Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1.5 hours / session, 2 sessions / week

Course Description

CMS.407 will examine sound and hearing from historical, cultural, and material perspectives. What part does the massive technological and industrial investment in sound play in modern life? In the last several years, responses to this question have proliferated, producing a boom in "sound studies": histories of listening, examinations of built and natural soundscapes, analyses of sound media, and the creation of sound art. Our topics will include the impact of technologies and formats for amplifying, recording, and broadcasting sound; shifting conceptions of silence and noise; global soundscapes; architectural acoustics; deafness; property, sampling, and piracy; and the relation of sound to social and political power. Readings in the history and theory of sound practices and media, along with consideration of classic short fiction, plays, films, and recordings that reflect on the problems and possibilities of sound in the era of mechanical reproduction. CMS.407 involves significant participation; this is not a lecture course. To satisfy the CI-M requirement, students will write several papers (three 6-page papers and a revision) and lead two discussions, preparing an agenda for each of these.

Course Goals

Participants will:

  • obtain an understanding of the conditions of hearing and listening in the modern era
  • survey the ways that sound provides shared sensory experiences within established and emerging networks of listeners
  • acquire knowledge of the historical evolution of audio technologies for amplification, recording, and/or broadcast (stethoscope, phonograph, telephone, radio, internet)
  • engage with and apply concepts central to the study of sound media formats (cylinder, LP, tape, disc, mp3)
  • analyze sound media and texts from aesthetic and historical perspectives in several writing assignments
  • develop techniques of oral presentation and conversation through discussion leading and class participation


The class will be at least partly what you make it—lively and informative if you are prepared, something less appealing if you are not. You are expected to complete the reading, diligently attend class, be an active, engaged participant as a discussion leader and contributor, and submit clearly written and argued papers.


You each will direct two class discussions: one in the first half of the term and the other in the second half. Your job is to pose good questions to the class and generate discussion about the readings and related questions, and to get us to focus on issues that interest you. (For example, you can make connections between the readings that focus on historical developments, and relevant aspects of sound, music, and media now.) For these classes you should prepare a 1-page agenda outlining questions, themes, passages, and so on for the rest of us to consider. I urge you to communicate with me beforehand (over e-mail) to discuss the topics and strategies you have in mind. We will determine the schedule for discussion leading early in the term.


As the above implies, regular attendance is crucial for good work in this course, including being on time to class meetings, and attendance at possible film screenings (to be arranged, depending on scheduling and enrollment). However, I realize emergencies do arise during the semester. For those, you are permitted two unexcused absences. Please notify me ahead of time if you need to miss a class. Any unexcused absence beyond the second will result in a failing grade in the course. Two latenesses count as one absence.


Because it can be difficult to describe and analyze such an abstract concept as sound, some of the reading for this class will be more philosophical and/or challenging in argument, content, or style than you may be used to, though potentially more rewarding as well. I have tried to balance some of this more demanding reading with more accessible texts. Please be aware that none of the reading is optional.


You will be required to submit three 6-page papers + one revision. The revision can be either of the first or second paper. Late paper policy is as follows: An extension on a paper will require prior approval and will be granted at my discretion, and only in extraordinary circumstances. Late papers without approved extensions will be given no credit.


Papers (3 + 1 revision) 40%
Discussion directing 30%
Participation 30%


1–3 Hearing and Listening in Modernity  
4–6 Soundscapes: Prehistorical, Architectural, Urban, and Industrial  
7–10 Aural Media Communities I: Stethoscope through Phonograph Session 9: First paper due
11–12 Speech, Sound Media, and the Talkies  
13–17 Aural Media Communities II: Telephone, Radio, and Tape

Session 14: Guest Lecture with Prof. A. David Wunsch

Session 17: Second paper due

18–20 Noise, Silence, and Sampling, from Avant-Garde to Mainstream  
21–22 Global Sonic Cultures Session 22: Guest Lecture with Prof. Stefan Helmreich
23–25 Digital Audio, Piracy, and Portability

Session 23: Revision due

Session 25: Third paper due