During the 2020 Spring Semester as a college student, I took a “Sonic Rhetorics” class and this project emerged as the final result. From my sound studies class, I began to experience sound in new ways.
(Sounds of bike pedaling with old chain and birds chirping fade in)
When I was 13 years old, I remember riding my bike to school in the crisp mornings of April and May. In those mornings, I carried my portable cd player in my front hoodie’s pocket.
(“Brighton Lights” by Noir Et Blanc Vie plays)
The player contained my favorite electronic music. It’s one of my most favorite memories to look back on in relation to sound.
(Sounds of bike pedaling, birds chirping and song fades out.)
(Sounds of turning a book page.)
The very first book I read about rhetorical sound studies was from Steph Ceraso’s Sounding Composition: Multimodal Pedagogies for Embodied Listening. What interested me the most was how she discusses the quality of our sonic interactions and how listening involves more than just our ears. As she explains,
Though listening is often thought of as a practice that involves paying attention to audible information, sonic experiences engage much more than our ears and brains; they also affect our physical and emotional states. Indeed, all sonic encounters have subtle, sometimes powerful, effects on our bodily experiences in different situations and settings. (2)
In other words, how we interact with the sounds in our environments not only affects our physical and emotional states but also influences us and our agency within our soundscapes. A soundscape is “the ecological network of sounds, bodies, aesthetics, materials, technologies, and spatial features that make up an environment” (Ceraso 71). The first soundscapes that come to mind are my times when I was 13 years old in my school. Particularly in the hallways and classrooms.
(Sounds of book closes. Sounds of a mechanical clock rings in and out. Sounds of crowd talking in school hallway fades in)
(Pause, sounds of locker being shut, all other sounds continue)
As I’ve had some time to re-hear all of this, I now know that these identified soundscapes are also ambient.
(All sounds stop.)
Thomas Rickert in Ambient Rhetoric tells us that ambience “encompasses various shades of meaning, but largely it refers to what is lying around, surrounding, encircling, encompassing, or environing” (5).
(Sounds of walking on tile appear along with sounds from hallway reappear)
It’s the surrounding, encompassing characteristics of sounds and situations that we encircle ourselves in.
I remember hearing the bustling movement of sounds and how they encompassed the many voices of conversations from students, teachers, the lockers slamming,
(Sounds of locker slams.)
And the hundreds of steps being taken in every direction from squeaking sneakers.
(Sounds of squeaking sneakers on the floor appear)
All the way up to the clicking of heels.
(Sounds of heels clicking on the floor appear)
(Pause, all sounds continue)
(Hallways sounds fade out, squeaking sneakers fade out, clicking heels fade out, sounds of walking on tile fade out.)
In order to be a part of the ambience, one must be attuned to their environment. Our attunement in the ambience is a “fundamental entanglement…” (Rickert 8). In addition, Byron Hawk from his book Resounding the Rhetorical states that humans are “ambiently tuned to their worlds through a constellation of forces, affordances, and practices at all times and fold back into that attunement through their activity” (189).
My entanglement was required and I didn’t get to decide if I was or wasn’t.
It wasn’t like I chose to be defiant. But by being in a sound studies class, I discovered that back then and even now, I was sensitive and couldn’t tolerate sound as easily as others. From their article, Rebecca Davis and Lillian N. Stiegler defines hyperacusis as “an unusual intolerance of ordinary environmental sounds” (67).
Hyperacusis involves two subcategories: misophonia, the negative attitude to sound and phonophobia, the fear of sound (Jastreboff & Jastreboff). These are common traits in the neurodiverse community which includes those who have: ADHD, Autism, tinnitus, Tourette syndrome, Williams syndrome, OCD, PTSD, and even mood disorders like anxiety and depression (Baguley, Davis and Stiegler, Jastreboff & Jastreboff, Kokowska, Ralli, Schröder).
As I identify with being neurodivergent and having hyperacusis, they both influence the ways I attuned with the hallways. For myself, my mood was influenced by the sounds.
