Review | The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies

The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. Edited by Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. [624 pp., illus. ISBN: 978-01-953-8894-7].

Reviewed by Guillaume Heuguet / Université Paris Sorbonne


Note: This review marks the first post in a collaboration between Ethnomusicology Review,, and Ascidiacea (see introduction post).


To tackle a handbook, it is necessary to consider its role in instituting questions and methods.[1] When the Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (OHSS) was published in 2012, the press release discussed sound studies as if it was an emerging field of research. In reality, over the same period of time, several collective and synthesis works were also published, demonstrating that this was more a moment of institutional consolidation. That same year saw the publication of The Sound Studies Reader edited by Jonathan Sterne, which included reference texts by Friedrich Kittler, Rick Altman, Roland Barthes, etc. Earlier in 2004, Audio Culture by Cox and Warner basically brought together theorists in aesthetics and avant-garde musicians. In 2013, Michael Bull proposed Sound Studies: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies which was particularly rich in texts already identified on the subject and stretching from Jacques Attali to Paul Théberge.

These works reveal a long tradition of reflection on sound and listening in the humanities which the OHSS is incorporated in while simultaneously proposing an innovative approach. Despite the presence of authors as indispensable as Michael Bull, Tia De Nora, and Jonathan Sterne, this book is less an educational overview than an investigation of the challenges and key issues that interest its editors. Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijtersveld specialize in the sociology of science and STS (Sciences and Technology Studies). Trevor Pinch has worked in this field for many years through the “STS Faces the Music” sessions organized in Bielefeld, Germany in 1996, as well as through his book Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer co-authored with Frank Trocco (2002). For her part, Karin Bijtersveld has published Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century with José van Dijck (MIT 2008). The two editors have continued to guide all their contributions toward issues concerning science, technology, and medicine: “How have scientists, engineers and physicians used their ears to give meaning to what they studied? . . . How have these listening practices . . . generated scientific knowledge, technological designs and medical equipment? Why is it that listening has nevertheless remained contentious and lacks the same legitimation given to other means of knowledge?” (Pinch and Bijsterveld 2012:11-12). These questions allowed them to build upon the collection Music, Sound, and the Laboratory from 1750 to 1980 published by Alexandra Hui, Julia Kursell and Myles W. Jackson (2013). The latter two authors are included in the table of contents of the present book.

To meet these challenges, the OHSS is broken down into “spaces where noise is perceived” – factories and industrial testing spaces, the “field” (as in the expression “field recordings”), the laboratory, the clinic, the design studio, the consumption space (defined in the book as “the home and beyond”), and the sound archive space. This spatial distribution is based on the Latourian observation of laboratory activity as a way in which to understand science, with an emphasis in this particular case on material culture: “‘Follow the instruments’ is the methodological heuristic heard in this volume” (Pinch and Bijsterveld 2012:19). The separation into spaces leads to a large number of echoes and overlaps between chapters. This finally suggests that sound as a scientific object tends to cross through the various “walls” that it encounters – unless this is nothing more than the positive effect of a constructivist approach to sound that is sensitive to its myriad genealogies.

Aware of the changeable nature of the object of their studies, Pinch and Bijsterveld in all cases enhance the reach of the disciplinary backgrounds of their authors. Consequently, they propose envisaging sound studies as being at the crossroads of works resulting from acoustic ecology, theoretical traditions in architecture, town planning and design (sound design, soundscape design, interaction design), studies in art, musicology, and ethnomusicology, the new musicology and radical musicology, as well as sensory studies. Regarding the latter and according to Pinch and Bijsterveld, sound studies reveal an increased interest in the “physical interweaving” of sound and the multisensorial mediation of the sound experience (2012:10).

