Sound and Violence


In his work on the relationship between sonority and violence in the context of the Iraq War, Martin Daughtry (2014) highlights that sounds have size, weight, and directionality, and therefore occupy space. Their size is equivalent to the area where one can hear them – and in this sense acoustic vibrations are often much larger than their sources. Additionally, they vary over time as they arise and fade. Their weight corresponds to the tactile sensations that the vibrations produce in the hearing bodies. While a single person’s voice may not noticeably impact the skin, a crowd roaring the same slogan or very low and loud sounds often will. In these scenarios, the mechanical nature of the audible world – as sound is the movement of a body that resonates in another – becomes clear. Finally, directionality refers to the direction in which sound moves. Acoustic vibrations can be quite directional, directly targeting a listener who hears them clearly. On the other hand, they also turn back to their source, which gives all sounds a certain omnidirectionality.


Such properties of the audible world are accentuated by extreme sounds, that is, the ones that convey high levels of intensity, that have extremely low or high frequencies, that have very mechanical or syncopated rhythms, that are very slow or fast pacing, etc. In situations of hyperstimulation, sound’s character as force exceeds its workings as a semiotic sign: vibrations, thus, act directly on bodies rather than refer to their source or the cultural codes they usually are associated with. In other words, the listener’s ability to interpret sounds or create narratives from what they hear – their cognition – is overpowered by the drastic overwhelming physical or material aspects of the sonic, by being affected. In Daughtry’s words, such extreme conditions “point to the fact that the semantic richness of sound – sound’s intelligible, interpretable dimension – can at times be compromised, if not eradicated, by its overwhelming material presence” (2014: 31-32).


In this article we aim to expand further on the violent implications of sound in contemporary urban everyday life. We present a body of research within the scope of the Ateliê de Sonoridades Urbanas (Urban Sonorities Atelier) research group, which is coordinated by both authors. In the quest to understand the relations between sound and territoriality, our inquiries share a common perspective: understanding sonic vibrations as mediators employed by city dwellers in the dynamic process of disputing and occupying space – streets, sidewalks, squares, neighborhoods, and so on. Cultural and social processes, as we will argue, are often violent, as they imply opposition to and resistance of other agents.


In order to discuss the issues outlined here, we listen to three social phenomena: the “Holy War” between Brazilian Black Catholicism and segments of neo-Pentecostal religions (territorial battles that take place during the festivals of Brazilian popular religiosity); daily urban sounds; and political demonstrations and protests in the public space (intensely confronting sounds that produce what we call sonic trenches). We intend to observe how various sonic materials are manipulated by their users in order to occupy space and, then, affect those in their range by causing them to vibrate at the same frequency, by means of which they can reject enemies or are not affected by the attacks of other agents. We investigate the varied social and cultural dynamics of sonic violence – in which different bodies try to force other bodies into a correlating resonance – and how they take place. Such sonic impact on bodies is often irresistible: although listening and the body can be trained to react differently or resist such seduction, we are at all times, and inescapably, subject to a vibrational field that constantly forces our bodies to move in sympathy. This viewpoint corroborates with that of Tim Ingold (2007), who states that we do not listen to sounds but hear in sounds, since they are not the object but the means of auditory perception. The immersive aspect of this sense takes over, which not only highlights the importance of listening in the attribution of meaning to places but, above all, shows how this production of meaning involves a tuning in to resonances, reverberations, and echoes that resonate in a space at a somatic – either individual or collective – level (Helmreich 2007). Hence, “Place confinement, in short, is a form of deafness” (Ingold 2007: 12), as in order not to be dragged along by the sound mass displaced by an intensely affective sound, it is necessary to find an anchor, to make some effort to remain still. Therefore, an intimate connection between bodies and the environments in which they are immersed is reinforced through bodily techniques that allow agents to cling or resist such synchronization. These affective dynamics of sound permeate the embodied memory of individuals, affording the possibility, for example, of triggering a trauma related to past experiences. Accordingly, we agree with Daughtry that “Sound colonizes acoustic territories, including the resonant territory of the body” (2014: 33).


With the aim of better understanding how sonic features are entangled with social and cultural practices, we use the term sonority. This term encompasses sound in its material and sensible aspects as well as interconnected with its social and technical dynamics. It designates acoustic vibrations as an event by relating a certain audible sensation produced in the performance of an agent to its aesthetic and cultural moves, eliciting the technologies employed, not to mention the affectivities resulting from such dynamics. Sonority is a conceptual and methodological tool for answering a set of issues related to the following question: in what ways are certain sounds used as devices for producing certain sensible effects by means of which a social structure functions? In these processes, the acoustic materiality of sounds is central for three main reasons. First, they are extremely sensuous, meaning that drastic, somatic, and haptic aspects of sound overshadow its symbolic and cognitive dimensions. Second, the divergent forms of modulating sound material delimit diverse identities that may or may not enter into conflict with each other. Third, it is in the interaction between such divergent sounds that one can grasp the ways in which they clash, argue against, or agree. Such technical, cultural, and social dynamics have a political character, as they mark dissent among rival groups as well as disputes over the constitution of physical and symbolic boundaries between distinct territories while concurrently activating agents who were previously invisible or alienated/subalternate/unequally inserted in decision-making institutions (Rancière 1996). Agents occupy urban spaces through voice, music, and other noises, thus establishing their presences in public places.



In addition to addressing the premise that violent situations demand a certain tactical deafness if one wishes to conserve psychological health in aggressive contexts (Daughtry 2015: 80), this paper aims to think through an ethical sounding that might periodically include a dimension of a revolutionary – and therefore legitimate – violence, that is, one which displays a correspondence between the forms and amplitudes of violent acts and the oppressions and asymmetries against which they are directed (Hardt and Negri 2009).