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Subscriber: null; date: 15 November 2018

Technology, Sound, and the Tuning of Place

Abstract and Keywords

Sound is fundamental to sense of place and the sense of who, where, and how one is in the world. From birth, humans tune in to sounds, tune out some sounds in favor of others, and, over time, consciously or unconsciously, use sound to tune place. Conversely, the sonic qualities of places, including music, tune human actions and interactions. Technologies of all kinds allow us to create, separate, reproduce, intensify, or cancel sound. These ways of manipulating sound are also a means of curating of space and therefore place-making gestures.

Keywords: place, place philosophy, technology, music, sound and place

Take a moment to imagine your home, the place where you live. If you could not see, how would you know you were there? If you could only hear, how would you know that you were either “home” or “not home”? Could you recognize home by sound alone? How? If you moved to a new location, what sounds would you want to hear, or not hear, to feel “at home”? In other words, how would you go about making a space sound like the place of “home”?

These questions have to do with the relationship between sound and place. Sound is one of the ways in which humans experience the world, recognize place, and distinguish one place from another. Even when we are not conscious of the sounds around us, we are conscious of the sonic qualities of place and know where and even who we are because of those sonic qualities. Sound shapes our experience of place and our sense of self. Conversely, we are adept at using sound to shape place and to identify ourselves. But why, and how? Why is place important? How is sound part of place? Why and how do humans use sound to make places and identify themselves and for what reasons? How are technologies of all kinds, including sound-making and sound-inhibiting technologies, part of the making of place? And what might the relationship of place, sound, and technologies mean for music teaching and learning?

About Place

We tend to think of place in terms of physical location or space. Place philosophers, however, think of place as something more fundamental to human experience and to our sense of being in the world. To illustrate, consider again the place you call “home” relative to space, location, and time. You can measure the space of home in feet or meters and describe the dimensions or adequacy of the storage space. You can identify (p. 512) the location of home using an address, using latitude and longitude coordinates, or by pointing to a map. You can also measure the age of your home in days or years, identify when it was built, identify when you moved in, or describe the sequence of additions and renovations you or others may have made. None of those descriptions, however, or even all of them together adequately account for what makes the place where you reside “home.” Place, or sense of place, has to do not only with space, location, and time but also with who and how we are in the world, with experiences and practices, with actions and interactions, with sociality and culture, and with memories and anticipations of the future. When Dorothy intones “There’s no place like home” in The Wizard of Oz, she’s referring to something much more than Kansas.

Sound and Place: An Example

Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld suggests that place always has an acoustic dimension, and he argues for “acoustemology”—the study of “sonic sensibilities, specifically of the ways in which sound is central to making sense, to knowing,” and to place (1996, p. 97). Although Feld grounds his argument for “acoustic knowing” in part in extensive study among the Kaluli people in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea, one need not be in a rainforest to think about sound and place in human experience. Consider, for the span of a few paragraphs and the time it takes to read them, several examples of the complex interplay of sound and place in human experience.

I grew up in a place where cicadas (known as locusts in some places) began their characteristic buzzing in late August, just before school was about to start. I enjoyed school and still do. In my youth, the sound of cicadas signaled return to a place I enjoyed (school) in the place (rural southeastern Pennsylvania) where I lived. But I live now in a different location (urban central Arizona), and when I hear cicadas begin their buzzing in July, I think “too early” and “not yet” and “climate change.” The sound of cicadas in July seems out of place relative to my earlier experience, or at least out of time, even though the sound still signals a return to the actions and interactions of the place “school,” as well as a possible warning about the health of the larger place “planet,” since I am now more conscious of the environment than I was in my youth.

If I do heed the sound of the neighborhood cicadas and go to “school” (now a school of music at a university—a different place altogether) in late July, the building will likely seem strangely quiet or even still, a sonic quality I recognize as the absence of the people and interactions that typically occur when classes are in session. The quiet may be unsettling, too unsettling, and I may leave. If I choose to stay and read or write in the place of my office with the door open, which I prefer, I can be fairly certain that, if I have turned them off, the telephone will not ring and the email will not ping, and that incidental sounds beyond my immediate visual frame are unlikely to disrupt my concentration unless they are out of place—a sudden loud crash, for example, or someone yelling.

