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Sounding Pittsburgh: Experimenting with Sonic Pedagogies

Sounding Pittsburgh: Experimenting with Sonic Pedagogies


 Since my last post, I’ve received a lot of emails asking how I teach students to listen multimodally in my own classes, as well as questions about why it is important to teach sound and listening more generally. In this post, I’ll try to address these questions by discussing the “Sounding Pittsburgh” project, a soundscape assignment I piloted in my Music, Sound, and Voice themed seminar in composition course last summer. After giving a brief description of the project, I’ll propose some ideas about why I think teaching students to interact and compose with sound should be a priority in education right now.

 In a nutshell, the “Sounding Pittsburgh” project required students to work in teams of 2 to compose a soundscape—a mixture of sounds that simultaneously emerges from and produces an environment—of the Pittsburgh neighborhood of their choice. Before students began their soundscape work, we spent several classes interacting with digital sound maps like this one. Students played with and explored sound mapping websites, considering how each map was composed, how it worked, what purpose it served, and what its limits and affordances were in terms of using sound to represent a place/space. Before beginning the project, then, students got some hands-on experience playing with and analyzing these collaborative compositions—especially thinking about how sound, image, and text worked with and against each other.

Next, teams conducted field research that included the observation and recording of sound at their chosen location. After they finished recording, they had to edit (mainly amplify and polish) their sounds in Audacity (a free audio editing program we learned to use together in class). Teams were also required to co-write a reflective blog post in which they analyzed their particular soundscape, thinking about what story the sounds told or revealed about their neighborhood; these posts included pictures they took of their neighborhood as representative images of that space. Once teams selected and edited the sonic, textual, and visual information from their neighborhood, we synthesized everyone’s work to create a collective soundscape of Pittsburgh, which we then treated as a course text. Once all of the teams’ compositions were combined we had a pretty interesting sonic narrative about Pittsburgh.

So why are assignments like this necessary? Why teach sound and listening at all? I would say because we can’t just ignore the fact that more people than any other time in history are not only consuming, but actively producing—manipulating, editing, and composing—sound in their personal and professional lives. And I’m not just talking about music here. The pervasiveness of sound in our lives and the lives of our students is unprecedented largely because of advancements in digital technology. Smartphones, mp3 players, laptops, iPads and the like make it possible to be plugged into sound all of the time. Free, open-source audio editors like Audacity and popular audio editing software like Garageband are becoming increasingly accessible, and our students are using them to compose their own songs, podcasts, remixes, soundtracks, voiceovers, and the list goes on. When I asked my students to go on a “media diet” for 24 hours, they claimed that the hardest thing to give up was their iPods (or not being able to use their iPhones to access their music). As one student put it, “I usually make a playlist to set the tone for my day. Walking around without my iPod made my life seem duller, or uninspired or something.” Clearly, listeners have been transforming into more active producers of sound in their daily lives. Our students are constantly making decisions about how to engineer sounds to achieve rhetorical effects. So a key question that has emerged for me as a teacher is: how can we get students to more critically engage with and produce sonic texts and environments, which are already a fundamental part of their everyday lives? 

One way I have addressed this question, in the assignment I just shared with you and elsewhere, has been to get students thinking about the various affordances of sound—about what sound makes possible in different contexts, or about how sound works when it is combined with other modes of composition. Talking about what is possible with sound also leads to discussions of the limitations of sound (and other composing materials). As rhet/comp scholars Michelle Comstock and Mary Hocks write in Voice in the Cultural Soundscape, “In relation to multimedia projects, sound helps students become more conscious of the cultural power as well as limitations of texts and images. They see how sound can (and often does) function with these other elements to produce an overall effect. As students become better listeners and producers of sound they become more effective rhetorical agents.” Additionally, teaching students to compose with audio editors amplifies the iterative nature of all composing processes in that it requires users to listen, compose, relisten, revise and so on. In my experience, students have been quick to make connections between the kind of in-process revision audio work demands and their experiences producing more traditional alphabetic texts. In terms of constructing podcasts or compositions that incorporate voice, audio editors also help students understand voice as an embodied, malleable material. By manipulating their recorded voices, students become much more aware of how voice shapes the tone and style of their texts. This awareness often results in the revision of their written scripts and their digital audio tracks.

While it’s important to highlight sound as a material that is used to make meaning, I think we need to emphasize that sound is also distinct from other compositional modes. For instance, in the “Sounding Pittsburgh” project, we spent a lot of time talking about how the embodied experience of listening to the sounds of a neighborhood differed from students’ recordings of those sounds, and about how a neighborhood’s sounds might affect the human bodies that live there. As a vibratory force, sound is a lot different than words on a page, or a static image. And as my students picked up on, that lived experience of sound was something that was lost when we captured it for our composition. As one of my students noted, “what we did was more like a snap shot of sound…it’s kind of more like an image than an experience in some ways.” Her comment ended up leading us to a discussion about the limitations of composing with sound—of what gets lost in the process of composition. Despite these limitations, though, because the soundscape project asked students to do field work, they did get a chance to listen to and think about sound as they were experiencing it live, so to speak. In addition to thinking about sound as a material that can shape the meaning of a text, then, creating a soundscape made my students consider sound as a persuasive force that affects bodies in particular ways. They learned to listen with their entire bodies as opposed to just their ears.


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