Tag Archives: sonic rhetoric

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 http://www.freesound.org/ 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). http://www.writinginstructor.com/rickert.

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). http://enculturation.gmu.edu/2_2/erickson.html.

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). http://currents.cwrl.utexas.edu/2011/anewcomposition.
  • 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: http://www.ubu.com/sound/index.html

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). http://currents.cwrl.utexas.edu/2011/auralacyfromplatotopodcasting.
  • 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). http://www.bgsu.edu/cconline/comstock_hocks/

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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The Rhetoric of the Background Hum

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

[audio http://trekcore.com/audio/background/tng_engineering_hum.mp3]

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 TrekCore.com.

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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