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The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies

by Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, Editors
Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2012
624 pp., illus. 39 b/w. Trade, $150.00
ISBN: 9780195388947.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


Science, technology, and medicine have long histories of reliance on visualization—charts, graphics, telescopes, microscopes—as the basis for the knowledge and understanding they seek. The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies questions this notion by showing how listening has contributed to scientific knowledge in significant ways.

Editors Trevor Pinch, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University, and Karin Bijsterveld, Professor of Science, Technology and Modern Culture at Maastricht University, and their collection of international contributing authors, examine the central position of sound to human experience, arguing that sounds and music are embedded in human life, art, commerce, and politics in ways that impact our perception of the world, often in ways that we do not notice.

Through an extraordinary series of case studies—sounds of industrialization, the sounds of automobiles, underwater music, and nanotechnology, for example—the authors explore new forms of listening practices and discuss public problems like noise pollution, hearlng loss, and new sound and music-related technologies that seem to foreshadow the demise of the amateur musician.

In their introduction, Pinch and Bijsterveld position sound studies as a flourishing endeavor incorporating several disciplines and a range of methods including acoustic ecology, sound design, urban studies, cultural geography, media and communication studies, cultural studies, the history and anthropology of the senses, sociology of music, and literary studies.

"One of the aims of our book," they write, "is to offer readers a better understanding of this contested position of sonic skills . . . in knowledge production" (11). Listening modes are proving more and more valuable, Pinch and Bijsterveld argue, across sites of knowledge production, and the chapters they collect for this book provide multiple contextualized insights into how, when, and under what conditions listening has contributed to knowledge dynamics beyond seeing.

The chapters cover new and old sources of sound production, capture, storage, and consumption, as well as various ways of transforming or "transducing" sound to another medium that allows it to be more easily stored and transported. With the digitization of sound and novel technologies like samplers and synthesizers, listening becomes increasingly more technologically mediated leading, on one hand to "technostalgia," the desire to produce and listen to sounds (especially music) using vintage electronic instruments, and on the other, the creation of new genres of music such as "remixing" and "mash-ups" (19).

Chapters are grouped to examine particular aspects of this approach: shop floors and test sites, the field, the lab, the clinic, the design studio, the home and beyond, and digital storage. Each chapter offers original research on the material and cultural practice of sound as experienced in science, technology, medicine, art, commerce, and politics. Chapters feature an impressive array of example practices, from classical antiquity to current day, and outline new types of listening practices.

A companion website provides listening samples keyed to specific chapters.

In the end, The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies discusses persuasively a breadth of sounds—birdsong to underwater music to television advertising—current-day digital practices for sound in video games, movies, iPods, and computers, and challenges readers (and researchers) to rethink the way they hear and understand the world.

Last Updated 8 September 2012

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