Seeing Sound

Posted by annie

I  am also intrigued by the question of how sound is aided, enhanced or even compromised by some kind of accompanying visual representation. I grew up listening to music (from record players, radios, cassette players, stereo systems, Walkmans, Discmans, MP3 players, iPods…), reading books, watching endless amounts of music videos and listening to/reading “read along” records and tapes. Sounds and their visual representations were often blurred. I can see the value of a more highly visual listening experience. And yet as an audiophile, I also appreciate the pure act of listening and the visualization and thought patterns it can generate in the listener. Just thinking of music videos alone, what power the videos had to promote a certain interpretation or understanding of a song’s narrative!

As an information format, audio recordings are difficult to use. They are generally not indexed or given a table of contents, something we expect from textual materials. Audio recordings, particularly those of an archival nature, are without navigational cues for the researcher and they are often so fragile that using them over and over (as one would read something over and over) can even endanger the object itself. Despite the barriers to audio research, listening is one of our oldest skills and modes of learning. I think the web has already changed the way we listen, mostly by tethering many of us to computers for both our work and our entertainment. We tend to stare at the object that is the source of sound.

Now that more audio recordings are being made available online for researchers to consult and use, the web affords opportunities to develop interesting and user-friendly environments that are conducive to audio research. Working on the Spoken Web project has lead me to consider all the various researchers who must spend significant amounts of time listening carefully (even repeatedly) to audio files. Beyond the literary scholars that are our immediate preoccupation in this project, innovate web-based audio delivery platforms are already important or will become important for other groups such as musicians, ethnomusicologists, historians, scholars of communication and rhetoric, anthropologists, sociologists, or any other researcher that consults audio files. Given the popularity of qualitative research methodologies involving interviewing, oral history and testimony, it’s fascinating to consider the amount of audio data that is being gathered by researchers and, without compromising the confidentiality of the recordings, we need to anticipate the need for secure systems to safeguard and preserve audio data such as oral histories and interviews that form the basis of so many research projects.

What do researchers need and want when they listen to audio recordings? How did audio researchers behave when they did not have a computer mediating the recording?

Did they stare off? Did they stare at whatever playback equipment was before them? Did they visualize? Was it like reading? Do people “see” words when they hear them? Would looking at an image or waveform inform their interpretation of the literary work they are listening to?

Now that audio researchers are probably sitting at a computer to listen to recordings, how does that listening process change since there is now something quite different to look at? What is gained by digital audio as a medium of research? Is something lost for researchers who do not have a tangible connection to recordings?

Does digital audio allow researchers “in” in a way that wasn’t possible before? What would an ideal web environment be for audio research in a digital age?

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