The Seattle Sound

The Seattle Sound (Soundcloud)


Bon Jovi, Jon. Living on a Prayer. Bon Jovi. Bruce Fairbairn, 1986. CD.

Cornell, Chris. Slaves and Bulldozers. Soundgarden. Terry Date, 1991. CD.

Staley, Layne. Man In the Box. Alice in Chains. Dave Jerden, 1991. CD.

Sterne, Jonathan. The Sound Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

Vedder, Eddie. Black. Pearl Jam. Rick Parashar, 1991. CD.

Seething Soundscapes: Seattle’s Early-Nineties

My research began as a case study of the Grunge movement during the early nineties. However, the focus of my work quickly shifted to R. Murray Schafer’s idea of a soundscape. More specifically, I decided to examine how soundscapes of music change and evolve. By analyzing the stylistic aspects of Grunge compared to its predecessors in rock, I determined what aspects of Grunge helped turn it into a nationwide fad that rapidly spread across the country. I will discuss keynote tones and styles specific to Grunge in order to flesh out how the sounds of rock changed during this time period. By keying on these examples, I will isolate the true differences in sound that changed the soundscape of mainstream rock. In addition to this, I will write about the evolution/commercialization of music in general and will determine how this can change the respective soundscapes of a genre’s origin.


Coming off Soundgarden’s album Badmotorfinger, “Outshined” typifies Grunge music both through its stylistic framework and lyrical composition. The song begins with a deep, melodic guitar riff that is also clearly aggressive and charged with emotion. In addition to this, the song is sung as if Chris Cornell is under stress. He is not singing for beauty or precession, but instead as if he is trying to express a frustrating message. The lyrical content of “Outshined” is typical to Grunge due to its exposure of issues such as addiction and depression: “I’m feeling that I’m sober, Even though I’m drinking, I can’t get any lower, Still I feel I’m sinking.”


The Rise, Demise and Lasting Impact of Grunge

Why does popular music change? Why do we, as creators and consumers of music and culture, rebel against what appears to be harmonious and correct? Although the answers to these questions may be many, the musical soundscape of Seattle during the early nineties gives an insight into how modern America consumes its ever-changing fads. Grunge music started in the mid to late-eighties in the garages of Seattle and epitomized everything mainstream rock at that time did not. After gaining popularity, this sound became trendy in the early nineties and eventually was turned into a culture fad that commercialism spread across the country. Using R. Murray Schafer’s idea of soundscapes, varied “acoustic fields of study” (Reader, 99), I will analyze how the Grunge soundscape that emerged in Seattle in the late eighties and early nineties differed from mainstream rock at that time and how the Grunge sound went from a localized expression to a nationwide fascination causing the founders of the movement to revolt against its sudden popularity.

From the generation-defining guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix to the furious riffs first struck by Kurt Cobain, music from Seattle has proven to be both timeless and influential. The city’s most iconic sonic-movement, however, was Grunge. Starting as a fusion of punk’s energy and excitement with metal’s heavy sound, Grunge quickly formed its own identity. Key groups in the early grunge movement include, but are not limited to, the Melvins, Mudhoney, Green River and the U-Men. The early Grunge bands are not given nearly enough credit for the formation of the genre due to the commercial success of their successors, but many had direct influences on later bands and often continued to tour with them. Many groups achieved commercial success in Grunge, but four stand out above the rest: Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. What made the grunge movement so unique was that, in addition to coming from the same city, all were acquaintances and often played together either while in different groups or in previous years. Other key aspects of the movement were unkempt appearances consisting of everyday clothing and very few stage antics, both of which clashed with what mainstream rock up to that point had been about.

Grunge is a perfect example of how our preferences for music can shift drastically over a short period of time within one genre of music. While the eighties rock scene was about everything being bigger and flashier, the Grunge movement quickly took the genre back to being about the music. Although change in presentation was instrumental for this shift, the most important aspect to the change came from the music itself. Using the aspect of “keynotes” discussed by Schafer in his book, I plan to discuss how the “fundamental tone” (Reader, 100) present in Grunge is heavier, more complex and more emotionally driven than in the hair metal popular throughout most of the eighties. These discussions will be driven by examples given about guitar sound, style of singing and lyrical content among others. Without going into detail, overall themes in the music shifted from the glamour/partying lifestyle of the eighties metal bands to darker songs driven by personal issues such as drug abuse. This drug culture played a role in dismantling the Grunge movement both by separating groups with members who were using heavily and by killing key figures in the movement.

