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  • Foregrounding Sound: New (and Old) Directions in Sound Studies
  • Michele Hilmes (bio)

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Nominating “sound studies” as a field of scholarship does several interesting, yet potentially controversial, things. It can imply a move toward fragmentation—breaking into established fields like music, film, and television study and positing yet another cultish research niche, taking away from a more integrated focus on sound as part of a medium-centered totality. Some have accused visual culture studies of doing this, of poaching on parts of barely established fields and rearticulating them to more accepted areas of study such as the visual arts and material culture, doing considerable violence along the way to the modes in which visual expression is actually produced and experienced.1

Yet, as visual culture scholars have argued, such tactics can also draw parallels and establish continuities between disciplines separated more by historic accident than logical coherence, and reach out to embrace fields that might not have been even considered under the old paradigms. I believe sound studies holds much promise along these lines. If any one characteristic marks the field currently referred to as media studies—or cinema and media studies—it is the convergence of sound and screen, across institutions, venues, texts, forms, and reception situations. While most sound scholars would agree that the visual, screen-based aspects of contemporary media have received the bulk of academic and cultural attention, not even the most adamant visualist would argue that sound in all its aspects has not played an equally important, though less studied, role in media expression and production, even during the days of silent film.

The essays in this section span a wide spectrum of sound-based work, though they do not encompass all the approaches that can be brought to the study of sound in cultural expression and everyday life. For instance, a vibrant field has grown up around the study of “soundscapes,” or acoustic ecology, in the past twenty years, [End Page 115] building on the theories of R. Murray Schafer and reflected in contemporary anthologies like Michael Bull and Les Back’s The Auditory Culture Reader.2 The “World Soundscape Project,” inspired by Schafer’s work, collects sounds from around the world and compiles them in geography-based sound files.3 This work has obvious application to media-centered approaches and could bring greater depth to that relatively untouched third dimension of the classic sound taxonomy: music, voice, and sound effects. A field of historical work has also arisen that attempts to recover and represent sound as it existed at various points in history, and to reproduce historical soundscapes.

Running along history of science and technology lines through the fertile fields of American cultural history, another strand has produced work such as Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity and Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past, examining listening practices and applied acoustics in American cultural life as they intersect with the development of technology, emergent practices of modernity, and social structures and hierarchies of the twentieth century.4

However, the two largest bodies of work on sound come from musicology, particularly its ethnomusicology and popular music branches, and film study, where the analysis of film music predominates over investigations of voice or dialogue.5 When Rick Altman proclaimed in 1999 that sound studies was “an idea whose time has come,” he was referring primarily to the study of the film soundtrack.6 Of the four essayists presented here, only Anahid Kassabian’s work has focused primarily on film. Yet her present essay limns a new approach, one that takes film and music studies as a starting point, but extends it into new modes of listening, inspired by technologies and applications that break out of the bounds of the theatrical listening experience, opening the study of sound to previously neglected areas, such as television, video games, and mobile media.

It is a fact that, among the major sound and screen media, television sound has received the least attention.7 If it is mentioned at all, it is subsumed under the practices of film sound, or discussed in terms...


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pp. 115-117
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