Without regard for comprehensiveness or representativeness concerning the magnitude of this book, we note three strong ideas. The first of these concerns the way in which sound participates in industrial societies. Mark M. Smith demonstrates the historic relativity of the representations of industrialization personified by The Machine in the Garden (1964), a book written by the historian Leo Marx. In his article, Smith studies testimonies relating to a factory located in Lowell, Massachusetts in the 1820s. His sources push him to affirm that far from representing the noisy irruption of industrialization, “the sounds in Lowell are better understood as consonants with the sounds of rural New England” (2012:47). Hans-Joachim Braun is also interested in the relativity of sensitivity to noise. He questions the relations between political regimes and noise management in Germany’s industrial sector. It was necessary to wait until the 1970s to have sufficient R&D funding to develop mechanisms to reduce noise in the workplace. At the other end of the historical spectrum and within an urban context, Michael Bull has found an ambivalent relationship in what he calls the “iPod culture” – the management of public space understood as a sound space lying between “secessionism, creativity and addiction” (2012:540). For certain users, the iPod device is used to recover a certain autonomy with regards to an inflicted urban culture.

The second strong idea concerns the instrumental and rationalized use of sound. The automotive industry and its particular approach to engine noise represents a textbook case (Krebs, Cleophas and Bijsterveld). This dual logic with its clearly different implications are to be found in the chapter titled “Speaking for the Body: The Clinic.” This article by Mara Mills particularly describes the epistemic consequences of the cochlear implant in order to understand how “natural” audition is already a form of biological “programming” (2012:339).

The third strong idea examines the practices and concepts of “sonification.” The article by Alexandra Supper provides an initial approach to this emerging field formed by researchers working to legitimize their method of transforming data sets into sound, echoing the idea of “data visualization.” Supper observes the public communications of researchers who defend the scientific nature of this approach (2012:249). The theme of sonification also pinpoints one of the main motivations for work in sound studies that covers part of the book: to rehabilitate the role sound plays in our ideas of science.

But can this sound rehabilitation avoid a new standard implying a difference between the senses and thus a certain ontology of sensations? This question is conceptualized in the article by Jonathan Sterne and Mitchell Akiyama that examines the original idea developed by the First Sounds group. This group succeeded in “replaying” a sound recording created using the device invented by Scott de Martinville that preceded Edison’s phonograph – the phonautograph, a machine initially intended to provide sounds with a visual recording. Their investigations echo the famous chapter written by Fredrich Kittler on the gramophone, which includes a passage devoted to the invention of the “frequency” as an epistemic object positioned between sight, audition, and scientific rationality.[2] Kittler shows how the graphical notation of sound had a particular role to play within the framework of phono-linguistic experiments, a subject also developed by the OHSS in an article by Julia Kursell which makes reference to this author (2012:176).

Sterne and Akiyama make several theoretical and methodological proposals that fulfill the promise of the “handbook” which merit attention. For them, the phonautograph provides the historic link between sound and visual technologies; it is part of a series of “technologies that have translated natural processes – sound, electricity, biological processes and rhythms – into visual data adhering to structured forms” (2012:545). They propose approaching these various objects in terms of articulation and within a constructivist approach to the senses. For them, the theory of articulation in cultural studies makes it possible to go further than Latour in questioning power relations. In this theory of social reality, the articulations between phenomena as well as their speed and direction are all contingent. Consequently, the authors propose considering “the modularity of sensory technologies, the modularity of relations between the senses, subjects and technologies, and ultimately the modularity of the senses themselves” (2012:546). Basing their work on Piercean semiotics and the index concept, Sterne and Akiyama propose the term audification to designate that which, among sonification practices, is based on a “hypothesis concerning the indexicality in the reproduction or manipulation of a phenomenon . . .  a relationship that is intended to be perceived as a causal relationship” (2012:549).

