First (in)definition: sound is an object

The idea that we may go to a museum not to view pictures, sculptures and the like but rather to hear sounds[1] might at first sound a touch weird to the majority of the museumgoers. Nevertheless, the trend to stage exhibitions designed specifically to embed visitors in sound has increasingly been embraced by museums worldwide. In brief, three pieces of evidence have prompted sound in museums: the understanding of sound as an object and/or artifact; technological improvements that have rendered sound experiments in galleries feasible; and the affective and sensorial turns, which has led to the acknowledgement of the importance of sound in museums for the arousing of emotion, working memories and evoking human identity. Elaborating on each facet proves an imperative and far-reaching exercise and thus I approach them one at a time and correspondingly starting off with the notion of sound as an object.

The idea that sound is an object might sound unusual to the reader as conventional objects stand and are handled whereas sound is fleeting, effuse and not ownable.

Whereas sound has hitherto never been clearly acknowledged as an object, neither in museum practice nor in daily lives discourses , I believe that the early medieval quest to notate music already figures as an attempt to materialise it – coupled with the willingness to memorise it. Nevertheless, something much more extreme came to happen centuries later: sound-recording technologies. Indeed, as sound technologies arrived in the 19th century and developed in the 20th century, recording definitively pushed humans into shifting their relationships with sound: as recording can crystallise a moment, this thereby endows people with the opportunity to retrieve that moment whenever they wish with such sound quickly objectified by means of records[2].

In addition to the renewal of daily practices, sound-recording technologies have already prompted significant theoretical shifts regarding sound. As such, in the 1960s and the 1970s, Schaeffer and Schafer conceptually materialised sound and thereby making it possible to treat sound as an object for research. In his article Acousmatics, Pierre Schaeffer[3], introduced the concept of the sound object. For this author, sound and music have definitely become objects through both radio and recording. Indeed, these technologies allowed sound to be disconnected from its source and to be fully appreciated through listening, an experience in direct opposition to that of watching a concert where people also deploy sight to decipher sound. In addition, modern technologies have made sound mobile and in that sense a detoured object. According to Schaeffer, only through the experience of hearing without the aid of sight, which he calls acousmatic, has the sound object come to exist[4].

Murray Schafer[5] also profited from the potentials of sound-technologies to insightfully draw attention to the informative potential of sound thus treating it as an object for scholarly analysis. By mapping and classifying our sonic surroundings, Schafer’s acoustic ecology leads us to reflect on just which sounds might be preserved and performed. The author applies the term soundscape[6] to represent the sonic environment, whether in a particular space or in an entire culture. Like Schaeffer, Schafer also notes the separation of an original sound from its maker. He calls this Schizophonia and enthusiastically highlights its advantages. Having gained an independent existence, ‘any sonic environment can now become any other sonic environment'[7]. Again, sound becomes an object in that it refuses to go away.

At the same time, there is also another dimension in which sound assumes the shape of an object in its ability to allow humans to establish different types of significant relationships with it. In recent decades, a whole range of diffusion authors from across the fields of sound studies, ethnomusicology, and sensory studies have produced ground breaking studies on the distinctive and diverse roles sound plays in every human culture. For example, Thomas Turino[8] demonstrates how, both around the world and throughout history, people have deployed music to express their innermost emotions before then exploring just how music so very often emerges at the centre of our most profound personal and social experiences; furthermore, Bijsterveld and van Dijck[9] underpin the importance of sound whether for remembering the past or for creating a sense of belonging. This is indeed expressed by the way we keep and preserve ‘sound souvenirs’, such as cassette tapes, records and the like, to be able to continually and continuously recreate the music and everyday sounds we once cherished; Bull[10] explores sound’s roles for the human management of space and time and in their construction of boundaries about the self and as a site of memory and fantasy. Such views advocate the standpoint that sound encodes the world that produces it. Hence, should sound constitute both an object created by humans and one that conveys information about their respective different cultures, sound thus correspondingly becomes a cultural artifact[11] and therefore must similarly figure at the heart of museum concerns and attentions.

The theoretical sketch outlined above, presented here briefly within the framework of a readable blog post, deserves, it seems to me, actively focusing upon and disseminating across museum studies professionals in order to ensure they can start revealing to their audiences just what sound has to tell and say. I believe the aforementioned notions equip curators with a range of promising perspectives with which to encode sound artifacts in exhibitions: on the one hand, this enables the engendering of aesthetic admiration, emotion, pleasure and memories; on the other hand, this also acknowledges the historical, musical, economic, social, political and semiotic content which is undergoing presentation.

The fact that a number of authors have been pointing to the qualities of sound as an object, hence making its materiality visible, comes to challenge conventional immaterial substance approach to sound. To better state this, the division of cultural vs. immaterial culture is only arbitrary: as immaterial heritage was identified and acknowledged subsequently to its material peer, it proved easier to entitle this with a new word rather than updating the existing boundaries so as to encompass sound.

Sound becomes material through its ability to endow the listener with an opportunity to react with its immateriality thus proving no more than a discursive approach.


[1] Sound here encapsulates all instances of audial events relating to museum exhibitions.

[2] Reynolds, Simon (2011). Retromania, Pop Culture’s Additcion to Its Own Past. London: Faber and Faber.

[3] Schaeffer, Pierre. 2005[1966]. ‘Acousmatics’. In Audio Culture, Readings in Modern Culture, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner New York and London: Continuum, p. 76-81

[4] Schaeffer, Pierre. 2005[1966]. ‘Acousmatics’. In Audio Culture, Readings in Modern Culture, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner New York and London: Continuum, p. 79.

[5] Schafer, R. Murray. 1994[1977]. ‘The Soundscape, Our Sonic Environment and the Tunning of the World’. Vermont: Destiny Books.

[6] Although the origin of this term is commonly attributed to Murray Schafer, Jonathan Sterne reports some previous conceptualisations. Schafer himself accredited the concept to Michael Southworth (Sterne, Jonathan. 2013. ‘Soundscape, Loudscape, Escape’. In Soundscapes of the Urban Past. Staged Sound as Mediated Cultural Heritage. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, p. 185-6).

[7] Schafer, R. Murray. 1994[1977]. ‘The Soundscape, Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World’. In In Audio Culture, Readings in Modern Culture, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. New York and London: Continuum, p. 34.

[8] Turino, Thomas. 2008. Music as Social Life, the Politics of Participation. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Turino, Thomas. 2009. Four Fields of Making Music and Sustainable Living. World of Music, Special Issue 51(1), 95-117.

[9] Bijsterveld, Karen, & Dijck, J. v. 2009. Sound souvenirs: audio technologies, memory and cultural practices. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

[10] Bull, ichael. 2000. Sounding Out the City, Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life. Oxford and New York: Berg.

[11] In the social sciences, particularly anthropology, ethnology, and sociology, artifact establishes a term serving for anything created by humans which contains and conveys information about the culture of its creator(s) and users.

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