As sound itself acts as a rhetorical agent, Rickert expresses that “mood emerges from our involvements, acting as a kind of cradle from which the ‘how’ of these involvements, their bearing and intensity, also emerges” (145). I felt anxiety a lot when I walked in the hallways.
(Sounds of school hallways fades back in)
(Pause, sounds continue)
As I traveled to my next class, I was entangled with the sounds of movements from other students and teachers.
(Sounds of hallways fade out.)
I always wondered, why wasn’t anyone else bothered by them? There was so much sound. Did anyone else feel anxious like I did?
(Heart beating sounds appear, sounds of hallways fades back in)
My anxious heartbeat was a result of an attempt to attune to the hallways. It was difficult for me because it meant that I had to take in all the sensory input. When I tried bearing with it, it only made it worse.
(Narrator begins to walk on tile, heartbeat sounds continue)
So I was uncomfort-.
So I was always uncomfortable moving through the hallways because of the busy sounds that surrounded me. I ignored any socializing and I remember bumping into others a lot as I tried to hurry from them in the hallways. I was relieved when I was finally able to escape them.
(Sounds of hallways, heart beating, and walking on tile fades out.)
But it didn’t end there. My attempt at attuning myself in the hallways was similar in an-.
My attempt at attuning myself in the hallways was similar in my attempt to attune myself in the classrooms. Although the classroom’s ambience was different, it was equally difficult. This is because sounds in the hallways are all jumbled together and I could move away from them whereas sounds from a classroom were direct. I couldn’t escape them as easily.
(Sounds of a voice talks incomprehensive speech)
As the classes were held, I remember many instances where I couldn’t pay attention to my teacher’s lectures because of how loud they carried their voice.
They felt too loud, and not necessarily from what they were saying. Receiving the sound as it reverberated onto me felt personal. Like I was being attacked by their voices. Because of my hyperacusis, my sensitivity to sound got in the way of my attunement. Sound for me didn’t need to be “especially loud or high pitched to elicit strong avoidance responses” (Davis and Stiegler 69). It just did.
It was like feeling two crash cymbals come together.
(Sounds of cymbals crashing together)
As teachers talked in class, I would feel the impact of being in the middle of those sounds.
(Sounds of cymbals crash together again)
And I took in everything.
(Sounds of cymbals crash together again, again, again, and again)
All the time.
(The cymbals crash numerous times together once more.)
Unable to understand that sound wasn’t trying to attack me, I began to be in constant fear of sound.
Phonophobia is having the fear of sounds (Jastreboff & Jastreboff). Individuals who experience phonophobia like myself have the following four symptoms in common:
(a) They believe that sound can be harmful; (Davis and Stiegler 69).
(Heart beating sounds reappear)
(Sounds of a book slams on desk, tapping of pencils on desk, heart beating continues)
Books slamming on desks scared me and I was bothered by students tapping their pencils during test taking.
(b) they attempt to overprotect their ears; (Davis and Stiegler 69).
(Heart beating sounds continue)
I would want to cover my ears to block out the sounds.
(Sounds of clock-ticking surfaces)
Even when I had to silently work on writing assignments, the repetitive ticking of the clock in the classroom intruded into my ears. It interrupted my thoughts and altered my feelings.
(c) their reactions to sound are context-dependent; (Davis and Stiegler 69).
(Heart beating sounds continue)
(Sounds of incomprehensive voice talks, clock ticking, pencil tapping re-appear)
Being in school, especially the classroom, was where I experienced my phonophobia the most.
(Sounds of ambulance siren suddenly appear)
They may react strongly to specific sounds, yet demonstrate no reaction to louder sounds (Davis and Stiegler 69).
(Sounds of siren fade out as sounds of the classroom overpower the siren.)
In classrooms, it was always direct. Because I don’t just hear sound,
(Sounds of heart beating stops.)
