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Sound and Reality, Jonathan Stern's Audible Past

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Sarah Kim

Book Review & Commentary


“Hearing is a necessary precondition for listening,

but the two are not at all the same thing.”

(Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past, 96)



Hearing something is entirely different from listening to something.  Listening is an active behavior, while hearing is merely a passive one.  Hearing merely stimulates the body, while listening requires both stimulation and digestion of sound.  Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past chronicles the history of sound and sound reproduction and in doing so, he explores the role of sound, audio, and listening in the formation of human identity, perception, reality, and behavior.

Sound is personal, Sterne asserts, because each individual must internalize sound in his/her own unique way.  This personal quality of sound is described as having interiority.   This interiority is imbedded in act of hearing itself because hearing comes from the inside: the one who hears remains at the center of the audio environment.  With sound, one can simultaneously hear multiple sounds and noises.  Other senses are not so interior; sight uses the movement of the eyes to perceive the world with one (or few) focused object(s) at a time, while sound allows for concurrent, and arguably, richer perceptions of the world.  Therefore, by listening to a mixture of sound (i.e. music, a loud hallway, etc), one synthesizes a hybrid perception of the world.  This perception is a function of the brain – one that is derived from a physical reality (physics of sound production) to form a personalized reality.

However, sound must be harnessed into a form of active listening.  Sterne argues that listening is a skill to be learned and that people are conditioned to properly listen in various ways.  Listening requires a habit-driven response to sound.  Sterne calls this response the “audile technique,” or the learned manner in which the listener can manipulate and reap the most out of sound.  The audile technique coupled with personalized and interiorized listening creates the acoustic space, or what Sterne describes as the process of individuation of the auditory field of the listener.  This acoustic space regulates the behavior of the listener.  The listener is expected to enjoy the isolation of sound.  Moreover, he/she learns to associate concentrated listening with solitude: listening becomes a solitary activity.  Through technology of individual sound (headphones, private speakers, radios, etc), the audile technique, and the isolated nature of listening, the listener can transcend his/her “immediate” acoustic environment into a heightened and a (Dickinsonian) constructed reality of the listener’s brain.

Moreover, this transcendence or departure from a present reality manifests itself through sound in the mind.  Some individuals experience sound-to-color synesthesia, where listening can trigger a montage of color in the individual’s mind.    Others listen to music and they are transported into the reality of their memories that can be associated with songs.  Clearly, the transcending quality of sound, Sterne suggests, challenges the individual’s perception of the world and what is considered natural.  In the early days of sound reproduction, consumers experienced a paradigm shift when they accepted that sound could actually be preserved in the form of cylinder recordings.  What was deemed impossible in their prior reality was now possible.  These recordings offered a form of immortality that was once unattainable. This revolutionary quality of sound challenged the individual and his/her construction of reality.  Was their reality real?  Was reality fixed?  If their reality was indeed constructed, surely it would continue to change with further advancements.

The construction of reality became an important concept in the marketing of sound reproduction technology as well.  In the early days of sound reproduction, the issue of authenticity, realism, and reality plagued the market of gramophones, phonographs, and the like.  Consumers wanted to listen to recordings that were realistic – they wanted their recordings to sound like the sounds of their respective realities.  Sound reproduction developed with an “artifice of authenticity.” Realism was unattainable and impossible and producers did not aim to mimic actual reality.  Instead, producers created their own projected reality by turning recordings into a listening experience.   With improved fidelity over time, sound became immortalized in recorded, reproduced form.  This duplicated sound further distorted the concept of reality leaving the brain and i-function to construct a fuller image of realism, filling in the gaps to attain a degree of authenticity.

The history of sound has ultimately given rise to a collective behavior when listening to sound.  This collective behavior has taught the modern listener what to expect when listening.  You wouldn’t listen to a broadcasting of a baseball game the same way you would listen to a live show of your favorite band or the way you would listen to NPR: All Things Considered.  Effective listening requires the ability to switch between modes of listening.  This act of switching is akin to the acceptance of multiple perspectives held simultaneously by the brain.  The brain uses what is familiar and what is learned over time to construct a unique point of view.  It imposes its own construction on perception, but this construction is not any less “real” than reality.  Our perceptions exist as a result of our interaction with the social world.  Sterne closes by stressing that the sociological world has a large effect on how sound is portrayed and used.  In accordance, sound has a large effect on the perception of human reality.  Therefore, sound, the social world, and reality are all interrelated – the functions of the brain connect them together and produce corresponding behavior.


Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.