Sonification of Social Life

At our upcoming Digital Scholarship Institute, my colleagues and I will explore the theme of alternative argumentation. At our institution, Occidental College, all frosh are required to take an interdisciplinary cultural studies seminar that focuses on honing argumentation skills. Traditionally, the curriculum has focused on text-based argumentation (reading texts and writing about them), but CSP instructors across the college are experimenting with argumentation through sound, video, mapping, timelines, and other data visualizations. Here I want to offer an example of an assignment I’ve done with upper level sociology students that tests the limits of students’ comfort with technology and encourages creative approaches to media.

The Soundscape Project

In my field of sociology, it is unusual for students to feel comfortable creating work in a medium other than text or numbers, despite the fact that cultural sociology is now a dominant sub-field in the discipline. In a Sociology of Music course I taught last summer at the University of Virginia, I created a “soundscape” assignment for students. The assignment involved several steps that were staged over the course of the week (the course met daily for several hours).

  1. Listen to their sonic environments
  2. Record sounds from their everyday lives
  3. Upload their sounds to the social media sites or
  4. Listen to and choose 10 sound files as raw materials for a soundscape composition.
  5. Use Audacity to create a soundscape that reflexively captured something about everyday life.
  6. Write “liner notes” for the composition that explained their process, intentions, and how the experience demonstrated or challenged course concepts from the reading. (In this case, about music and emotion, communities of production, and the social construction of “noise”).

Learning Goals

This assignment had two goals 1) building literacy in music production and sharing technologies and 2) building a vocabulary for talking about sound. I offered the assignment at the beginning of the semester in order to ensure that students could mobilize these skills in their discussion, writing, and analysis through the remainder of the course.

Building Technological Literacy

My first goal was to help students think more critically about music sharing and production through hands-on engagement with music making technologies. Despite the myths about digital natives, students are not all that confident using applications that require them to produce (rather than consume) media.

Building Music/Sound Literacy

In a sociology course, students are also wary of talking about music. It’s a cliché to say that it’s impossible to write about music – music can’t be completely explained by rational analysis. Nonetheless, there is a very specialized vocabulary for music and music theory. Most non-music majors know they do not know this language, and therefore feel that it’s impossible for them to talk about music. The result is often a barrier to sociological discussion, as students will speak of music in non-reflexive, stereotypical terms (e.g., “country music is for rednecks, so I don’t like it”) or will insist that music is too sacred to be analyzed (e.g., “this music just makes me feel so alive” but become defensive if asked to consider why the music has that effect).

Process & Technical Considerations

Prior to the first step of the assignment – listening – I introduced them to composers Pauline Oliveros and John Cage. During that first week we also read and discussed Tia DeNora’s Music in Everyday Life, Jonathan Sterne’s Listening to the Mall of America, and Howard Becker’s Art Worlds, each of which start from a micro perspective on music in social interaction. Students could then choose from these readings whether they wanted to explore issues of music and emotion (DeNora), music and space (Sterne), or the social interactions involved in creating a piece of music (Becker).

After listening, students accomplished the next step of the assignment by using their phones, laptops, or devices they could borrow from the library to record some of the most interesting sounds they encountered in their daily activities. They then uploaded these files to accounts they created on (a field recording sharing community) or (a music sharing community). Most students were able to figure out on their own how to record and upload sounds, or were able to get help from a peer in the class or from me after class. Freesound and Soundcloud, while unfamiliar to the students, were similar enough to other social media sites like MySpace or Facebook that students were able on their own to create an account, add media, and listen to media.

In preparation for the soundscape composition, students were then asked to listen to their own recordings, the recordings of their peers, and recordings from Freesound or Soundcloud and choose 10 files as raw materials for their compositions.

Audacity Sound Editing Software

In the next class meeting, I posed the initial composition as a game, creating a time limit of 50 minutes. The time pressure, while stressful, was motivating and students furiously set to work on their own laptops with headphones. They were allowed to use any sound editing program they chose and I suggested Audacity, a free open-source sound-editing program, for beginners. I briefly demonstrated how to import files, cut and paste, and pointed out the various menu options. While one student chose to use Garage Band (a basic sound editing program that comes pre-installed on Macs), the rest learned Audacity in the 50 minutes they took to compose their soundscape.

The biggest challenge for students in this final stage was overcoming their anxieties about using a new program and editing sound. However, most soon realized that editing sound in Audacity was not so different technically than using a word processer. Audacity shows the user a visual representation of the sound waves of each file and allows the user to chose items from drop down menus to “format” or manipulate the wave or portions thereof. Users can also “cut” and “paste” files or portions of files by selecting the visual representation of the sound wave.

Once the time was up, I let students know, to a sigh of relief, they could continue editing their compositions at home prior to the final stage of the assignment, where they would produce their liner notes:

Continue editing the soundscape piece you created in class. Write some succinct but poignant liner notes about the piece. In the liner notes, describe either the process/people that went into it, its symbolic significance to you, or what you hope listeners will experience. Post the piece and your liner notes to the class blog.

Students then volunteered to share and discuss their compositions in the next class meeting.

Outcomes and Lessons Learned

Because the students were not familiar with creating soundscapes and musical proficiency was not a part of the requirements or learning goals of the course, I did not grade their compositional abilities but focused instead on the ways students, in their liner notes, were able to explain their process (why they chose the sounds they did and how the experience of listening, recording, sharing and composing offered insight into the key concepts, such as art worlds, music in the construction of identity, noise/music).

Grading Criteria for Weekly Mini-Projects

  • Project competently follows the instructions for completing a) the background work required b) the writing c) submission
  • Writing is clear, well organized, and analytically sound
  • Projects reflect engagement with course readings
  • Projects reflect engagement with course lectures, discussions and/or activities
  • Projects are on time

A range – project competently meets all requirements with a distinctive depth of analysis
B range – project competently meets all requirements
C range – project competently meets most but not all requirements
D range – project competently meets only a few requirements
F – project fails to meet requirements

About half of the class was able to do more than competently meet the requirements of the assignment. Most of those who had clear ways of explaining the process were also able to organize sounds into a meaningful or interesting arrangement, evincing forethought and engagement with the course concepts. The very best projects were those where students had worked out a thesis for their liner notes prior to composing the soundscape, allowing them to work iteratively between sound and text.

Sociology of Music Blog
Students Post Projects on the Course Blog

Students who did not have a clear conceptual direction from the start of the project could sometimes produce interesting soundscapes, but had difficulty connecting the process back to course concepts. Just under half of the students struggled to make these deeper connections. Of these students, some struggled with all assignments, but others had scored poorly because they had become so invested in the process of composing that they did not have sufficient time to compose well thought out liner notes. In this latter case, I regretted not placing at least some emphasis in the grade on the composition itself. However, I have yet to clarify how I would include such assessment in my rubric.

In future iterations of the assignment, I plan to build in a stage where students must explicitly work out their project concept or thesis statement and where I offer them feedback on how to strengthen that thesis and realize it in their composition.

While I did not conduct a formal assessment of this assignment beyond grades, I found in observation of class discussion that the assignment allowed a point of entry for students who may have otherwise been hesitant to discuss musical qualities and the range of possible meanings. Non-music students were able to discuss rhythm, timbre, pitch, and production in layman’s terms that were specific. They also expressed more confidence in analyzing music related social media and more curiosity about the technologies used to produce music.


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