On Soundscapes

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We know the holidays are upon us because we are now surrounded by “sounds of the season,” muzak that begins to wear on my last nerve after about a day. But this year, these ubiquitous melodies have gotten me thinking about sound and how it affects our perceptions of what’s around us as well as our thoughts—and our writing.

In the early days of the Stanford Writing Center (now the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking), we held a series called “How I Write” and invited colleagues on campus to talk with our genial host, Hilton Obenzinger, about their writing preferences and processes. (You can read portions of these conversations in Hilton’s How We Write: The Varieties of Writing Experience, published in 2015.) I sat in on these interviews for years, and I now remember how often sound came up as a subject of importance to a number of writers. One colleague I particularly recall, from psychology, said that she always wrote with “soft rock” playing in the background, because she loathed soft rock and it just kept her a little edgy and on her writing toes! Another wrote with sounds of the sea in the background and, as you might imagine, others demanded silence, or as close to it as they could get.

A friend who lost her vision about twenty years ago speaks eloquently about the role sound plays in her life. Each morning she opens the door not to the landscape beyond but to the soundscape, to what she hears. She inhabits that soundscape fully, as the sounds, from barely audible and subtle to bold and commanding, literally make her day. 

I’ve learned a great deal from this friend and have begun to track my own soundscapes, trying to attend as carefully as I possibly can to the sounds around me. So, I was very interested to read Steph Ceraso’s “Sonic Scenes of Writing” in the March 2022 issue of College EnglishThis article reports on email interviews with 19 faculty members in rhetoric and composition at a number of institutions and across career spans.  A series of open-ended questions elicited information about how these instructors thought about the relationship between their writing and sound as well as about the choices they make in connecting the two. Like the “How I Write” conversations, these interviews provide fascinating insights into what Ceraso calls “sonic scenes of writing.” I was particularly interested in sa faculty member with “significant hearing loss” who used music to reduce, or relieve, negative feelings. 

One thing we can be sure of is that our students have rich soundscapes to draw on today. If they haven’t thought much about those soundscapes, now’s a good time for them to do what I’ve been doing: to track what sounds surround them, and especially what sounds they choose to engage and why. A whole-class discussion or “sonic scenes” and soundscapes followed by small-group follow-up can lead to a brief prompt that asks students to reflect on how sound is connected to their writing (and reading) and whether and/or why sound is important to their thinking. Attending carefully to what they are hearing and choosing to hear—even for a few hours, should get them started on an analysis of their individual soundscapes.  And then to compare them to one another’s, and to yours! Some may be inspired to dig in to the burgeoning research around “sound studies” and add their own work to it.


"Cool audio waves" by qubodup is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.