(p. 513) By late August, when faculty and students have returned to campus, the place of the school of music will sound and feel different—vibrant, exciting, alive—at least for me, but perhaps not for everyone. For the custodian down the hall, more sound may signal more or different kinds of work. The musical sounds in the spaces of this school of music may not be equally inviting to all who pass through its entrance doors. I know, for example, that I am more likely to hear a violin than a vihuela, more likely to hear Western art music than country music, more likely to hear a rehearsal than a jam session, unless I know where to go in the building and when, or how to find the spaces where those sounds occur. I am also likely to hear and participate in the sounds of conversation, including discussions about which musical sounds are present or absent and why, and what the absence of certain musical sounds means in a place called “school of music.” When all of the sounds of the new academic year become too loud for reading or writing at my desk, I may retreat to the library, which is similarly busy but with different kinds of sounds. Or I may choose to return to my home, where I can read and write to the familiar chirping of birds and the occasional barking of the neighbor’s dog, until I become aware that an air conditioner doesn’t sound quite right, prompting a different set of actions and feelings altogether.

The extended example above illustrates some of the ideas underpinning place. First, we are all multiply situated in a complex web of nested and overlapping places that is specific to each of us, yet shared with others in complex ways. Second, each of us understands place or has a sense of place that is particular to that person’s own perspective and experience (the place of one’s self), yet places are also social constructions, made and remade through actions and interactions with others. We understand place with others. Third, places are not static; rather, places and sense of place evolve over time and through human actions and interactions, including actions and interactions that may become habits or practices, as well as actions and interactions that may be unique or just-once events. Fourth, sense of place is embodied. We acquire our evolving sense of place through and in our bodies, in the sensations, perceptions, and actions that are part of place and that are shaped by place, including the place of ourselves. Fifth, places simultaneously include and exclude through the very actions and interactions that make places what they are. Places can both embolden and silence. Sense of place may free people to invent or may force compliance and make docile bodies of even those who are most attracted to a particular places. Places are rarely neutral. Finally, sound—musical or otherwise—is inseparable from the sense of place and being in place.

All of the ideas above are thoroughly explored in the literature of place (e.g., Casey, 2009; Cresswell, 2004; Malpas, 1999, 2007) except the last one—the idea that sound is inseparable from sense of place. The place literature focuses on sight, movement of bodies through space, and direction and dimension as part of the understanding of place. Yet sound precedes sight and, in large part, the ability to move in space. Before infants are born they hear the sounds of bodies and voices as well as the sounds of the environments they will soon experience directly. Sound is fundamental to the sense of place and the sense of who, where, and how one is in the world. Humans tune in to sound, tune out (p. 514) some sounds in favor of others, and over time, consciously or unconsciously, use sound to tune place (Coyne, 2010).

Sound Technologies and the Tuning of Place

The phrase “tuning of place” comes from Richard Coyne, who uses this metaphor to describe how people use digital media and technologies to adjust continually to the environment and to each other. In the twenty-first century, the word “technology” tends to conjure images of some kind of current or battery-driven and chip-enabled device, and, for the purposes of this short essay, one that makes a sound. Yet wherever and whenever humans have existed, they have used whatever means they have had at their disposal to make or suppress sounds for their own reasons and purposes (Peterson & Bledsoe, 2014). Whatever they used were the technologies of their time. In other words, for the purposes of this essay, I define “sound technology” as any tool used to create, separate, reproduce, intensify, or cancel sound—no current, chip, or battery needed. Both an acoustic guitar and an iPad are sound-making technologies. Both an office door and noise-canceling headphones are sound-reducing technologies. In both examples, one technology may be more or less satisfying than the other, depending on the individual and the circumstance. Still, the action of using either device—the acoustic guitar or the iPad, the office door or the headphones—effects an adjustment or sonic tuning of place. But why tune place at all?

Where are you reading this essay? What sounds are you experiencing as you read? Asking the latter question draws (perhaps unwelcome) attention to sonic qualities of the environment of which you were subconsciously aware before the question was asked. You know which places are best suited to your ability to read with attention and concentration, if that is what you have chosen to do, and your knowing of “reading places” includes both explicit and tacit understanding of sound. For example, if you are reading at home, you know without thinking which sounds to ignore and which ones require attention. You also know, through experience and practice, whether and how and how much you can adjust the sounds of different kinds of spaces using technologies of all kinds to suit your “reading place” preferences, and what degree of control you have of those technologies. For example, if you prefer to read with music playing in the background, you likely have more than one technological device available to produce that sound, as calling in live musicians to play while you read is both inconvenient and expensive. You may have more control of which music, how loud, which source (device), and location (another room?) in your own home than in the local coffee shop. If you go to the local coffee shop to read, you likely have less control of whatever technologies are producing sounds, if any, and if a few musicians arrive, set up, and begin to play, then you may continue reading, stop reading and listen, or leave. In some ways, then, (p. 515) technologies of all kinds allow humans to use sound to curate spaces and thereby make places.

