Controlling Sonic Spaces

Wall Academic Center, a panoramic shot


This writing project was designed to explore the relationship between physical space and sonic space, focused specifically on the dichotomy between quiet and noisy sonic environments. Two spaces I often work in at Davidson College are Wall Academic Center and Chambers Lawn. These two physical spaces each contain two sonic environments based almost entirely around contrast. In order to understand the connection between physical space and sonic environments as they relate to work, I compare my experience in these two physical spaces, and four sonic environments. With help and contextualization from sound students such as R. Murray Schafer, Shuhei Hosokawa, and Michel Chion, and my own recordings from these locations, I describe the dichotomous auditory aspects of Wall Academic Center and Chambers Lawn, coming to an understanding of my innate desire to control sonic environments.


My ability to work and the quality of my work are undoubtedly connected to the environments in which I find myself. What I call my “Mind Environment”, is the setting and state of my thoughts, is interconnected with and dependent on my physical environment. Sitting in an open and expansive outdoor setting is the ideal physical space to write, as my creative process is not confined by my physical environment. When I am doing computer science, or a similar singularly focused, non-creative assignment, I prefer to constrict my mind environment by placing myself in a smaller, confined space, usually with few windows. Not only is a mind environment deeply connected to physical space, but sonic environments are also dependent on physical space.

A sonic environment is distinctly unique when compared to a physical environment because although sonic environments are dependent on physical environments, sonic environments can and do change often. Just as my ability to be creative and think expansively is dependent on my physical environment, my ability to work effectively is dependent on my sonic environment. 


When in Wall, my ‘mind environment’ is expanded effectively. I can sit and write at the counter on the third floor, always facing out, with a view ahead of the atrium descending two stories beneath me. To my right are grand windows, and the porch which I frequent on sunny days when I need isolation. However, Wall rarely exists for me as a spot of solitude. I spend a substantial amount of time working with my friends there. There are two general states in which I work with my friends: working in silence, and ‘working’ while conversing. These states create two distinct sonic environments which must be navigated with vastly different tactics in order to succeed within them. 

Silent Wall, April 4, 2019

Working in silence creates a sonic environment in which I can be most productive. In his writing on the characteristics of sonic environments, R. Murray Schafer coins many useful terms with which to assess the relationship between physical space and sonic space. He describes signals, sounds “listened to consciously,” which constitute an “acoustic warning,” such as a bell or alarm (Shafer 101). The background of a sonic environment, what sets its tone, is referred to as a keynote, created by the “geography and climate” of a physical environment (Shafer 101). The sounds of Wall in this state serve as keynotes, sounds which are not “listened to consciously; they are overheard” (Shafer 100). The hum of the radiators is accompanied by the occasional movement from the entrance of the building below me, and the hushed whisper of Jack whose studying technique involves quiet rehearsing of information he is trying to retain. If I listen closely, I can learn about social psychology, and the habits of subconscious reinforcement of stereotyping that Jack is studying. However, that has nothing to do with my writing class, so I try and tune it out. Every so often I hear a burst of laughter from Landon, his giggles from twitter videos fill the room. At first, these laughs halted my work. The sound of a laugh is inherently communal- others always want to be involved. However, Landon enjoys his solitary laugh, and over time we have learned not to inquire into his laughter, as he usually is not keen to share.

My headphones are a constant presence in this sonic environment- usually not even playing music. I put in the headphones to indicate to others that I do not want to talk. My use of headphones recalls Shuhei Hosakawa’s theories of the Walkman; “generated in the distance it poses between…the others and the I,” as my friends understand these headphones act as a barrier to the potential conversations we are tempted to have (Hosokawa 109). All of these sonic tactics demonstrate my attempt to control my sonic environment by regulating the sounds I experience. Nonetheless, I cannot always control my sonic environment effectively.

The second sonic environment I experience studying in Wall is conversation with friends. Normally I want to be in conversation with these people. It is a challenging process to study (and try to be silent) with them. The tiniest joke, sigh, or reminder of an event will trigger a removal of my headphones and an initiation of a discussion (at 1:41 in the recording below, this happens).

