Sound Studies in a Liberal Arts Curriculum

CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 2(2) Spring 2014
 Jay Beck
 Carleton College

One of the difficulties of teaching Cinema and Media Studies in a liberal arts college is balancing student interest in production with the interdisciplinary focus of the liberal arts curriculum. In many ways the limitations of teaching film and television production at a small liberal arts college turns out to have pedagogic and career-oriented advantages for students. Unlike many professional film production programs at larger universities, the economic realities mean that if liberal arts colleges offer film production it is generally on a modest scale using available “prosumer” equipment. While this makes it possible for students to get the hands-on experience they need to become media makers it does not let them sub-specialize on the technical level. Therefore, in order to provide a critical breadth to counterbalance the limited depth of technology-dependent course offerings, most colleges place equal emphasis on developing the historical and theoretical understandings of cinema and media to augment their production areas. Additionally, in the Cinema and Media Studies (CAMS) department at Carleton College, we have cultivated a curriculum that places equal emphasis on developing sound as well as visual theory and practice.

This is possible because of the way our Cinema and Media Studies major developed in tandem with the emergence of Sound Studies. Previously a concentration, CAMS became a major in 2007 and has grown from an initial four majors in the first graduating class to twenty-nine newly declared majors in the class of 2016. Coincident with this growth has been the development of the field of Sound Studies and the publication of several of its cornerstone texts [1]. As CAMS has grown there has been a conscious effort to incorporate Sound Studies into the curriculum and to develop innovative assignments and teaching modules that redress the imbalance between sound and image.

The study of sound and sound practices has generally faced an uphill battle to be accepted in the liberal arts environment. Early Visual Studies texts from Roland Barthes, John Berger, Stuart Hall, Martin Jay, and Laura Mulvey found uses in cinema and media studies as well as in the correlative disciplines of art history, photography, painting, dance, and theater. Sound Studies, as an emerging field, also draws upon a similarly broad range of discourses – film studies, musicology, psychoacoustics, cultural anthropology, technology studies, audio engineering, voice studies, acoustic ecology – yet it still struggles to find purchase in most academic institutions. Curiously this is not because of budgetary or technological limitations; rather, it stems from the relative invisibility of sound discourses in higher education.

Even though many universities and colleges have been able to build film and media courses around prosumer recording and editing equipment – generally lower cost video cameras or D-SLRs and Final Cut – sound recording and production equipment often lag far behind. Despite limited studio facilities and production equipment in CAMS during its first years, sound practice became central to the curriculum. The use of Canon 5D EOS D-SLR cameras necessitated second-system sound units and students made the most out of two Marantz PMD660 recorders, Audio Technica 815B shotgun kits, and a Wenger sound isolation booth equipped with two Shure SM7As for voice-over work. In addition, an Audio Workshop course was developed using mini-disc recorders to create radio documentaries and journalistic reporting based around voice recordings.

This integrated approach to sound and image in the CAMS production curriculum led to a change in curricular focus and a growing interest in Sound Studies. A faculty member in the Music department developed a hybrid music studies and production course for CAMS, Sound and Music in New Media, based around Logic sound editing software. Additionally, a Sound Studies–Methods and Debates course was introduced that amplified the many topics within Sound Studies and connected them to other disciplines across the college. A final piece fit into place with the approval of the Weitz Center for Creativity in 2010, designed as an intermedial arts center with a special emphasis on collaboration. The building, itself renovated from an existing middle school near campus, featured new production spaces including a small recording studio, two production stages, a full-scale theater, dance studios, and 250-seat cinema.

The college’s decision to invest in these new facilities prompted the CAMS faculty to rethink the pedagogic goals of the major and to structure the curriculum around three broad areas: Film and Media Studies, Visual Studies, and Sound Studies. With the new building came an opportunity to purchase our first Zoom H4n digital audio recorders and Røde NTG2 shotgun microphones in 2011. These field audio recording packages – complete with boom, pistol grip, wind protector, and cables – were assembled for around $750 each, which is a fraction of what comparable kits cost five years earlier.  It became possible to introduce students to digital sound recorders and shotgun mics in the entry-level Digital Foundations production course, marking a major shift in the curriculum. In addition, readings on sound theory from Michel Chion and Robert Bresson were added to Digital Foundations to place audio recording into dialogue with the sound analysis module in the Introduction to CAMS film analysis course.

