Syllabus: Studies in Sonic Rhetorics

I’ve been working on a hypothetical graduate-level course that I’d love to teach one day. Look it over and let me know what I’m over- or under-emphasizing! But wow–I’d like to take this course!

(Note: none of my italics made the copy and paste from Google Docs. Forgive me for not going through and re-inserting them.)

Studies in Sonic Rhetorics

Course Description

Interest in sound and music studies grows each year in the rhetoric and composition community, as evidenced by special issues on sound in the journals Enculturation (1999), Computers and Composition (2006), and Currents in Electronic Literacy (2011). But beyond these disciplinary boundaries, issues pertaining to the rhetoric of sound have been discussed in musicology, aesthetics, and media studies. What meanings can we develop together through a broad investigation of the scholarly work on sound and music, read through the lens of our own disciplinary understandings?

To answer that question, this course introduces students to the study of sound as nondiscursive rhetorical communication that deserves to be studied alongside visual and textual rhetoric. We will listen broadly, always considering what sound offers us that text and images do not–and whether those affordances tend to help or hinder in particular settings. Not content to analyze, we will also compose our own digital audio texts for a variety of informal and formal purposes, playfully practicing the moves we read about in scholarship–and moving beyond them.


By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  1. Demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the rhetorical possibilities of communicating with sound
  2. Compose audio texts with audio software for a variety of rhetorical purposes
  3. Adopt the academic discourse of rhetoric and composition scholars by creating a publishable text

Course Requirements

This course requires you to do simple audio editing on freely available software like Audacity or Garage Band. No special skill in audio editing is required, but you must have regular access to a computer of sufficient power and reliability to perform basic editing tasks. You’ll also be served well by having a teachable spirit that is willing to scour online tutorials when the software doesn’t perform the way you’d like it to.

You must also have regular access to a microphone (or variety of microphones). You’ll use your mic to record your own voice, to interview others, and collect sounds as you explore. We’ll discuss our options for purchasing and renting mics on the first day of class.


Most texts are available through Blackboard, in your course reader, or for free online.

Required Texts

  • Miller, Paul D., aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid. Rhythm Science. Cambridge, MA: Mediawork and MIT P, 2004. Print.
  • Course Reader

Recommended Texts

  • Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester: Destiny, 1994.
  • Kelly, Caleb. Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2009.
  • Murray, Joddy. Non-discursive Rhetoric: Image and Affect in Multimodal Composition. Albany: SUNY, 2009.


Weekly Sonic Sharing

Ironically, this course includes a lot of reading. To balance that logocentrism, we’ll also critically listen to sonic texts that we collect ourselves. However, to expand the reach of our ears, each member of the class (including me) will share a digital audio file of some kind each week with the rest of the class in our class blog, accompanied by a short written description. You should expect to share both musical and non-musical texts (even as we question those definitions) along with sounds that you discover online, download, digitally capture, or record yourself in the field. We’ll begin each class by listening to some of the most evocative sounds you shared and discussing how they intersect with our readings. As we share, we’ll question the affordances of sonic messages as contrasted with the textual.

Composing Activities

You’ll compose three minor audio assignments throughout the semester. Each should last between three and five minutes and will require you to perform minor audio editing tasks.

  • Composing Soundscapes: Choose at least three different sound files from and blend them together in some way. Then write a short (two-page) rhetorical analysis of your completed soundscape. When and where would this newly composed sound play? What effect would you hope it would have on a specific audience?
  • Composing Audio Essays: Using the short NPR news story as a guide, compose an audio essay that reports on an issue of importance to you. This should primarily be voiced by you, but as with the best audio essays, you should also include at least one interview and various pertinent sound effects. Your topic is less important than your method and your rhetorical purpose; what techniques will you use to guide your listeners toward the understandings you want them to have?
  • Composing Pedagogies: What is the role of sound in composition pedagogies–both in terms of the assignments we give our students and our delivery of course objectives? (For instance, this syllabus is delivered as a text; why?) To work toward answers to these questions, compose an audio text that you could use when teaching an undergraduate composition course (at any level). This might be a resource that answers common student problems, an assignment that you think is better heard than read, a sample text to show students some of the possibilities of digital audio, or almost anything else that is designed for a student audience. What exigencies do you sense in your teaching that sound can help you address?