Although the Grunge movement was extremely popular and is still remembered today, it was relatively short lived. Very quickly, the music of Seattle traveled across the United States by way of MTV, and Grunge became a fashion statement/trend in addition to a style of music. Encapsulating the commercialization of the Grunge movement, top designers from New York began to create clothing lines in the “grunge style”, but sold them for hundreds of dollars. It was factors such as this as well as not wanting his music to become commercialized that caused Kurt Cobain to famously wear his “grunge is dead” t-shirt. Unfortunately, as the music industry always does, it commercialized Grunge because it was what was trendy. Through this commercialization, profit instead of good music was turned into the main objective for the music. I plan on analyzing how the Grunge movement quickly went from being localized music to a national trend, and by doing this, will then discuss how this affected the different artists being brought into the spotlight and see if a trend develops between their fates. Grunge quickly faded from the American spotlight, but its music is still listened to today. What caused America to fall in love with Grunge as a genre of music? Also, what caused America to fall out of love with the fad of Grunge, and does this say something about how commercialization affects musicians in the industry today?


Blecha, Peter. Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from “Louie Louie” to “Smells like Teen Spirit” New York: Backbeat, 2009. Print

Peter Blecha is an award winning author and historian. He has contributed to many distinguished publications including The Seattle Times, Vintage Guitar and Life. He is also the founder of the Northwest Music Archives and has been called “Seattle’s unofficial curator of rock’n’roll” by Seattle Weekly. The broad audience intended to read this publication is all music fans, but the more focused audience is music fans from the Northwest as this book discusses the music scene in that region during the past fifty years. Unlike Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town, Blecha’s book discusses the history behind a large variety of Seattle’s music. Although I will not go in depth on it in my paper, understanding the rich tradition of music the city has is critical to understanding how Grunge was heard and accepted in the city. In addition to having critical information and quotations about the era of Grunge that will be necessary for this research paper, this source useful in providing a scope and history to the history of Seattle and will be helpful in writing a background section of the paper.


Hyman, Dan. “Mudhoney’s Mark Arm on Grunge’s Legacy.” Rolling Stone Magazine, 7 Sept. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.

Dan Hyman is a freelance writer that has written over 170 articles for Rolling Stone magazine. Hyman received his Masters degree in journalism from Northwestern University. His article is written for all of the magazine’s readers, but it may catch the eye of older fans more since the title signifies that it is about Grunge. Also, it may only appeal to diehard Grunge fans because the article features someone who was instrumental in the establishment of the genre in Seattle’s late eighties but didn’t necessarily gain the notoriety/recognition of say, Kurt Cobain or Chris Cornell. When compared to the other magazine article I used as a source, “Grunge: A Success Story”, stark differences stand out which contribute to many of the ideas I wish to discuss in my research paper. While this article discusses Grunge from a musical perspective and illuminates some of the “what ifs” present in the history of the genre, the second article shows everything that was commercial about the movement. Another interesting contrast comes about when one considers how commercialism removes credibility from one of the founders of Grunge while also highlighting the wear of musicians whose last concern was attire. This article will be important for my paper by providing me with opinions of one of the key figures in the movement while also giving me a slightly more realistic view of the success of Nirvana in relation to Cobain’s death.


Lyons, James. Selling Seattle. London, NY: Wallflower, 2004. Print.

James Lyons is a British film historian who has written a number of books on the history of television and modern television. In Selling Seattle, he focuses on how Seattle boomed culturally and economically during the nineties. The audience intended for this read seems to be someone foreign or unaware of the cultural history of Seattle and interested in why it was so successful during the end of the twentieth-century. This reading contrasts sharply with the other two books on the “Seattle Sound” because it addresses Grunge not from a musical perspective but from a very broad cultural perspective. Instead of discussing the meaning of the music, or the influences behind the lyrics, Lyons focuses on how Grunge was a smaller aspect of many different fads that came out of the city during that time. This will be important for my paper, however, because it gives a good summary of how commercialism affected the cultural surge in Seattle, the demise of Grunge specifically and the decline of the city as a whole.


Marin, Rick. “Grunge: A Success Story.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Nov. 1992. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.

Rick Marin is a best-selling author and has also written many articles for the New York Times Style department. Marin holds two Masters degrees, one in English from the University of Toronto, and one in Journalism from Columbia. The intended audience for this article would be people interested in what would be hip to wear in 1992. This articles projects interestingly what the rest of the country took from the Grunge movement and represents everything that frustrated the musicians from Seattle who originally started the rebellion against glamour and everything eighties rock represented. While the impressive work by Mark Yarm, Everybody Loves Our Town, chronicles the history of grunge from its earliest roots, this magazine article explores everything that Grunge became once it left the clubs of Seattle. Unlike the other works that I have cited, this article does a good job of showing the negative side of grunge. It realistically tells the story of how Grunge lost its original following and shifted to the designers and rich, elite of New York and other urban hubs across the United States. This article will help illuminate one of the main topics of my thesis by showing how Grunge went from being a localized expression to a national fad that caused the founders of the movement to revolt against its sudden popularity.