In order to complement an already robust Visual Studies platform the department decided to develop new courses to round out the Sound Studies curriculum. Rooted in both film history and film theory, we developed a new course, Film Sound Studies: History, Technology, Aesthetics, to examine the evolution of cinema through the filter of film sound. The course provides a view of the global development of sound practices from the silent era through contemporary multichannel systems and examines sound recording, mixing, and reproduction and their framing discourses in multiple national and transnational contexts. The Sound Studies–Methods and Debates course was modified to create the Sound Studies Seminar, a capstone theory course built around an interdisciplinary view of sound studies that serves as a counterpart to upper-level Cinema Studies and Visual Studies seminars. Each year topic modules in Sound Studies Seminar rotate to include issues such as sound space, animation sound, the voice, noise studies, phonography, multichannel sound, sound and genre, soundscape ecology, sound art, acoustic archaeology, mobile listening, and sonic phenomenology. And to round out the existing Audio Workshop and Sound and Music in New Media production courses, we introduced a new Sound Design class.

The Sound Design course, with an emphasis on recording, creating, editing, and mixing sound for picture, is a prime example of this interdisciplinary focus. The course can be taken without Digital Foundations as a pre-requisite because the goal is to draw students from across the college as well as from the major. Covering the basics of acoustics, microphone design, recording techniques, and editing and mixing strategies, the course is designed to attune students to sound’s ability to create space, develop characters, transition time, and construct narratives. Their first assignment – a basic audio montage using sounds recorded collectively by the class – asks students to build a narrative exclusively through sound. The second assignment, with its emphasis on sound for picture and Foley, asks students to build a soundtrack for a brief sequence from a silent film where all sounds are created and recorded by the students. This encourages students to think about the range of sound and image relations, including synchronism versus non-synchronism, onscreen and off-screen sounds, sound bridges, sound advances, sound space and reverberation, exterior and interior sound perspectives, and point of audition. Moreover, it asks students to consider how these formal elements supplement, alter, or contrast the visual details and the narrative trajectory. A third assignment engages with the concept of acoustic archaeology by using paintings from periods before the advent of sound recording technology and asks students to research the sound from the time and place represented. Taking R. Murray Schafer’s investigations of historical soundscapes in his The Tuning of the World as its theoretical foundation, the assignment asks students to examine our changing relationship to the sounds of our environment over time. Moreover, the assignment frees students from synchronization and gets them to think abut how sound can animate the still image and build a world through sound effects, spatialization, and temporality.

Building Sound Studies into the CAMS major lets students focus on developing critical thinking skills rather than just technological aptitude. The small scale, holistic method of an interdisciplinary liberal arts approach emphasizes the production of meaning by combining theory and practice across the curriculum. By fostering the study of sound and getting students to integrate sound into their projects as early as possible, the curriculum has developed a new sensitivity to sound practices in CAMS majors as well as students from across the college. The audio recording studio is used regularly by students from all disciplines and is staffed by students who have advanced through the CAMS Sound Studies curriculum. In addition the Sound Design course created a student-generated sound effects archive available for campus-wide use and the shared resources of the Weitz Center have resulted in greater collaborations with the Music, Theater and Dance departments. Overall there has been a vast improvement in thinking about sound in all projects – critical and creative – and the Sound Studies curriculum has made sound a focal point in several other areas across the college.


[1]  Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003); Michael Bull and Les Back, eds., The Auditory Culture Reader (New York: Berg, 2003); Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004); Mark M. Smith, ed., Hearing History: A Reader (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004); Jonathan Sterne, ed., The Sound Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2012); and an impressive range of offerings from Oxford University Press including Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies (2011); John Richardson, Claudia Gorbman, and Carol Vernallis, eds., The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics (2013); Carol Vernallis, Amy Herzog, and John Richardson, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Sound and Image in Digital Media (2013); and Karen Collins, Bill Kapralos, and Holly Tessler, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Interactive Audio (2014).


Jay Beck is Assistant Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at Carleton College. He co-edited Lowering the Boom: Critical Studies in Film Sound, is American co-editor of the journal Music, Sound and the Moving Image, and his current book project is Designing Sound: Technology and Sound Aesthetics in 70s American Cinema.


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One Response to Sound Studies in a Liberal Arts Curriculum

  1. bernamarquez says:

    Very good article!

    I’m a Brazilian Sound Studies researcher and for my PhD I’m researching about how is the currently pedagogic process of teaching sound in film schools/colleges/universities.

    This text helped me a lot and is a reference to me.

    I’d like to know if do you know others bibliographies about this subject.
    Can you share it with me?

    Thanks a lot!

    Bernardo Marquez

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