‘Working’ in Wall, April 4, 2019

I stop my work and delve into the boisterous sonic environment of friendship. This environment has its own hum, but one I chose to focus in upon. It is filled with laughter, occasional arguments, and gentle questioning. In this sense it is not uniform, and does not possess a consistent keynote. Sounds differ each time it is initiated. This sonic environment is fully distinct from the quiet hum of Wall without conversation. The two sonic environments of Wall are the same physical spaces but couldn’t be more different in the way they sound. One is filled with the calming whirring of machines, and the other with joyful, yet distracting exchanges between friends. 


Another unique and dichotomous sonic environment is my favorite chair on campus, a seasoned green Adirondack nestled beneath a tree in Chambers Lawn. Like the Wall Center, Chambers Lawn exists in two drastically different mediums. The first in silence.

Silence on Chambers Lawn, April 1, 2019

This setting is peaceful- birds tweet, wind whistles, and the sun glimpses through the clouds and the thick branches of the tree overhead. This sonic environment is cohesive and calm, and exists in an almost idyllic hum. It provides for a perfect backdrop to read a book, develop and organize papers, or simply reflect. The birds serve as a signal, causing me to “consciously” listen to each individual whistle (Shafer 101). It is not often that I listen to a sound so intently, experiencing it as Michel Chion might say, “as itself the object to be observed” (Chion 50), focusing on “the emotional, physical, and aesthetic value,” and the “qualities of timbre and texture, to its own personal vibrations” (Chion 51). The sounds of the birds feel almost youthful. They are communicative, sharp, and simultaneously disjointed yet harmonious. As I rest in my chair, content and relaxed, I am able to focus on the sounds around me. I know the birds probably aren’t playing and joking, but it certainly sounds like they are. This laid-back and quiet sonic environment is quick to change, however.

Chambers Lawn, Noise, April 8, 2019 (disclaimer, the bell is challenging to hear)

At once, I hear a different signal-a bell tolling in the distance. Class is out. With this booming command from the bell tower, the sonic environment completely changes to its second state. Almost immediately, a flood of students burst out of chambers, emerging from class. They break into the lawn complaining about professors, engaging in their course materials, and discussing plans for the weekend. My idyllic sonic environment filled only with soft wind and birds tweeting joyfully is now overcome with a roaring hum of communication. My Adirondack chair, set quietly aside from the path, now feels thrown into the middle of sonic chaos. As the keynoteof the environment pivots to one of social interaction, I am first taken aback, then settle in. Eventually, the voices of my peers become a backdrop to the environment. They blend in as the wind and silence did to the first sonic environment of Chambers Lawn. I intentionally try not to pick out voices and remain set aside- disengaged from the sounds around me. Nonetheless, as friends walk by and call my name, which is perhaps the greatest signalfor any individual, I turn my head and smile. 

After ten short minutes of a noisy Chambers lawn, the sonic environment completes another shift. We return to silence. Students are back in class. I can hear the birds again, and I can focus on the rush of the wind. I have not, and will not move for a while – yet the sounds around me have changed. They have changed the way I interacted with my environment. I first intentionally tuned into the silence, and then attempted to block out the noise. 


Sounds have a significant impact on an experience within a physical space. Sonic environments can exist in numerous modes, while physical environments remain largely unchanged. Certain physical environments are created for a specific sonic experience (religious spaces, performance halls, recording studious), and others evolve on their own (natural and community spaces). Even through this listening and writing process designed to experience sounds and their properties unto themselves, I still focused on the ways in which I could manipulate sound, drown in out, and maintain the aspects I wanted. I based my conscious listening project entirely around manipulation, not appreciation or understanding of sounds. This demonstrates how incredibly challenging it is to critically assess and think about sounds themselves without prioritizing the control or manipulation of those sounds. There is much work to be done societally and individually in sound studies. We are conditioned to alter our sonic environments, create ideal sonic spaces, and not to purely experience sounds for the qualities they possess. 

 Works Cited

Schafer, R. Murray. “The Soundscape,” Sound Studies Reader. Edited by Jonathan Sterne, Taylor and Francis, 2012.

Hosokawa, Shuhei. “The Walkman Effect,” Sound Studies Reader. Edited by Jonathan Sterne, Taylor and Francis, 2012.

Chion, Michel. “The Three Listening Modes,” Sound Studies Reader. Edited by Jonathan Sterne, Taylor and Francis, 2012.

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