Publication-Ready Article

The course will culminate with a publication-ready “seminar paper” that is ready to send out to a peer-reviewed journal in the field. This can take one of three forms:

  1. Traditional Essay: This twenty-page essay will explore an issue pertaining in some way to sonic rhetoric, perhaps responding to a gap or problem that you’ve identified in the course readings.
  2. Audio Essay: This audio essay of at least ten minutes will also respond to some pressing issue in sonic rhetoric studies. It should feature your voice prominently, but you may use any other audio technique to supplement your voice.
  3. Web Text: Web texts for online journals can take make forms, often including a good deal of text alongside multimedia elements–though they can also be spaces for unexpectedly creative modes of communication.


  • 15%: Weekly Sonic Sharing
  • 15%: Composing Soundscapes Assignment
  • 15%: Composing Audio Essays Assignment
  • 15%: Composing Pedagogies Assignment
  • 40%: Publication-Ready Article

Reading Schedule

Week 1: Epistemologies of Sound

  • Selections from Katz, Steven B. The Epistemic Music of Rhetoric: Toward the Temporal Dimension of Affect in Reader Response and Writing. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1996.
  • Selections from Burrows, David. Sound, Speech, and Music. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1990.
  • Selections from Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1985.

Week 2: Soundscapes and Ambience

  • Selections from Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester: Destiny, 1994.
  • Bull, Michael. “The Seduction of Sound in Consumer Culture: Investigating Walkman Desires.” Journal of Consumer Culture 2.1 (2002): 81-101.
  • Rickert, Thomas. “Music@Microsoft.Windows: Composing Ambience.” The Writing Instructor (2010).

Week 3: What Does Music Say? Aesthetics and Music Philosophy

  • Selections from Langer, Susanne K. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1957.
  • Selections from Meyer, Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1956.
  • Selections from Hamilton, Andy. Aesthetics and Music. London: Continuum, 2007.
  • Price, Kingsley. “Does Music Have Meaning?” British Journal of Aesthetics 28.3 (1988): 203-15.
  • Erickson, Gregory. “Speaking of Music: Explorations in the Language of Music Criticism.” Enculturation 2.2 (1999).

Week 4: Musical Rhetoric Foundations

  • Selections from Bonds, Mark Evan. Wordless Rhetoric: Musical Form and the Metaphor of the Oration. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.
  • Burke, Kenneth. “Rhetoric–Old and New.” Journal of General Education 5.3 (1951): 202-09.
  • Selections from Murray, Joddy. Non-discursive Rhetoric: Image and Affect in Multimodal Composition. Albany: SUNY, 2009.
  • Rickert, Thomas. “Language’s Duality and the Rhetorical Problem of Music.” Rhetorical Agendas: Political, Ethical, Spiritual. Ed. Patricia Bizzell. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006. Print. 157-63.

Week 5: Musical Rhetoric Applications

  • Sellnow, Deanna, and Timothy Sellnow. “The ‘Illusion of Life’ Rhetorical Perspective: An Integrated Approach to the Study of Music as Communication.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 18.4 (2001): 395-415.
  • Vickers, Brian. “Figures of Rhetoric/Figures of Music?” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 2.1 (1984): 1-44.
  • Halbritter, Bump. “Musical Rhetoric in Integrated-Media Composition.” Computers and Composition 23.3 (2006): 317-34.
  • VanKooten, Crystal. “A New Composition, a 21st Century Pedagogy, and the Rhetoric of Music.” Currents in Electronic Literacy (2011).
  • Clark, Gregory. “Virtuosos and Ensembles: Rhetorical Lessons from Jazz.” The Private, the Public, and the Published: Reconciling Private Lives and Public Rhetoric. Ed. Barbara Couture and Thomas Kent. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2004. 31-46.

Week 6: Sonic Composing: Making Music

  • Selections from Fisk, Josiah, and Jeff Nichols, eds. Comzposers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings. New and Expanded Ed. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1997.
  • Selections from McCutchan, Ann. The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak about the Creative Process. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.
  • Selections from Zorn, John, ed. Arcana: Musicians on Music. New York: Granary, 2000.

Week 7: Sonic Composing: Multiple Modes and Mediums

  • Selfe, Cynthia L. “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” College Composition and Communication 60.4 (2009): 616-63.
  • Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key.” College Composition and Communication 56.2 (2004): 297-328.
  • Selections from Kress, Gunther, and Theo Van Leeuwen. Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold, 2001.
  • McKee, Heidi. “Sound Matters: Notes toward the Analysis and Design of Sound in Multimodal Webtexts.” Computers and Composition 23.3 (2006): 335-54.
  • Rickert, Thomas, and Michael Salvo. “The Distributed Gesamptkunstwerk: Sound, Worlding, and New Media Culture.” Computers and Composition 23.3 (2006): 296-316.

