Image: Music note Bokeh by Daniel Paxton
Contemporary soundscapes are characterised by diversity few can comprehend: indeed, analyses by scholars of sound range from those focusing on the communicative importance of sound to the nightmare of primeval sonic pollution. Cityscapes in particular are believed to host the most complex sonic polyvocalities, with different sounds and noises corresponding to different lifeworlds and social milieus (Erlmann 2004). The declining neighbourhood murmur of human socialities is mixed with the imposing noise of automobilities (the car, the train or the tube) and the human conversations one encounters in the spaces of entertainment and consumption, such as bars, pubs, clubs and restaurants.
Much has been said and written on differences between ‘sound’, ‘noise’ and ‘echo’. Additional considerations of artistic manipulations of sound, its shaping into melody and music, suggest the presence of contractual agreements over what is acceptable as ‘civilised’, good sound, and noise aesthetically eroding the social. But in sociological analysis understandings of ‘aesthesis’ are not – cannot be - confined to sensory stimuli. The crude positivist mantra of factual analysis may make noise but does not allow scholars to comprehend the meaning of sound in situ, its ‘melodies’ and contrapuntal conversations (Bhaskar 1989; Bhaskar 1993). The point comes close to DeNora’s (2000 2003) call for ethnographic research into music, but also exceeds its hands-on-data applicability. For, aesthetic journeys demand broader philosophical investigations on the socio-cultural environment in which sounds are made, experienced and finally theorised. Such successive echopoetic chains transform sound (échos) into a creative (poìeisis) human venture through perception of its sonic and social assemblage. We do not merely hear things, we understand them as cultural and social practices. As such, ‘sound’ and ‘noise’ come into being only though our agential intervention on their sonic meaning.
The mastery of sonic meaning is an exercise in epistemic classification. It civilises the invisible aspects of our built environment, by making them more agreeable to the ear, and conforming them to visual, tactile and olfactory narratives. And through this struggle to retrieve the long-lost aesthetic unity, postmodern humans arrive at the gates of Edenic perception as secular angels.
Bhaskar, R. (1989) Reclaiming Reality. London & New York: Verso.
Bhaskar, R. (1993) Dialectic. London & New York: Verso.
DeNora, T. (2000) Music and Everyday Life, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
DeNora, T. (2003) After Adorno. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Erlmann, V. (2004) ‘But what of the ethnographic ear? Anthropology, sound and the senses’, in V. Erlmann (ed.) Hearing Cultures, Oxford: Berg, 1-20.