Sound, auditory perception, and listening


Adam.pngIn November last year my chapter ‘Walking through the woodlands: Learning to listen with companions who have impaired vision’ was published in  The Auditory Culture Reader, an edited book by Michael Bull and Les Back, published by Bloomsbury. This chapter was the opportunity for me to contribute to an anthropology of sound through account of how we experience sound – listening.

Anthropological accounts of sound have focused largely on sound, the concept of ‘soundscape’ and recordings (1). ‘Soundscape’ is a concept coined by composer Murray Schafer to refer to any acoustic field of study, from musical score to the sounds of the countryside. Following Schaffer, Anthropologists have described the sounds of an environment and attributed cultural significances. However, these accounts have rarely accounted for how people actually listen within the environment.

Meanwhile, cross-disciplinary scholarship of auditory perception has focused on describing hearing as a sensory capacity. This has involved characterising hearing in terms of attributes, for example that it is a “distance sense”, and describing experiences of listening (2). The role of the environment in affording these qualities of experience has been largely ignored. Consequently, accounts of auditory perception often risk becoming abstract and generalised.

I propose that by focusing on experiences of listening, rather than ‘sound’ or the capacity of hearing, we might overcome these issues. Further, the multi-sensorial nature of the perception of sound is revealed. The ways in which people feel, see or even taste sounds. This takes us to the listening subject. How do individuals develop ways of listening in particular activities and environments? We all have a sense of how listening underwater compares to listening during a conversation with a friend on a blustery walk. Listening skills are contextually variable.

In the chapter I offer frameworks for approaching an investigation of listening, principally through a concept that I refer to as sensorial emplacement. Through my ethnography of listening activities practiced by walkers who have impaired vision while walking in the South Downs (East Sussex, UK), I demonstrate the relevance of this concept and explore what this case study might offer to anthropological and cross-disciplinary investigations of sound and  auditory perception. To access the chapter please see the Auditory Culture Reader available here.



(1) For examples see Feld and Brenneis 2004; Samuels et al 2010; c.f. Kelman 2010.

(2) Including Carter 2004; Chion 2012; Idhe 2012



Carter, P. 2004. ‘Ambiguous traces, mishearing and auditory space’, in Erlman, V. (ed.), Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening and Modernity. Oxford: Berg.

Chion, M. 2012. ‘The Three Listening Modes’, in Sterne, J. (ed.), The Sound Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

Feld, S. and D. Brenneis. 2004. ‘Doing Anthropology in Sound’, in American Ethnologist, Vol. 31, No. 4, pp. 461-474.

Idhe, D. 2012. ‘The Auditory Dimension’, in Sterne, J. (ed.) The Sound Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.

Kelman, A. 2010. ‘Rethinking Soundscape: A Critical Genealogy of a Key Term in Soundstudies’, in Senses and Society, Vol. 5, Issue 2, pp. 212-234.

Samuels, D., L. Meintjes, A. Ochoa, and T. Porcello. 2010. ‘Soundscapes: Toward a Sounded Anthropology’, in Annual Review of Anthropology, 39, pp. 329-345.

Schafer, R. M. 1994 [1977]. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny.

Photograph of the Seven Sisters, South Downs