Sound Effects

First writer: Danah Hashem
Second writer: Megan Grandmont
Revision Feedback by: Tanya K. Rodrigue, Anne Mooney, and Julia Bennett
Edited by: Tanya K. Rodrigue

Several scholars have discussed the rhetorical function of sound effects within audio composition, offering different understandings and definitions. Heidi McKee (2006) has held that sound effects often “provide information about a scene,” “serve as a cue reference,” “help in mood creation,” or “act as an emotional stimulus” (p. 346). Fran Tonkiss (2003) discussed sound’s capacity to trigger tangible memories, and Theo van Leeuwen (1999) acknowledged the ability of sounds to evoke specific emotional reactions. Another way to understand how sound effects can function rhetorically is to think about them in relation to the affordances of visuals. Sound effects, much like visuals, can function as symbols that perform complex semiotic work.

James A. Herrick (2005) defined a symbol as “any mark, sign, sound, or gesture that communicates meaning based on social agreement” (p. 5). A sound effect can therefore function as a symbol by denoting an idea or emotion through some socially or culturally constructed connection between the two; this idea is supported by McKee’s explanation of sound effects described above. Tonkiss (2003) has also understood sounds in relation to visuals, referring to sounds as a kind of artifact that can be “kept as souvenirs,” imbued with an ability to invoke in a listener the memory or idea of a place, person, or time (p. 306). The sound becomes a symbol for the memory, a point Tonkiss made by comparing sounds with visuals. When we understand sound effects as potential sonic symbols, we possess a useful way of thinking about how sound effects shape a listener’s experience with an audio composition.

Being Playful

When exploring possible means of creating particular listener reactions to, and interactions with, our audio compositions, individual composers experimented with the symbolic potential of sound effects in different ways. Both Julia Bennett and Megan Grandmont played with sound effects’ capacity for mood creation by using them to signal the environments in which their compositions took place, as well as what kinds of attitudes listeners should bring to their experiences with the compositions. In “Beneath the Ashes,” Julia included a brief sputter of radio static at the beginning, as well as a filter over the narrator’s voice in order to age its sound. These effects indicated to listeners that her composition is meant to emulate an older radio broadcast, appealing to a common cultural understanding of 1950s radio programs. Julia expanded on her experiences with vintage radio shows and hoped her audience would recognize her cues.


Similarly, Megan Grandmont experimented with sound effects in “Night Visions: An Audio Drama” in order to enhance the naturalistic mood of the characters’ lives and to establish evocative dream sequences that intrude on that naturalism. Her drama featured a steady stream of familiar daily sounds, such as the ringing of an alarm clock or the washing of dishes, which would occasionally be interrupted by dream-like sound effects, such as a car crash or a heartbeat. The deployment of these effects creates an atmosphere to which listeners relate their experiences with, and understanding of, dreams, effectively establishing a mood that adds to the overall meaning and complexity of the piece.

In addition to creating mood, McKee (2006) has said that a sound effect can “provide information about a scene” and “serve as a cue reference” (p. 346).


Anne Mooney explored this affordance so that she could communicate necessary details about her audio drama, “Claimed Experience: Owning the Past,” to the listener. She used sound effects to alter the audience’s relationship to what they heard, drawing on van Leeuwen’s (1999) notion of moving the listener “toward or away from a certain position” through sound (p. 18). By strategically employing cues like a dulled pencil scratching on paper and pages turning, Anne toggled the listener back and forth between her past and present selves. These effects created quick and seamless transitions between the two narrators without disorienting the audience.

Sound effects for the purposes of context and mood also manifest in Danah Hashem’s audio journal, “A Week in March,” in accordance with McKee’s (2006) description; however, in keeping with the rhetorical goals of a journal, Danah more specifically wanted to examine the role of sound effects for memory preservation and recreation. Her goal of using sound effects to facilitate memory preservation relied on Tonkiss’ (2003) description of sound effects recorded from a live environment as “passing snapshots of sound” (p. 307). Danah based her audio composition on her physical journal, which features photographs and illustrations of her days. She hoped to experiment with the idea of sonically illustrating her audio journal entries with sound snapshots captured from her daily life. These snapshots comprise memories that the listener can engage with by making connections with the memory content.

