The Rhetoric of the Background Hum

Click play on this sound and let it play while reading:


It’s the sound that plays in the background during scenes from Star Trek: The Next Generation that are set in Main Engineering. The sound is hosted over on the remarkably complete page for “Star Trek Iconic Sounds” at

Here’s what got me thinking about that innocuous little background hum: a line from the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, which a friend dropped off over here the other day after cleaning his house:

Most privileged visitors to our main engine room set are duly impressed with the sense of “really being on the Enterprise.” Even so, there is still something missing. That “something” is the almost subliminal ambience added through background sound effects. The viewer is rarely consciously aware of it, but the characteristic low thrumming sound of the engine room or the instrument sounds of the bridge are a powerful part of “being there.” (87)

I was struck by the passage for a couple of reasons:

1) First, it jumped out because I’ve always been a watcher of DVD special features and a listener to commentaries. Yesterday while doing the dishes I was listening to Joss Whedon’s commentary of the last episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and he used language similar to the Technical Manual‘s when describing the effects he was trying to have on the audience: things like immediacy, emotional power, and the sense of being there all speak to what must be part of the fundamental task of the television creator, or of the composer of any audio-visual text.

That’s right: we’re solidly in the category of rhetoric here. Ambient sounds are purposefully crafted to bring about a desired effect in audiences who will read/hear the cues and respond accordingly, whether they realize they’re being driven that way or not. Obvious, I know–but it’s still wild to me to think about, how subtly and multimodal our communication is. Unwittingly, this passage in the Technical Manual hints at the different rhetorical situation when touring a set and watching a show, how the identifications you’re asked to make are in a fundamentally different realm.

2) The passage also struck me because I’ve been thinking so much lately about ambient sounds and music that is purposefully designed to be either in the background or foreground of our attention. I wrote about this a bit the other day when discussing Thomas Rickert’s brilliant Music@Microsoft.Windows: Composing Ambience. But it’s a topic I’m rather obsessed with these days, as it keeps popping up everywhere I go:

  • In one book, I read Stravinsky’s claims that the radio would bring listeners to a point of lousy, inattentive listening (and wrote about that, too).
  • Then in another book (Andy Hamilton’s Aesthetics and Music) I read that “Muzak is an evil because it is ubiquitous and so erodes people’s aesthetic capacities–their ability to listen actively to anything–and degrades their response to music. . . . Muzak . . . belongs under the heading of sound-design, and while sound design can have an aesthetic purpose, muzak does not” (54). That is, music’s very classification as aesthetic or not has something to do with how it’s deployed, how much attention it’s designed to be given–and perhaps even how lousy it is.
  • Then there’s R. Murray Schafer, who insists on spelling it “Moozak,” presumably to distance it from any phonetic (wrong word?) similarity to the word music. In his discussion, he takes Stravinsky’s tack and claims that “Moozak resulted from the abuse of the radio” (98), as another instance of our filling the world with ambient noises that we don’t like or want or need. And one way to take the offensive, according to Schafer, is through our power of attentiveness: “By creating a fuss about sounds we snap them back into focus as figures. The way to defeat Moozak is, therefore, quite simple: listen to it” (98).

There’s something simmering here that I want to think more about. In what ways are rhetorically created soundscapes different than other rhetorical situations, when it comes to the amount of attention that may or may not be given to them? Do we have theories of attentiveness in rhetoric? Is this really the same thing as when a speech-listener drifts off to sleep to the rhythms of the speech, or when an essay reader starts thinking about something else while skimming a piece of written rhetoric, or–this is the best parallel–when the visual design of an advertisement affect us in ways that we don’t even realize?

In the end, I think the Technical Manual, however ridiculously geeky it is for me to be talking about so cavalierly, makes a good point. There’s a lot of ambient sound that goes into a show set on a spaceship. Listen to how much sound there is in this computerized walkthrough of the Enterprise:

Even a show like Firefly, which makes such a point during its outdoor effects shots to emphasize that there is no sound in the vacuum of space, uses the ever-present engine “low thrumming” when inside. Listen to all the effects in this clip:

As Schafer writes, “there is authority in the magic of captured sound” (90). By attending to it and wielding it, even when it’s as subtle as a background engine hum, we take hold of a magic that not everyone knows how to use rhetorically, like Harry Potter walking around London with a magic wand in his back pocket that no one suspects can do the things it can do. (That’s right: I found a way to insert one more geeky reference into this post. Sheesh.)

Or, to return to the Technical Manual: “The technical ability to exchange data is not in itself sufficient to permit communication. A common set of symbols and concepts–a language–is equally important before communications can occur” (101). Indeed. And sound effects comprise a crucial aspect of the languages we inhabit in our aural soundscapes.


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