In addition to curating particular physical spaces using sound, the evolution of electronic and digital technologies has enabled the curating of sounds themselves in ways unimaginable two centuries or even two decades ago. The act of curating sound, once the province of specialists (librarians, DJs), is now available to almost anyone, and this ability to curate has blurred the lines of public and private spaces. For example, you likely own a small digital device on which you have collected music you prefer or find useful in some way, and you have likely organized that music in some way that satisfies or pleases you. That digital device affords the opportunity for you to create a private music listening place almost anywhere, including public spaces where quiet is required or where music curated by others may be playing. Technologies can constrain as well. If you use that same small device as a telephone, then you may be constrained by the sounds it emits to get your attention by the ringtones and other signal sounds selected for you by the programmers of the device, or, if you have the know-how and the programming of the device permits it, you may have curated the sounds it produces by rearranging or even deleting the preprogrammed ones, by adding new sounds, or by tagging certain sounds to specific callers or functions that satisfy your ideas of sonic space and place. You have also likely learned to operate the device to avoid disrupting public spaces with sound, and you have probably frowned at those who are less adept or forgetful about silencing private devices in public spaces. You may have imagined or even participated in an event in which the sounds of private devices are part of a public and communal activity.

Sound and Place, Teaching and Learning

What, then, are the implications of sound and place for music teaching and learning? In 1992, in the introduction to a book for teachers, R. Murray Schafer commented on the changing “soundscapes” of the world, noting: “sounds are multiplying faster than people as we surround ourselves with more and more mechanical gadgetry” (p. 8). Schafer suggested that we become conscious of sounds, asking:

Why do we focus on certain sounds and merely overhear others? Are some sounds discriminated against culturally so that they are not heard at all? … Are some sounds filtered out or rendered inconspicuous by others? And how does the changing acoustic environment affect the kinds of sounds we choose to listen or ignore? … Aside from the physiological dangers of a noisier [environment], how is our hearing psychologically affected by these changes? Is there a way of filtering out unwanted sound and still allowing the desired message through? Or does sensory overload finally beat us into a state of dopey submission or frazzled desperation? (pp. 7–9)

(p. 516) Schafer argued for a renewed sense of sound and listening, and for developing abilities to make “conscious design decisions” about sound.

Being conscious of sound is crucial, but Schafer’s argument, the arguments of Coyne in The Tuning of Place, and the ideas of place philosophers suggest that something more is required—being critical. Here I use “being critical” not to suggest the role of the professional music critic, but rather a community of learners engaged in critical questioning and conversation about sounds (musical and otherwise) and places, and the relationship of sound and place. For example, what does the inclusion or exclusion of certain kinds of sounds (or music) in certain kinds of spaces communicate about place and belonging? (Consider what sounds, made by what people, are “allowed” in the place called “school.” Why?) How are actions and sound related, and how do they function in certain spaces? (Consider how the act of reading a book signals a sound-place relationship. Does reading on an airplane create a micro place that silences conversation? Where and when and how did you learn that “reading” signals quiet?) How are places sonically designed, whether consciously or unconsciously, to attract some people and keep others away, and why are they designed that way? (Consider the differences in the sonic spaces of apparel stores and restaurants.) What does sonic design have to do with personal identity? How does the ability to acquire sounds from anywhere in the world, and to send sounds to anywhere in the world, impact local places? How do sounds, music, sound tags, and other sonic phenomena shape our experiences? Why bother to think about the sound-place relationship?

These and similar questions can be framed so as to focus on technologies of all sorts. What technologies are used to produce, inhibit, or curate sound in a space? Why these technologies and not others? Who has access to the technologies, the control of the technologies, and why? And if access includes know-how, where and when does the learning of sound technologies occur, who is involved, and why, and which technologies are used (or not)? As places and technologies evolve, these kinds of sound consciousness and critical questioning about sounds and spaces should be part of any environment that claims to be a place for music education.


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    Casey, E. (2009). Getting back into place: Toward a renewed understanding of the place-world (2nd ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Find this resource:

      Coyne, R. (2010). The tuning of place: Sociable spaces and pervasive digital media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

        Cresswell, T. (2004). Place: A short introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell.Find this resource:

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              Malpas, J. (2007). Heidegger’s topology: Being, place, world. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

                Peterson, J., & Bledsoe, R. N. (2014, January 30–February 1). Musical hacking: Creating inexpensive digital instruments. Presentation to the Arizona Music Educators Association Conference, Mesa, AZ.Find this resource:

                  Schafer, R. M. (1992). A sound education. Indian River, Ontario: Arcana Editions. (p. 518) Find this resource: