Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Recorded Age

Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Recorded Age

by Greg Goodale

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Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Recorded Age by Greg Goodale

Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Recorded Age critically analyzes a range of sounds on vocal and musical recordings, on the radio, in film, and in cartoons to show how sounds are used to persuade in subtle ways. Greg Goodale explains how and to what effect sounds can be "read" like an aural text, demonstrating this method by examining important audio cues such as dialect, pausing, and accent in presidential recordings at the turn of the twentieth century. Goodale also shows how clocks, locomotives, and machinery are utilized in film and literature to represent frustration and anxiety about modernity, and how race and other forms of identity came to be represented by sound during the interwar period. In highlighting common sounds of industry and war in popular media, Sonic Persuasion also demonstrates how programming producers and governmental agencies employed sound to evoke a sense of fear in listeners. Goodale provides important links to other senses, especially the visual, to give fuller meaning to interpretations of identity, culture, and history in sound.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252077951
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 03/31/2011
Series: Studies in Sensory History Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Greg Goodale is assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University and the coeditor of Arguments About Animal Ethics.

Read an Excerpt

Sonic Persuasion

Reading Sound in the Recorded Age


Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03604-0

Chapter One

Reading Sound

Undergraduate students often encounter Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inaugural address during their academic adventures. Political scientists, American historians, and rhetorical critics, in particular, like to use this speech. The oration is certainly historic, not to mention interesting and easy to read. The address also features a line, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," that has been woven into the fabric of public memory. Unfortunately, the line is no longer as powerful as it once was. Inevitably, when the speech and that sentence are discussed in undergraduate classes, they are discussed as words on a page. Indeed, the address is a text composed of powerful words ranging from appeals to fear, to military and Christian metaphors, to attacks against moneychangers. But to say that only words constitute the text is to miss part of the reason why that speech resonated so deeply with Americans in 1933. FDR did not present that famous sentence in a monotone voice, nor did he vocalize the words like a thespian we might berate today as overacting. Instead, he raised his voice between "the only thing we have to fear" and the word "is." Then he paused for an excruciatingly long moment before finally finishing the sentence. The pause marked Roosevelt's close attention to the sound of his voice, his understanding of the power of radio, and his awareness of what the pause would do to his audience. As a result, FDR captured the hearts of a nation.

The educator John Erskine understood what FDR was doing. In a text about using the radio voice to persuade, Erskine notes, "We need attend to only two points: first, how to persuade our audience to come in; second, how to prevent it from walking out. There are many reasons why it may come in, but it will stay only because the performance seems worth while, or because we have locked the door on it." FDR's pause captured his audience's attention. In contrast to those who have forgotten that FDR's words had sound, radio-savvy communication professionals understood the power of a silent pause in the 1930s. Arch Oboler wrote for, produced, and announced the popular horror program Lights Out. In 1939, Oboler explained to New York Times readers that "often a silence or a pause between words is more important than the spoken word, because the listener, in the mind's eye, during the pause, is contributing to the play. His imagination gets a chance to work; he is experiencing the play more emotionally." By ending the first phrase with a question about what we have to fear, Roosevelt encouraged his listeners to imagine and to experience his words emotionally, fearfully. "What do we have to fear?" countless Americans must have thought during that long pause in 1933. Then, relieving his audience of the full tension of fright, FDR answered only fear itself. Did Roosevelt know what he was doing? He must have. In 1932, the New York Times' radio columnist, Orrin E. Dunlap Jr., described the potential power of the political vocalist on the radio: "There are no torches, gestures, bands in regalia, bunting or mob enthusiasm and emotion to supplement the oratory and help to hold attention." Holding the attention of millions of listeners required purely vocal devices—in FDR's case a rising voice, a pause, and an answer. The lived moment, the moment that the immediate audience heard, was and remains a far more powerful moment than the clever use of repetition that twenty-first-century students find in textbook histories. The written word cannot convey the power of the spoken word on that cold March day at the beginning of Roosevelt's extraordinary presidency, but the sonic record can.

To overstate the impact of this sonic manipulation would be difficult. In an era marked by the proliferation of instruments of sound without sight—the telephone, the phonograph, and the radio—the power of the voice grew to ever-larger proportions as an agent for changing public opinion. Roosevelt understood the power of invisible speech and employed it forcefully when he paused, emphasized, or intoned. Roosevelt's cadence, for example, was extraordinarily slow, particularly during his most important speeches and fireside chats. Adolf Hitler, to provide another example, did not just say angry words. He enveloped his listeners in a national voice and in doing so helped to drive the world into a six-year conflagration. Moreover, it is no accident that the greatest media hoax in American history occurred over the radio in 1938. Orson Welles's broadcast of War of the Worlds during the Columbia Broadcasting System's Mercury Theatre was intended to manipulate. Listeners were frightened by sound effects that producers and actors employed to portray an alien attack on the United States. Actors sounded like panicked reporters or government officials (one actor adapted the cadence of FDR's fireside chats), while Welles's staff put on all the sonic tricks they could muster to imitate sonic expectations about an alien attack. The audience's panic is enlightening. Twenty-first-century listeners are more likely to laugh at the campy sounds. The difference illustrates just one of the many arguments about sound that I make in this book: sonic expectations derived from the "period ear" change over time. Yet, it is only in the past decade that scholars have begun to examine the power that sound—sonic persuasion—has over audiences who have not been trained to understand that a pause, or an intonation, or even a noise can make a forceful argument.