Sterne, Jonathan. The Sound Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.


Yarm, Mark. Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. New York: Crown Archetype, 2011. Print.

Mark Yarm is the former senior editor for Blender magazine and has written for prominent publications such as Men’s Health and Esquire. Intended audiences for this read, in my opinion, would be fans of rock music in general. The entire book consists of interviews and quotes from famous musicians discussing various groups, people, and aspects involved with Grunge. This book provides the best look into the lives and minds of the musicians who created the Grunge movement. Instead of analyzing the music, style and actions of the people like the other readings, this book contains their own words, opinions and stories. This is the most entertaining and enticing work that is being cited for research. This source will illuminate my topic because it will show the raw emotion and energy that goes into grunge music, and will provide personal explanations and feelings toward making the music.

Monotony of the Daily Routine

          Very quickly into analyzing the sounds of my daily routine, I found a pattern. For the most part, the sounds that are found in my everyday work seem to be monotonous and dull, while the sounds of my leisure/enjoyment are often random and meaningful. Although this is a broad generalization, it speaks to how much of a routine college is and also to the necessity for students to mix up their daily habits in order to find peace and balance in their life.

            The first three sounds of my day are often accomplished in a half-awake mind frame that solely operates for efficiency, not stimulation. A contrast arises in the shower, however, while the steady beat of water pours out of the faucet as a perfect example of the monotonous noises of a daily ritual. However, the initial contact with the tepid water sends a jolt through my system that begins to awaken my senses. As I stand in my seemingly silent room afterwards, I quickly drag the bristles of my toothbrush back and forth across my teeth causing a coarse noise to be emitted that I seem to take for granted as a part of the tranquility of the early morning room. I choose to listen to “Run Through the Jungle” by Creedence Clearwater Revival on the way to class, because it is rhythmic, and the semantics of the song encourage me to walk with energy in my steps as if I was running through a jungle. The CCR song keeps me on edge, and, as Bijsterveld points out, “music [is] legitimized by reference to longstanding positive connotations of rhythm” (163). Like workers in a factory forced to listen to irregular noises of labor, I enjoy listening to a rhythm while walking to class because it increases my productivity (speed) and enjoyment of the process.

Morning Routine 

The sharp cutting of skates across ice is repeatedly followed by full stops. Although the stops repeat in the clip, a game of pickup hockey usually contains sounds of skates moving at random. Sharp cuts can be used as indicators in a pickup hockey game, for example, if I am looking to pass to a teammate who I know is behind me. I will use Chion’s Causal Listening idea in order to properly execute the pass. The cutting noise is used to precisely find my teammate’s (the cause of the sound) blade to place the puck where it needs to go.


Playing catch with a baseball is another example of random noises coming from an activity of excitement. Although there is disturbance in the recording, one can clearly make out loud snaps of the ball hitting a glove. These snaps are not at a steady beat, nor do they have the same pitch or volume level every throw. The quality of the catch location in the mitt and the speed of the throw provide variables to the sound and also contribute to the fun of the game.


The beepers from the Redstone Kitchen exemplify repetitive noises that symbolize the daily routine. The non-stop, irritating beeping captured in this recording can disappear once one does not have it at his/her side, but the beeping is ever present in the background noise of the hall. This is similar to how work is always on the horizon of a college student even if, for a moment, he/she has caught up on work and is enjoying leisure.

Redstone Beepers

The next two noises compliment each other because they both represent leisure and relaxation. The initial crack of a carbonated beverage is symbolic of relaxation that is followed by the sound of swigging liquid and an emphatic “ah”. Coupled with the refreshment and instant relaxation, the sounds from a Bruins vs. Sabres hockey game are alive and pleasurably dissimilar to that from the daily grind. I use Chion’s idea of Semantic Listening, listening to comprehend a message, to see who is doing certain things in the hockey game. Causal Listening is also used to pick up background noises from the game, which can accommodate a better perception of the atmosphere of the arena. Sudden claps of sticks, disturbances in the boards, and yells from the players bring a human element to the game.

