In an upcoming issue of The Annual Review of Anthropology there is an article co-authored by some well-known music scholars arguing for sound in anthropology. Just last month, a deadline arrived for a special issue of The American Quarterly on sound and culture. This November, the Sound Studies interest group of the AMS will have its very first evening panel session (sadly pitted against the Cold War Studies interest group and the Hispanic Music interest group – it will be a tough choice). And, of course, the Sound Studies special interest group of the SEM sponsored important panels last year in Mexico City. Something is clearly coming to a head.
Sound studies or auditory cultural studies has been an emerging field for years now.* Plenty of ethnomusicologists and musicologists have been engaging in this discourse for quite some time, but it seems that the near synchronous acknowledgment of sound by such prestigious venues as those above offers some compelling evidence that sound is finally... well... resonating.
Academic presses are clearly on-board: there are now readers and handbooks in production or in press. Some institutions are even lending the interdisciplinary field some credence by explicitly recruiting sound studies scholars to develop entirely new programs of study.**
I am heartened by these developments for a few reasons. As a scholar, I occupy the border between a few fields. If anything, sound represents something of a culmination of a certain type of interdisciplinarity between the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and public policy. I could list some of the varying ways that scholars are exploring sound, but trust me, it's huge, and people are excited.*** But more to the point, for those of us who lament that music departments might not get much respect in our institutions as they deserve, we have a clear opportunity here to lead the way in the intellectual discussion. As many music scholars are already doing with interdisciplinary fields such as performance studies, sound and auditory cultural studies is providing an important way to engage with scholars in other fields and offer a music-centered perspective. But more than that, the resonance of sound studies shows that with enough interest and persistence, new intellectual conversations will catch on in a wide variety of scholarly venues. These changes can happen, papers and panels can get accepted, and eventually scholars who once sat on the margins can become an integral part of their chosen field(s).
It makes me feel optimistic in an otherwise dreary economic landscape.
* Norma Coates, "Filling in Holes: Television Music as Recuperation of Popular Music in Television," Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 1 (Spring, 2007), 21-25; Jonathan Sterne, "Being 'in the True' of Sound Studies," Music, Sound, and the Moving Image 2 (Autumn, 2002): 163-167.
** Recall the job advertisements from NYU 2 years ago; University of Minnesota also had a Music and Sound Studies Initiative.
*** There are far too many to list here. Ben Tausig, co-chair of the Sound Studies Special Interest Group of the Society for Ethnomusicology, compiled a useful bibliography. Join the group to have a look.