Being Flexible

As we composed, the semiotic functions of many of our sound effects created unexpected challenges. The variable volumes of Megan’s live-recorded sound effects, and the difficulty of integrating these different effects together into a single, rhetorically effective soundscape prompted her to use all pre-recorded, higher quality effects. The option of using her own, live-recorded sound effects, she believed, would have enabled her to achieve the rhetorical goal of creating a real naturalism that was important to the listener’s experience. However, using pre-recorded, higher quality effects allowed her to adjust the volumes of individual effects as needed and craft a cohesive soundscape that van Leeuwen (1999) has called a subordinated auditory “texture” (p. 112). This texture established a “sound setting” against which Megan’s drama could meaningfully unfold, affording a rhetorical value that outweighed that of incorporating live-recorded sound effects (p. 112).

Similarly, Dan Harris and Kate Artz realized that they needed sound effects to provide necessary context about the scene or setting of their audio compositions.


After Dan shared the first draft of his audio memoir, “Grapefruits, Dipsticking, and Teddy,” with the collaborators on this project, we collectively noted that the piece seemed to be decontextualized and difficult to follow; his scenes lacked sufficient information to create full and rich meaning for listeners. As Dan revised, he discovered that sound effects, such as the school bell and the children in the halls, could create that much-needed listening environment, and he consequently built what Tonkiss (2003) referred to as a “soundstage” for his recounting of events (p. 347). Although Dan had not initially envisioned them as having a place in his memoir, sound effects grounded his story in a recognizable setting and provided coherence to the composition.


Kate, also, had no intention of including sound effects in “The Conversation.” Yet she quickly discovered that they would be essential in establishing her audio drama as a phone call. After deviating from her original plan slightly, Kate recognized that adding effects like the dial tone, ringing phone, and distorted voices created a more authentic experience for listeners, easily showing them rather than telling them the context of the piece.

Being Reflective

Following the completion of our audio compositions, we reviewed and reflected on the rhetorical impact of the sound effects we had opted to include, recognizing the effectiveness of our choices, the challenges we faced, and the unanticipated successes that occurred. Van Leeuwen (1999) provided us with an informal standard against which we could measure our work through his suggestion that “the true criterion lies in the degree to which a sound event is felt to have an emotive impact” (p. 182). While the sound effects employed in our projects all functioned differently, we reflected on the emotional power behind some of these functions.


The sound effects in Danah’s audio journal were able to act as symbols, denoting emotions through some constructed connections between sound effects and ideas. A good morning kiss with her husband, for instance, acted as a symbol of love and relational comfort; this symbol was important in her narration of the memory. When Danah shared “A Week in March” with her collaborators, the audience found that these symbols created a personal connection to the project, and the people and memories depicted therein.

Kate and Anne both continued to struggle with dissatisfaction surrounding the quality and effectiveness of the sound effects used in their projects, despite positive feedback from collaborators. When listening to her own work, Kate was critical of the levels of distortion she used in recreating phone voices, believing that they sounded artificial. In contrast, listeners observed that Kate’s sound effects were compelling and indeed essential to generating an immersive listening experience. We overwhelmingly felt that the lifelike phone interactions that Kate created with sound effects allowed us to project our own experiences onto “The Conversation,” individualizing each listener’s interaction with the piece. In spite of her personal misgivings, Kate’s work exemplified van Leeuwen’s claim that settings and actions can materialize in recorded sounds; the inclusion of sound effects created a realistic atmosphere for listeners (p. 123).

After reviewing her finished piece, Anne, as well as the collaborators, believed the sound effects were rhetorically successful in that they clarified the listener’s position relative to the narrative. This clarity in structure and perspective facilitated the emotional power behind “Claimed Experience: Owning the Past.” While the sound effects accomplished their purpose of positioning the listener, Anne felt this to be a minimal goal; they did not, she believed, evince the kind of comprehensive narrative scene that she hoped, demonstrating some of the limitations of sound effects in establishing context.


Like Anne, Julia’s use of sound effects enabled her to successfully achieve particular aims with regards to the overall emotional impact of her piece. Her decision to layer static distortion over the first part of “Beneath the Ashes” pointed strongly to both radio conventions as well as the public, sensational tone with which the original newspaper article had retold her grandmother’s story. This dramatic narration strongly contrasted with her mother’s private, unidealized voice in her personal, more intimate account of the events. The resultant juxtaposition proved to be very powerful, calling attention to her grandmother’s misrepresented suffering and eliciting feelings of empathy for her.


For each of our composers, the use of sound effects as sonic symbols proved to be a highly flexible sonic strategy. We accomplished complicated semiotic work within our compositions by capitalizing on a sound’s ability to indicate a particular idea or emotion, based on socially or culturally agreed upon connections. Through the strategic use of sound effects, we effectively triggered associations in our listeners to elicit desired emotional responses, to establish context, and/or to create complex, rich scenes within our compositions.