care is taken to render the appearance of these worlds in great detail, and Batcho maintains that equal attention should be given to the design of animation sound. More specifically, he argues for new ways of thinking about how sound might move beyond this strict adherence to the visual by going beyond the rational. In his view, sound design should be conceived phenomenologically, as a mode of disclosure and nondisclosure to the consciousness of the characters that are presented in animation. In this way, Batcho maintains, sound can foreground the individual relationship of the characters’ self within the lifeworld depicted in animation that comprises existence and experience.


While Batcho’s suggestions demonstrate the potentiality of sound design in cinema, Isabelle Delmotte explains that sound designers for cinema often do not have the freedom to do whatever they think is best for the movie. In “Tuned In and Hands On: Sound Designers Beyond Technical Expertise,” Delmotte interviews several Australian movie sound designers in order to explore the manners in which viscerality and affect function as creative elements of film production. In her paper she focuses on the potential conflicts between the interests of the director, sound designer, and producers. Sound designers, Delmotte suggests, aim to move audiences, but at the same time need to respond to the ideas, and sensations, of directors. As a result, Delmotte concludes, the possibilities of cinema to affect the audience through sound are diminished.


And indeed, sound is capable of affecting human subjects and eliciting emotions, perhaps even more so than many visual objects. That is why so much care and energy is invested in the design of the sounds of products. BMW, for instance, has designed the doors of its cars in such a way that they make a particular sound when they are closed, a sound that conveys solidity, safety, and quality to the driver of that car. Consequently, this sound is not produced as a result of the mechanical processes that are necessary for a correct functioning of the door. Instead, it is designed and added in order to enhance the aesthetic and affective experience of operating the car door. Designing the sound of a product is not an obvious choice in the field of product development. A properly designed sound, however, has the potentiality to increase the affective value of the product in the eyes/ears of the users. 

Elif Özcan, in her contribution entitled “The Harley Effect: Internal and external factors that facilitate positive experiences with product sounds,” also acknowledges that sonic experiences often are affective. She discusses the paradox that some sounds, which should elicit negative responses, are nevertheless experienced as pleasant because of the positive connotations the products evoke as well as the implications for sound design this paradox might entail. As a case study she discusses the sound of a Harley Davidson motorcycle, a sound that, as it is loud and harsh, should be very unpleasant for the average listener, but is actually generally regarded, nonetheless, as beautiful because of the connotations associated with this sound. This case study, Özcan suggests, could be taken as an example of how to successfully design sounds for products and of how to rethink sound design by not only paying attention to the sound qualities “in themselves”.


Yet, despite the effort sound designers put into designing sounds for products, cinema, or environments, the way these sounds are interpreted by listeners is not always how the designer(s) intended it to be. In “Using Participatory Visualisation of Soundscapes to Compare Designers’ and Listeners’ Experiences of Sound Designs,” Iain McGregor, Phil Turner, and David Benyon address this issue. The authors present a practical method for evaluating the design of the auditory components of interactive technologies and media. This method, the authors explain, involves eliciting the auditory experiences of users of these technologies and media and comparing them with what the sound designers had intended. With this method the authors hope to enable sound designers to better evaluate their designs with their listeners.


This issue of the Journal of Sonic Studies celebrates the work of young and enthusiastic mice that are belling the cat right now. Discussions will continue as our sonic environments evolve, and there will be future councils to discuss how to bell other cats and how to convince skeptical mice. We will all be on the lookout for new tales.    


Now, push the button of your coffee maker and enjoy (listening to) your coffee.


Dourish, Paul (2001). Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. Cambridge: MIT Press.


Ralph, Paul and Yair Wand (2009). "A Proposal for a Formal Definition of the Design Concept." In Kathy Lyytinen, Pericles Loucopoulos, John Mylopoulos, and Bill Robinson (eds.), Design Requirements Engineering: A Ten-Year Perspective (pp. 103-136). Berlin: Springer.

VideoObject 1: The sound of a traffic light for pedestrians

VideoObject 2: The sound of a Nespresso coffee maker

VideoObject 3: BMW sound design