I feel its noise.
(Sounds of siren reappear)
Hawk describes noises as agitation and interruption (26).
(Sounds of siren continues)
I wasn’t always able to filter out the noise of everything. In classrooms, noise made me cover my ears and avoid eye contact. Even halting my voice. To stop vocalizing. To stop vocalizing. Noise and sound made it difficult to attune myself in class. As if-. As if the reaction I faced with sound wasn’t enough, how others saw me react also affected my attunement. Because sometimes my emotional reactions were considered “less conventional and seem more dramatic to observers” (Davis and Stiegler 70).
(Sounds of sirens fades out.)
I was alienated.
I struggled to make friends. I felt isolated from them, because they didn’t hear or feel what I felt. Over time, I b-. I began to withdraw from my peers and even my teachers. I stopped listening to lectures and following directions. I disconnected from the classroom entirely. The only way I could regain my sense of self was to escape back into the hallways. Where they were quiet like me.
(Sounds of wooden door softly closing.)
Being in them was peaceful. I felt a calming isolation from being one of the only individuals in the hallways. I didn’t have to cover my ears. I didn’t have to listen to the noise of others. I was surrounded by silence and I identified with that silence.
But as I walked to my locker and regained myself, I still had to return to class.
(Locker door closes.)
(Sounds of Narrator walking)
As I walked back, I tried to prepare myself again.
(Sounds of wooden door softly closing again.)
I would return to class and feel okay for a moment. But as the sounds reappeared, all of the anxiety would return again.
(Heart beating sounds reappear)
For the fear of asking too much, I would stay in my seat, and return to feeling disconnected in class. The consistent divide I felt in class made me feel even more guilty to request to go to my locker again because the separation persisted.
(Heart beating sounds stop.)
This cycling of how I attuned myself happened many times:
(Heart beating fades back in)
I rushed through the busy hallways. I suffered the unintentional sounds of the classroom. Feeling attacked, disconnected and alienated in class, I felt guilty requesting to escape into the quiet hallways. I would go to my locker. I would walk back. I tried to prepare myself again. I returned to class feeling the separation all over again.
(Heart beating fades away.)
I tried to attune myself in this push and pull cycle, going back and forth. Circling and circling in my sonic environments over and over again.
I still do this sometimes. I still feel the weight of my past. I know how I should situate myself in these environments, but still:
I can’t escape-. I can’t escape my sensitivity to sound.
Because that’s how I attuned myself to school and that’s how school attuned to me.
I know that I’m not solely responsible for my attunement. However…
I can adapt.
To start, if I listen closely to hear the noise, I can listen to their signals As Rickert states, signals are:
the meaningful sounds we listen for, attend to, and make…(151).
Noise causes us to listen to their signals, which are sounds with specific meanings to us and asks us to respond directly to them. But we don’t have to.
(“It Maintains, Eyes Change” by Puddle of Infinity begins to play)
If I hear the signals of these particular sounds, I can begin to understand that it is not the sounds themselves that affect me but from the past negative sonic experiences I have with them.
(Pause, “It Maintains, Eyes Change” continues)
For myself, this could mean that I was misinterpreting the sounds and voices, thoughts and actions of how the classrooms and hallways affected me and how my teachers and peers saw me. In the times where I chose to ignore their noise and sounds, I severed the chance of attuning myself along with them.
One of the ways I can adapt to my soundscapes then, is to use other methods of listening suchas listening into the quiet moments and becoming an active maker of my soundscapes.
(“It Maintains, Eyes Change” fades out)
Tina M. Campt, author of Listening to Images asks us to listen to the quiet moments. She asks us to give attention to the things we might not notice. To let yourself be open to new possibilities with sound. To really deeply listen to them.
When I was in the quiet hallways, not only did I find my respite, but I also found a chance to reflect in those moments. How quiet was something I resonated with and how meaningful the quiet moments were to me. Although I found it difficult to attune in the noisy classrooms, in the quiet moments, it gave me time to refocus and resituate myself.
