An Academic Audiography

I sat down last Sunday to brainstorm ideas for this assignment and found myself distracted by the chatter in the hallway, the endless opening and closing of doors, a bass thumping somewhere beneath me and the remarkably loud busses periodically passing by. Frustrated by my lack of focus on things that required my attention, I plugged in my iPod and proceeded to play my favorite playlist, a queer collection of country, hip hop, rock and show tunes. This worked for a few minutes, until the words flowing from the speakers became more important than the words trickling onto the page. I switched to my most played Pandora Radio station, Classical Piano Radio. As I sat and stared at a half filled page of useless notes and quotes, I noticed the soft, rhythmic click-clack click-clack of the pen in my hand and realized I was involuntarily creating the noise. This was a sound that punctuated every part of my academic life. Anytime there was a pen in my hand, be it in a lecture hall, study room or at my desk, I was clicking it. I wondered what other noises must characterize collegiate education for me; and so began the auditory analysis of Alex’s academic adventures.

In order to find what sounds define my learning experience, I recoded ten separate noises that I hear or produce at least a few times every week, starting with my main motivator, the sweet symphonic sound of my coffee machine, and proceeding with the sounds of classes, coursework and concentration. In order to ensure that my recordings were organic, I captured clips of ten or fifteen minutes and extracted short demos to summarize the entire sound. The demos are in roughly chronological order between two days and the distinguished pen click can be heard in almost all of them.


While only captured in a few of my clips*, I often use music or radio to hone in my concentration, especially when working on math homework, or taking my first set of notes on a reading (I copy them in silence later). I decided to further investigate specifically why having background noise helps me focus in certain situations. That practice contrasts Dr. Seth Horowitz analysis of the effect of technology on our ability to listen. Rather than “losing [the skill of listening] in a world of digital distraction,” I’m gaining the ability to stifle unimportant ambient noise through the use of music [1]. In fact, I view my employment of audio technology as a form of concentration and direction of attention rather than a distraction. Michel Chion sheds some light on why I need a distraction like classical music in his differentiation of three modes of listening. The most common is causal listening which “consists of listening to a sound in order to gather information about its cause” [2]. Therefore, the laughter in the hall, for example, lets me know something amusing has happened, and makes me want to find out what it was. If I chose to block out those noises with lyrical music I begin to employ semantic listening “which refers to a code or a language to interpret a message” [3]. My brain automatically recognizes the lyrics as something I should listen to, especially since I know the songs well, and I can no longer devote my attention to the task in front of me. Classical music is the best way to solve all of the previously mentioned issues since I am not a student of music and can therefore listen without involuntarily thinking about the noise. It almost allows me to “turn-off” my sense of hearing.

Moving beyond my use of music while doing homework, these two modes are very applicable to the other sounds of my academic life. In a lecture it is important interpret the information being translated by language through semantic listening (especially if your professors have accents), whereas at my work study job, causal listening lets me know if they machines are working properly or if something is at a risk of breaking. Now that I know what aurally characterizes my academic life, I can use it to my benefit.


*I had situational constraints when trying to record some of my sounds as I commonly have to use headphones in my room and in the study rooms so I am not bothering others.

Works Cited

[1] Seth Horowitz, The Science and Art of Listening. (New York: The New York Times, 2012), 2.

[2] Chion, Michael, “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. (New York: Routledge, 2012), 48.

[3] Ibid. 50.




The Sounds of Winter

Something that I am very familiar with is the sound of winter in Vermont. Growing up here, I’ve always accepted it as the season of snowboarding, dragging sleds of hay out to my horses, and the rumble of the snow blower. However, UVM has depicted an entirely new concept of winter that is easy to explore with sound.

I begin my audiography in the Davis Center tunnel. In order to escape the frigid wind howling off the lake, I try to take the tunnel as much as possible. Once I started paying attention to my walks through, it became clear to me that there were two very separate soundscapes at work. The first is during actual class time. This causes near silence in the trek between athletic and central campuses, a trek that I tend to take with only three or four other silent travellers. However, during my rush back to University Heights North at the end of the next block, the tunnel is complete chaos. The line of people waiting to get into the door is the first clue, followed by the loud voices and roar of students scrambling to class or to eat. It ends with the second bottleneck up the stairs and out the door onto athletic. This is something that I only experience in the winter; on fair days, the masses opt to enjoy the weather outside.

Following my rush through the tunnel, I’m usually ready for something to warm me up. The newest addition to my dorm room is my espresso maker; the roar of the coffee brewing and the light tones of the milk frother are always well-received noises after the bitter cold. This tends to be accompanied by some procrastination in the form of Netflix and a cozy blanket. One of my favorite shows is Desperate Housewives. The upbeat theme song instantly relaxes me, an assurance that for at least 43 minutes I won’t have to worry about the work I’m pushing off. Occasionally the four women’s lives are put on hold so I can wash my cup and spoon in the sink, and again when I need to refill my water bottle to combat the dry air emanating from the heater above my head. This has recently been aided by the installment of the water bottle station on the UHN1 side, which has a very distinct hum followed by the trickle of excess water.

When I finally venture out again, sometimes to my next class or to dinner, the cyclical squeal of the heater in the entrance to UHN2 always catches my attention. It’s been a distinct sound since the heating system got switched on in the fall, annoying anyone who is forced to wait there. As I walk outside, my boots mimic the squeak in the snow-packed pathways. Due to the storm, there are plow trucks everywhere, dictating where I can and cannot walk. The beeping as they reverse upsets the peacefulness of the cold day.

Another trademark of the change in temperature is my desire to take the bus downtown or across campus instead of walking. I can usually make it to Waterman before my fingers begin to numb and I hop on the College Street Shuttle. Instantly, the heating vents hit me as I sit down for the warm ride. However, the cold doesn’t bother me when I am able to get out and go snowboarding, usually either to Bolton or Smuggs. Unlike many of the other sounds, the scrape of my board against ice is something I’ve been familiar with my entire life.

These sounds create a very different soundscape than the one I experience in warmer months; the shouts in the sun are replaced by the scraping of ice, the whir of my bike by the crowded bus, and so on. However, both are soundscapes that tend to be overlooked. But throughout this project, I noticed that my sense of hearing became attuned to picking up interesting sounds in everything I did. As Michel Chion would say, my listening turned from solely being causal to being reduced; or it focused “on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and of its meaning” (50). I became more concerned with the intricacies of the actual noises instead of the source, since I needed to notice sounds that I tend to ignore. Instead of simply detecting the noise around me, I would actually practice resolution and sometimes identification as well; I would really listen to sound in order to understand it (Arehart 12). This is something that can be challenging in today’s society of constant overstimulation where we are rarely forced to heed the world around us. Through this project, I was forced to understand Horowitz’s conclusion that “listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload” (2).

Works Cited

Arehart, Kathryn H. “The Nature of Hearing and Hearing Loss.” Sounscape. 1st ed. Vol. 6. Melbourne: Printing Edge Melbourne, 2005. 11-14. Print.

Cherry, Marc. “Give Me the Blame.” Desperate Housewives. ABC. Burbank, California, 2011. Television.

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

Horowitz, Seth S. “The Science and Art of Listening.” The New York Times 9 Nov. 2012: 1-3. Print.