Sounds invisible

There is an ancient history of emphasizing vision rather than hearing in the Western tradition. Plato, philosopher and opponent of rhetoric, posited a visual metaphor twenty-four hundred years ago that is still taught in academia. It is the man in a dark cave (a metaphor for ignorance), who only perceives shadows cast on the walls by a small fire. Once exposed to the sunlight (a metaphor for knowledge), his frame of reference is inalterably changed, and he becomes Homo sapiens, thinking man. Plato disdained sound because unlike light, noise distracts from knowledge absent the spoken word. Likewise, because it is emotionally appealing, music prevented lovers of knowledge from knowing the world. To ignore affect, however, is to ignore rhetorical force. Parallel to his condemnation of rhetoric, Plato also rejected voice in favor of logos and in doing so lost sight of the persuasive impact of tone, silence, and volume. In short, Plato was blinded by the sunlight. He was thus prevented from seeing that sound conveys much meaning.

Though Enlightenment philosophers and scientists like Francis Bacon and Robert Hooke tried to make sound the equal of sight in their observations of natural phenomena, the sonic remained secondary. Thus, science, though it should be founded on all of the senses, has always been closely wedded to visual examination. The dominance of vision proposed by Plato and maintained by scientists continues to blind scholars to new avenues of understanding history, culture, and other domains of study in the humanities. Even in psychoanalysis, which should dig beneath the visual, practitioners have focused on the gaze rather than the voice. Though critics of words and images have produced outstanding analyses of history and culture, Plato's blind spot limits scholarly thinking. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan notes, this blindness runs deep: "Western man thinks with only one part of his brain and starves the rest of it. By neglecting ear culture, which is too diffuse for the categorical hierarchies of the left side of the brain, he has locked himself into a position where only linear conceptualization is possible." Entirely new ways of thinking, McLuhan proposes, are possible if only scholars address the neglect of ear culture.

Decades after McLuhan's call, our understanding of voices, music, and noises remains disabled, even as scholars in the humanities valiantly attempt to cure our blind spot. Historians of phonographs and radios often lament the absence of aural understanding because many scholars in the humanities focus their efforts on the study of archival materials, which are almost always visual; historians have not yet discovered that it is possible to question the dogma produced by Plato's philosophical tradition. Sound scholar John M. Picker comments on recent critiques of phonograph recordings by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: "It is as if textual critics simply have not known what to do with the poet's own readings and the sound of his voice." William Howland Kenney pins the blame on fascination with the phonograph rather than the voices it reproduces: "cultural analysis of the phonograph and recorded music has languished as writers and scholars alike have favored the study of technology in its many changing forms." We cannot make sense of Tennyson's voice because we have been trained to read visual objects, even technologies, and not sound.

In scholarship, radio seems to have suffered a more tragic fate than the phonograph. Michelle Hilmes writes of radio, "No other medium has been more thoroughly forgotten, by the public, historians, and media scholars alike." In her book about radio, Susan J. Douglas explains the damage caused by our deficit of sonic scholarship: "Existing histories of radio—with the exception of Marshall McLuhan's 1964 best seller Understanding Media—do not pause, even for a minute, to meditate on the particular qualities and power of sound, and how these have shaped the power of radio.... It is clear that with the introduction of the telephone, the phonograph, and then radio, there was a revolution in our aural environment that prompted a major perceptual and cognitive shift in the country, with a new emphasis on hearing." Voices and noises produce meaning beyond words uttered and recorded, particularly when they are broadcast to millions of listeners. Noises like the ticking of a clock, the dulcet tones of the deep-voiced announcer, and the moaning of the air-raid siren make persuasive arguments to us.

So why did scholars neglect sound for so many years? There are many reasons. Our captivation by visual culture since at least Plato and even more so since the beginning of the age of print has produced a legacy that will take decades if not centuries to overcome. Critics, theorists, historians, and others base their scholarship on what they have been taught, on what has been previously researched, and on available archival resources. Furthermore, they must abide by scholarly conventions that are deeply rooted in science and thus wed to observation and the shackles of visual evidence. Because the voice is ephemeral and fleeting, it cannot be made to fit into the scholarly scientific model that even scholars in the humanities must obey. Rather than cite a conversation with historian Lawrence W. Levine, for example, I am compelled to find related references in his published books and articles. To compound the problem of privileging printed sources as evidence, archives across the world have begun the process of digitizing everything that has ever been published, jotted down, photographed, carved, or painted. Sound has not received the same treatment, and of the few sonic archives that currently exist, many like the private Web site are almost as ephemeral as speech itself. Thus, a scholar wishing to study sound has more recourse to the printed word than the published song. Scholars also face the problem of reproducing sound in print, a problem that leaves the rare expert to perceive music through visual scores. And a score cannot do justice to a huge variety of noises. Musical as it is, Billie Holiday's voice cannot be heard in quarter notes, glissandos, and annotations. Moreover, sound is much more difficult to reproduce in journals and books than quotes and images. Though some books now appear with companion compact disks, this is not always a feasible option, particularly given the problem and expense of copyright. Academia, its archives, and its publishing conventions are biased toward the visual.


Excerpted from Sonic Persuasion by GREG GOODALE Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

1 Reading Sound 1

2 Fitting Sounds 16

3 Machine Mouth 47

4 The Race of Sound 76

5 Sounds of War 106

6 On Sound Criticism 132

Notes 155

Index 183

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