To find my empowerment.
(“It Maintains, Eyes Change” fades back in and out)
Next, when I go back to the classrooms, I can refocus on the certain sounds and resituate myself in them. Adam J. Banks, author of Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age asks us to not be passive consumers of sound, but our own makers. What I mean is, if we use Campt’s argument of deeply listening to not only the quiet moments, but in all moments of sonic experiences, I can decide on making meaning with them. To be active and create my own sonic experiences.
Being in the classroom meant that I can engage in the environment on how I want to. I can begin to choose a new path of how I engage in my environment.
(“It Maintains, Eyes Change” fades back in)
My phonophobia got in the way of how I saw sound, but I can resist their signals and reinterpret them to accommodate myself more easily. I can find new meanings in them.
But while I can adapt, this is not enough.
(“It Maintains, Eyes Change” fades out)
Because anyone, including myself, shouldn’t be the one who has to adapt. The classroom should also work to accommodate me. It should work to accommodate all members of the community.
Elizabeth Tomlinson and Sara Newman, in their article: “Valuing Writers from a Neurodiversity Perspective” studied how neurodiverse individuals, particularly those with Autism, approached their writing tasks. Participants were asked to describe their approaches to writing and the techniques they use to communicate successfully with audiences across areas of their lives. Most of the conversations were about the accommodations they could use in the classroom.
After collecting their ideas, the participants suggested instructors allow computer use, re-remind students about due dates, break tasks into small steps, provide extra time on writing assignments if possible, and allow stimming if they aren’t too distracting to others.
A participant explained that if they stim, it’s because “we’re just having trouble connecting to our thoughts probably due to a distraction in the environment. The stim kind of helps us disconnect to think because when we focus on the stim it helps block out the environment and lets us transition to thought” (qtd. in Tomlinson and Newman 102).
All of this helps them attune to their environment.
To add to this, another method could be to use headphones. They could be noise cancelling to block out sounds or headphones used to listen to music to create my own personal soundscapes.
When I wear my noise canceling headphones, they can block out intrusive sounds.
(Sounds from classrooms reappear)
(Narrator puts on headphones; Sounds from classrooms are muffled)
(All sounds fade out.)
And listening to music personalizes my soundscape. I don’t mean playing music in class, but whenever I would need to block out invasive sounds. What I mean is:
(Mechanical clock rings in and out, hallway sounds reappear, heart beating reappears, narrator walks fast through the sounds)
(Sounds of push bar from door opens and closes, narrator keeps walking)
When I finally escaped my last encounters with the classrooms and hallways that day,
(Sounds of bike pedaling reappear)
I got back on my bike and listened to my CD player, because:
(“Brighton Lights” reappear)
I enjoyed the sounds. I would look past the lyrics if there were any and listen to the deeper meanings and the feelings that evoked in me. Whether it was the rhythm, repetition or familiarity, from those sounds, I experienced a different sonic world.
(“Brighton Lights” fades away.)
(Bike pedaling fades away.)
From these encounters with how our sonic environments have the potential to influence particular thoughts, moods, actions, and interactions, I have found insight about my own experiences and how those have shaped me to interact with sound.
(“So Long Analog” by Noir Et Blanc Vie fades in)
I can find appreciation in the unexpected, loud environments. By using these methods of listening, I can be more open to feeling safe in these sonic environments. I can openly feel more comfortable in beginning to attune myself.
(“So Long Analog” continues to play)
However, when others are accommodated, this helps others like myself better able to attune themselves in the ambience.
So far, this has worked for me. Maybe it’ll work for others.
(“So Long Analog” continues to play)
In the meantime, I will return as a college student this fall.
(Birds chirping reappear)
When I move through the ambience of the hallways, classrooms, and on my bike:
(Bike pedaling old chain reappears)
I hope to welcome sound more openly as I adapt and attune to them.
(All sounds fade away.)