Refreshment  Bruins vs. Sabres

Lastly, after relaxation and a momentary break from work, the last two sounds signify my return to the daily grind. The first is that of boiling water as it generates warmth and increases volume. The soft click of the kettle signifies not only that the water has reached a boil, but also that the time has come to return to work. The slow, satisfying noise of the water filling the cup is only a false hope of calm. In a fitting conclusion to my day (and this blog post), I go back to work religiously typing on the keys that have each been pushed separately thousands of times over in order to create a product that must be handed in for rank. These noises will be repeated over again tomorrow, as the next day brings much of the same as the last: repetitive noise coupled with monotonous actions.

Kettle  Typing



Bijsterveld, Karin. “Listening to Machines: Industrial Noise, Hearing Loss and the Cultural Meaning of Sound.” The Sound Studies Reader (2012): 152-64. Text.

Chion, Michael. “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Ed. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 48-53. Print.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Run Through the Jungle”

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Soundscape

When contemplating how to write a soundscape for the autobiographical “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, the first challenge is to decide what style of film this particular soundscape would best fit. Since Douglass tells a story that contains much hardship, I feel the most fitting style would be an epic drama accentuating the struggle Douglass experiences below the Mason-Dixon line. This film would culminate with a triumphant, free Douglass acting as a key player in the abolitionist movement. However, the focus of the film, like the focus of this commentary, would be Douglass’ experiences with slavery and specific memories he has that arouse trauma, fury and vexation.

Early on in the film, a scene begins by panning the Great House Farm ending with a shot of the newest overseer, Mr. Gore. In the background are sounds of cotton bushes being picked and worked, soil being turned with the occasional, quiet thud of a hoe and various voices, mostly those of overseers, cursing at slaves. Mr. Gore does not speak, for he “dealt sparingly in words” (Douglass 13), while he rides his horse—slowly trotting along with a repetitive clopping of hoofs—until he eventually stops at one particular slave named Demby. As Mr. Gore dismounts his horse, the stomp created by his boots hitting the ground is amplified to show the importance of the action and also to represent the fear in Demby’s mind once he realizes the steady rhythm of his work had not been enough to repel Mr. Gore’s attention. After ordering him to stop working and remove his shirt with a frank, biting voice that embodies his control and power, Mr. Gore begins to whip Demby with quick, electric lashes. Soon after, Demby runs into a stream, standing “at the depth of his shoulders, refusing to come out.” (Douglass 14). The area surrounding the scene goes silent as slaves stop momentarily to witness the conflict. Mr. Gore gives three carefree calls to Demby telling him to return from the stream, or he would be shot. Demby remains, and with one loud clap, Demby drops into the stream dead. Soon after the “thrill of horror” (Douglass 14) experienced by the slaves ends, there is silence and awe as Gore remains “cool and collected” (Douglass 14). The scene ends as Mr. Gore nonchalantly remounts his horse, and the repetitive clopping of hoofs continues signifying a return to normalcy after the horrific event.

Later in the film, once Douglass has become of age to labor as a slave, he is sent to work on the farm of Mr. Edward Covey. Douglass is routinely whipped by Covey in the early months of his work and is often cursed at. A new scene begins with Douglass working in a hayloft before sunrise, the noises of him laboring while heaving the hay down from atop, the rustle of the hay as it is moved across the barn and the quiet neighing of the horses eager for their morning feed emits tranquility. The horses are unaware that a slave is feeding them; they are just interested in getting the food. Their innocent neighing creates a stark contrast to large Mr. Covey bumbling into the barn with slothful, obvious footsteps. Quickly Covey catches a hold of Douglass and throws him to the ground “sprawling” (Douglass 42). The harmony created by the early morning barnyard scene is quickly erased by the savage physical struggle that commences. As Douglass “seizes” Covey, the once aggressive man begins to “tremble like a leaf” (Douglass 42). Douglass then kicks Hughes, a man who comes to Covey’s assistance, directly in the stomach and Hughes drops to his knees clutching his stomach while gasping for air and making audible heaves similar to that of someone asphyxiating. The two halt the fight later as Covey lets Frederick go while “puffing and blowing at a great rate” (Douglass 43). Douglass’ silence and lack of bloodshed contrast sharply to Covey’s emphatic gasps for breath and bloodied shirt. While Covey acts as if he remains the master, the retreat of the white man shows his clear defeat. The next few scenes in the movie show subsequent interactions between Covey and Douglass, with Douglass narrating that Edward Covey never beat him again. Covey would then speak up and say “he didn’t want to get a hold of [Douglass] again”, to which Douglass acknowledges with an agreeing look, but Frederick the narrator confidently, and with a new found sense of maturity, speaks his opinion: “you need not, for you will come out worse than before.” (Douglass 43)