If one extends the article’s proposal, the audification of visual signs reveals, like all sonification undertakings, the fundamental ambiguity of all types of signs. This relates back to the criticisms of the trace category that is operated in information and communication sciences in France.[3] Consequently, the reference to indexical listening completes the criticism made by Sterne concerning the cybernetic approach to sound and listening modeling that is present in the transduction principle and then in the MP3 format. This paradigm amounts to isolating and “coding” a plan of physical reality by denying its ambivalence and complexity as a semiotic and social phenomenon. The proposals made by Sterne, based on archives linked to engineering players, merit being compared to other social discourses in order to observe to what degree indexicality represents a hegemonic listening regime. For example, Jeremy Wallachs, like Schaffer and Chion, suggest that we can also perceive sound as a form of material presence without seeking to interpret it as the sign of a source or a cause.[4]

Sterne and Akiyama radicalize the constructivist position that has already been expressed elsewhere by Sterne: “There is a conclusion to be made here concerning the plasticity of data in digital schemes and the dissolution of old knowledge about the senses . . . the unity of sound as perceptual category is an illusion of language” (2012:557). By dissolving in this way all a priori knowledge of a distinctive aspect of reality that we could call sound, their proposal questions the theoretical basis for the restoration of a symmetry between the senses, being a determinant for sound studies. As a consequence, they assume that “sound studies . . . must let go of its axiomatic assumptions regarding the givenness of a particular domain called ‘sound,’ a process called hearing, or a ‘listening subject’”(2012:556).

This final article therefore allows us to highlight on the scale of this paper and perhaps beyond, a specific sound studies contribution that amounts to answering the question: “what is the use of sound studies?” The answer would be: escape from cybernetic thinking concerning sensations and processes of signification. This would first be achieved by showing that the practice and contents of sciences and technologies – no matter whether “information” or “data” – are often occulo-centric. Second, by showing that this audition/view distinction is itself the result of a cybernetic design that distinguishes faculties to better prioritize them. From this point of view, there is something paradoxical in what Sterne and Akiyama propose in the same article, to extend the technical “transduction” concept to the human ear, as their intention is to apply a technical metaphor to a human process. This idea is picked up and underlined in the introduction to the OHSS, accompanied by the proposal to similarly enlarge the idea of “conversion.”

This represents a point of reflection that is stimulating for future research: should the human ear be understood to be a machine like any other, with researchers thinking of human interpretation as a “treatment” of separate semiotic materials? On the contrary, if the intention is to pay more attention to sound and its values, couldn’t the hypothesis of a synthetic human perception-knowledge serve to provide better comprehension of the ecological dimensions of technologies? To shed light on these epistemological choices, it might be worthwhile to return to the philosophical tradition based around perception and cognition, ranging from Kant to Merleau-Ponty, and interlink these issues more widely to the social history of experimental, biological, and cognitive sciences.

Furthermore, and despite the addition of an internet site with audio extracts, the objects and corpus mobilized in the OHSS are largely based on the written word and images. For a manual, the methodological perspectives concerning the way in which sound recordings could be used as analytical materials for sound studies are lacking.[5] Admittedly, certain articles in the book more specifically concentrate on music with regards to hip-hop or electronic advertising music, but either the reference to specific texts is missing or audio productions simply exist as examples within an essentially historic approach; their density and ambiguities as sounds have not been worked on.

To take this further, a good way of knowing whether, like Sterne, there is a wish to push sound deconstruction as far as possible, would be to more closely examine what we consider the “sound matter.” In this way, it would be possible to see to what degree the description of a sound phenomenon as such remains useful for understanding particular situations or to dialogue with other theories and social discourses. Taking this approach, sound studies can only gain from dialogue with the works produced in popular music studies, ethnomusicology, and aesthetics. In France, it is the music theorists who contribute to opening listening analysis categories by linking listening to music with wider practices and definitions of hearing and presenting audition as a cultural phenomenon in the wider sense of the term (see of course Pierre Schaeffer, as well as Michel Chion, Peter Szendy, François J. Bonnet, and reviews such as Tacet).[6] Within this context of the hybridization of knowledge, the article by Myles W. Jackson “From Scientific Instruments to Musical instruments: The Tuning Fork, the Metronome, and the Siren” is particularly interesting. His historical and materialist approach is based on the description of “instruments” (both scientific and musical) and the use made of these instruments by music. In this way, he swings in both directions between the question of sound as a “scientifically coded” object and the way it is used as an expressive resource; artistic practices and scientific practices continue to cross over from one domain to another.