Week 8: Cognitive Angles

  • Selections from Patel, Aniruddh D. Music, Language, and the Brain. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.
  • Selections from Jourdain, Robert. Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. New York: Harper, 1997.
  • Swain, Joseph P. “Music Perception and Musical Communities.” Music Perception 11.3 (1994): 307-20.

Week 9: Technologies: Foundations

  • Selections from McLuhan, Marshall. Essential McLuhan. Ed. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone. New York: Basic, 1995.
  • Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Visual Culture: Experiences in Visual Culture. Ed. Joanne Morra and Marquard Smith. New York: Routledge, 2006. 114-37.
  • Selections from Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.

Week 10: Technologies: Applications

  • Stoever-Ackerman, Jennifer. “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York.” Social Text 28.1 (2010): 59-85.
  • Winner, Jeff E. “The World of Sound: A Division of Raymond Scott Enterprises.” Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture. Ed. Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid. Cambridge: MIT P, 2008. 181-202.
  • Oliveros, Pauline. “Quantum Improvisation: The Cybernetic Presence.” Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture. Ed. Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid. Cambridge: MIT P, 2008. 119-30.

Week 11: Rhythm Science

  • Miller, Paul D., aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid. Rhythm Science. Cambridge, MA: Mediawork and MIT P, 2004. Print.

Week 12: Genres: Hip-Hop

  • Shusterman, Richard. “Rap Remix: Pragmatism, Postmodernism, and Other Issues in the House.” Critical Inquiry 22 (1995): 150-58.
  • Rice, Jeff. “The 1963 Hip-Hop Machine: Hip-Hop Pedagogy as Composition.” College Composition and Communication 54.3 (2003): 453-71.
  • Rice, Jeff. “The Making of Ka-Knowledge: Digital Aurality.” Computers and Composition 23.3 (2006): 266-79.
  • Sirc, Geoffrey. “Proust, Hip-Hop, and Death in First-Year Composition.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 33.4 (2006): 392-98.
  • Vazquez, Alexandra T. “Can You Feel the Beat? Freestyle’s Systems of Living, Loving, and Recording.” Social Text 28.1 (2010): 107-24.
  • Wilson, Nancy Effinger. “The Literacies of Hip Hop.” College Composition and Communication 59.3 (2008): 538-47.

Week 13: Genres: Sonic Art

  • Selections from Kelly, Caleb. Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2009.
  • Explore the “Sound” section on UbuWeb:

Week 14: Pedagogies

  • Elbow, Peter. “The Music of Form: Rethinking Organization in Writing.” College Composition and Communication 57.4 (2006): 620-666.
  • French, Lydia, and Emily Bloom. “Auralacy: From Plato to Podcasting and Back Again.” Currents in Electronic Literacy (2011).
  • Hess, Mickey. “Was Foucault a Plagiarist? Hip-Hop Sampling and Academic Citation.” Computers and Composition 23.3 (2006): 280-95. Print.
  • Campbell, Kermit E. “The Goes the Neighborhood: Hip Hop Creepin’ On a Come Up at the U.” College Composition and Communication 58.3 (2007): 325-44.
  • Johnson, T. R. “Writing with the Ear.” Refiguring Prose Style: Possibilities for Writing Pedagogy. Ed. T. R. Johnson and Tom Pace. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2005. 267-85. Print.
  • Waller, David. “Language Literacy and Music Literacy: A Pedagogical Symmetry.” Philosophy of Music Education Review 18.1 (2010): 26-44.
  • Comstock, Michelle, and Mary E. Hocks. “Voice in the Cultural Soundscape: Sonic Literacy in Composition Studies.” Computers and Composition Online (2006).

Week 15: Reserved for Discoveries

As we explore worlds of sound through the semester, let’s keep our ears open for a textual, audio, or video text to explore for our final meeting.



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3 responses to “Syllabus: Studies in Sonic Rhetorics

  1. Cool man! I’m working on a course like this for the community college where I teach. I’m trying to get the school to buy some mics and digital audio recorders.

  2. this is truly amazing – I’m working on my MA thesis on analyzing the sonic/lyrical elements of folk songs to teach about immigration – am going to read your whole reading list 🙂

    • kstedman

      Thanks! Looking at this now, I realize that it’s an INTENSE class–but then again, I’m teaching undergraduate classes, not graduate, so I’m sure some could handle it. But it’s definitely true that these readings are almost a love letter, a collection of all the pieces that make me say, “Aw, I LOVE that one!”

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