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Sound Diets, Digitally-Induced Synesthesia, and Multimodal Listening

Sound Diets, Digitally-Induced Synesthesia, and Multimodal Listening


Last summer, I had the opportunity to interview percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie for my dissertation. This interview got me thinking about how we can teach students to listen with more than just their ears. What would more expansive, full-bodied listening practices look like?

Glennie suggests that obedience is a necessary part in training the body to become more sensitive to sounds and their effects/affects. For instance, she spoke of her own listening training as a kind of restrictive diet: “what I am aware of is making sure that my sort of daily sound diet, as it were—that there is a huge amount of time where there is no sound. Everything that doesn’t exist—but I mean consciously, you know, switching the TV off and just sitting for a few moments with nothing” (personal interview). Glennie believes that spending long periods of time in low noise environments will make the body more open, more sensitive to sound in other environments. 

Another training method Glennie practices is attempting to experience as many different kinds of sounds as possible. Glennie explained that she makes “a point of trying to get a range of frequencies” in her “sound diet” (personal interview). One effective way of doing this is to seek out “organic sounds, sound that can reproduce itself, or sounds that are just observed from the surroundings” (personal interview). Glennie explained that “a lot of the younger generation because they’ve been brought up with technology” tend to be unaware and/or underexposed to a full range of organic sounds. In other words, because more and more people are plugged into their iPods, smart phones, and electronic devices, they are consumed by reproduced sounds that have frequencies which vary in the higher register but not much in the lower register (personal interview).

This comment provides some insight as to why the whole body (as opposed to just the ears) is often ignored in listening practices. High frequency sounds are not often experienced as tactile. Low frequency sounds (often organic sounds), typically below 20hz, are more often experienced as a kind of touch (like when you feel sound in your stomach as a semi-truck passes you by on the street). In this sense, the high frequency sounds of digital devices have played a major role in shaping our largely ear-centric listening habits. 

While I agree with Glennie that overstimulation, which is often fueled or exacerbated by digital technologies, can play a role in preventing one from engaging with the world of organic sound, I also believe that digital technologies can provide an opportunity for multimodal (or more full-bodied) listening training. For instance, the synesthetic effects of digital audio and video editing programs have the potential to make listener-composers more aware of their embodied interactions with sound and other media. Computer software programs that are used to create digital compositions such as podcasts and videos—programs that are often used in “multimodal composition” courses—require embodied, synesthetic interactions. In fact, popular audio editing programs (like Audacity, GarageBand, and Audition) and video editing programs (like iMovie, Windows MovieMaker, and Premiere) produce synesthetic effects in their users by their very aesthetic design.

For example, the free, open source audio editing program Audacity presents users with a graphical presentation of the sounds they record or import into the interface. As sound is recorded via microphone (or imported into the program), sound waves appear as jagged blue lines on the interface’s gray backdrop. The interface’s tool bar provides a workstation that enables users to record, play, stop, fast-forward, rewind, and pause multiple tracks, as well as manipulate the graphical sound waves by actually touching them with tools. This tactile aspect of audio editing is visually represented by icons such as a scissor (for cutting parts of the track), and magnifying glasses that are illustrated with plus and minus signs (for zooming in and out). The design of the program requires users to select tools and move/click the cursor with their fingers in order to tactilely and visually manipulate sound. Throughout the compositional process, users listen and re-listen to what they have created at various stages and adjust their visual-tactile manipulations accordingly. Thus, in this digital context, sound is experienced sonically, visually, and tactilely; listening is necessarily synesthetic, multimodal.

I see promise in a mix of “organic” sound and digital sound environments as sites of multimodal listening training (and retraining), as long as an awareness of the entire body (as opposed to just the ears) remains the focus of such training. Training listeners to be aware of the relationship between sound and the body will help them recognize that sound is more than an ephemeral or intangible experience, more than a composing material that requires analysis and dissection, and more than a semiotic resource. Multimodal listening practices can help reinforce the notion that the body is a complex ecology as opposed to a container that holds organs and a brain. Most importantly, multimodal listening education will provide listeners with a deeper and more dynamic understanding of what it means to be an embodied listener, composer, thinker, and learner. 






Steph, thank you so much for this really interesting post. I am collaborating on a digital project that concerns digitizing sound archives as well as the challenges sound studies scholars face in incorporating recordings into digital prose. We are in the early stages of exploring these issues and your post provides timely inspiration! I especially like the way you take seriously and challenge notions of organic vs. inorganic sounds. I am also very interested in the ways different sound environments, be they digital, and or accoustic influence our perception of the auditory world. The percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie's notion of "sound diets" is compelling. My collaborators, Darren Mueller, Whitney Trettien, and I (we are all grad students at Duke) look forward to learning more from you about your work.

Have you experimented with using digital environments to train listeners in your classroom or elsewhere? We'd be very interested to know about your results.


Thanks, Mary! Your collaborative project sounds really interesting. We should chat more via email (mine is It sounds like the kind of work you're doing is related to the dissertation chapter I'm working on now, and I'd love to swap ideas with you and your collaborators. 

I have experimented with both training students to listen via organic and inorganic sounds (and also through comparing the affordances of listening in digital and non-digital environments). One project I do that involves this kind of mixed listening practice is having my composition students digitally compose a soundscape of our city (Pittsburgh). I will share the assignment in my next blog post to show how some of Glennie's ideas work in practice.

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and your own work. I look forward to talking with you. 




I will be in touch over email and look forward to your next post!