It can be seen that there are several ways to continue to be open-minded and ensure the productivity of the scientific dialogism underlying sound studies. It is also interesting to note that where sound studies focus on material, spatial, and discursive listening conditions, visual studies largely concentrate on the significance and interrelations of the images “themselves,” no matter whether these are visual arts or visual productions in the wider sense of the term. Each field appears almost to mirror the limits of the other. So should sound be pragmatic and the visual express a media-centrism? It is a form of splitting that merits discussion. In any case, several years after its publication, this seminal work continues to reveal how sound studies make the theme of sound a particularly stimulating point of departure to question the practice of science as a cultural and social phenomenon, the results and methodologies of other disciplines, and to open innovative fields of investigation.



[1] This account of a sound studies work, written by a French Ph.D. candidate and published in an American ethnomusicology journal, necessarily takes its place in this institutional work.

[2] Kittler, Friedrich. 1999. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

[3] Jeanneret, Y. 2013. “Faire Trace: Un Dispositif de Représentation du Social.” Intellectica 59:41-63.

[4] “Sound, regardless of its source, possesses a material presence that can make its indexical properties of secondary importance” (Wallach 2003). I have developed the consequences of this idea in regard to sound presentation on the internet. See Heuguet 2015.

[5] The recent Sound as Popular Culture (2016) edited by Jens Gerrit Papenburg and Holger Schulze stands as an exception.

[6] Within the French context, it is also worth noting the existence of the collection titled New Perspectives in Sound Studies (2004), edited by Dominique Nasta and Didier Huvelle, which represents a good example of the development of research into sound in France within the context of cinema studies.



Bijsterveld, Karin. 2008. Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

Bull, Michael, ed. 2013. Sound Studies: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge.

Cox, Christopher, and Daniel Warner, eds. 2004. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. New York: Continuum.

Heuguet, Guillaume. 2015. “De la Chambre au ‘Cloud?’: Fonction Documentaire du son et Énonciation Éditoriale des ‘Players Audio.’” In Silence et Bruits du Moyen Âge à Nos Jours. Perceptions, Identités Sonores et Patrimonialisation, edited by Juliette Aubrun, Catherine Bruant, Laura Kendrick, Catherine Lavandier, and Nathalie Simmonot. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Hui, Alexandra, Julia Kursell, and Myles Kackson. 2013. “Music, Sound, and the Laboratory from 1750 to 1980.” Osiris 28(1):1-11.

Jeanneret, Yves. 2013. “Faire Trace: Un Dispositif de Représentation du Social.” Intellectica 59:41-63.

Kittler, Friedrich. 1999. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Manovich, Lev. 2013. Software Takes Command. New York: Bloomsbury.

Nasta, Dominique, and Didier Huvelle, eds. 2004. Le Son en Perspective: Nouvelles Recherches/New Perspectives in Sound Studies. Berlin: Peter Lang.

Papenburg, Jens Ggerrit, and Holger Schulze, eds. 2016. Sound as Popular Culture: A Research Companion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sterne, Jonathan. 2003. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

––––––. 2012. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

––––––., ed. 2012. The Sound Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

Wallach, Jeremy. 2003. “The Poetics of Electrosonic Presence: Recorded Music and the Materiality of Sound.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 15(1):34-64.


Guillaume Heuguet is a Ph.D. candidate in Communication and Information Sciences at GRIPIC-Celsa (Université Paris Sorbonne). His work focuses on digital media, music culture, and journalism. He is chief editor of the French series in music criticism, Audimat (, and collaborates with the publisher La Rue Musicale (Philarmonie de Paris).


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