Sonic Strategies

Four black and white icons. From left to right: (1) a magnifying glass on half an eye; (2) an ear with three wavy lines near the earlobe; (3) a curtain at a theater; and (4) four black puzzle pieces that comprise a square.

These four icons function as a visual summary of this section. This summary genre was created by Kyle Tezak. The icons, all Creative Commons, are from The Noun Project. Icon titles and creators in order of appearance: “Magnifying-Glass” by Steve Morris; “Hear” by Takao Umehara; “Theater” by Haridass; and “Puzzle” by John O’Shea.

by Tanya K. Rodrigue

Scholars exploring sound have often worked at cross- and interdisciplinary intersections, drawing on semiotics, sound studies, musicology, media studies, aesthetics, philosophy, and/or physiology to name a few. In many instances, sonic scholars have situated sound as a site of rhetorical analysis or material to use in multimodal writing (Anderson, 2014), many times offering pedagogical implications or strategies for teaching with it. The pages in this section seek to contribute to this scholarship by: (1) offering an in-depth exploration of common sonic strategies and their use from a rhetorical and semiotic perspective; and (2) describing cognitive and technical processes for composing with audio, focusing on three major areas—play, flexibility, and reflection, thus highlighting the value of such skills in audio composing processes. Our ultimate goal is to help audio composers gain a strong understanding of an approach to sonic composition that is specific to sound but broadly rhetorical.

Tuning In To Sonic Scholarship

Many scholars who explore sound have drawn on traditional rhetorical terms, concepts, and principles as a way to understand and explain how sound functions rhetorically (Halbritter, 2006; Selfe, 2007; Stedman, 2011, 2014; VanKooten, 2011). While some drew exclusively from rhetoric, others scholars drew from a union of rhetoric and semiotics. This approach has firmly situated sound in discussions of multimodality, wherein communication is understood as expression in modalities or “meaning–making systems”—linguistic, aural, visual, spatial, and gestural (New London Group, 1996). Drawing on Aristotle, rhetoricians like Cynthia Selfe (2007) have identified these modes as “all available rhetorical means,” explaining that each mode has distinct affordances—possibilities and capabilities in communicative acts—that rhetors need to consider when determining how to best achieve rhetorical goals (p. 6).

Rhetoricians like Heidi McKee (2006) and semioticians like Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen (2001; van Leeuwen, 1999) have provided helpful ways to think about the rhetorical function of sound, isolating different kinds of sounds and identifying their rhetorical capabilities and effects. For example, McKee (2006) identified vocal delivery (wherein she cited van Leeuwen), music, sound effects, and silence as strategies and considered their possible rhetorical effects. Music, for example, has the potential to establish tone and atmosphere while sound effects can provide information and “serve as a cue reference” (p. 346).

Taking heed from scholars such as McKee (2006) and van Leeuwen (1999) (and often drawing on them), the composers of this webtext conduct micro-examinations of five commonly used sonic rhetorical strategies: music, silence, sound effects, sound interaction, and voice. The composers explicate and demonstrate the rich potentialities of sonic rhetorical strategies, showing the multiple rhetorical effects each strategy affords based on how it is used in relation to existing scholarship, a rhetorical situation with particular rhetorical goals, and a sonic genre. While existing scholarship has identified strategies and provided brief examples of how strategies are employed in situations, these composers use a triangulated lens to provide an in-depth exploration of each strategy in genres ranging from oral history to audio dramas to audio memoirs.

The composers also demonstrate what Michelle Comstock and Mary Hocks (2006) identified as a critical sonic literacy—“the ability to identify, define, situate, construct, and manipulate, and communicate our personal and cultural soundscapes.” The composers’ work provides insight into how that literacy is gained and ways it can be used to create innovative, meaningful audio projects.

Listening To The Process

Writing studies scholars have long identified particular habits of mind, skills, and abilities as important to effective communication (Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2011; Shipka, 2006), three of those being play, flexibility, and reflection (or metacognition). While the composers in this section show how a critical sonic literacy is developed, they also demonstrate how these abilities influenced their digital composing processes and in turn enabled them to become thoughtful audio composers. The unveiling of their composing processes offers other audio composers a framework for approaching the creation of sonic work.

The composers in this section describe how play and flexibility influenced their composing processes. Play, a widely theorized concept across multiple disciplines, is defined in this context via Henry Jenkins (2006): “the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving” (p. 4). Jenkins identified play as a new skill of participatory culture, one necessary for living in the digital age. The composers used play to determine the affordances and constraints of each rhetorical strategy. This experimentation enabled them to recognize their possible rhetorical effects within particular rhetorical situations and to make decisions about how to best execute the strategy to achieve their goals. Their ability to be flexible, “to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands” (Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2011), enabled composers to make thoughtful decisions about their choices, encouraging them to be reflective and imaginative about the meaning they sought to make.

After conducting a micro-examination of a particular rhetorical strategy, the composers change lenses, thinking more broadly and reflecting on their moves and decisions in relation to their chosen genre, particular rhetorical situations, and goals. Reflection—an active knowledge-making process (Dewey, 2013; Schon, 1983, 1987)—enabled the composers to solidify their understanding of their rhetorical strategies and well as the rhetorical knowledge, genre knowledge, and awareness they developed over the course of the project.