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Articles    H2'ed 5/30/12

Sound spheres: A model of psychoacoustic space in audiovisual media

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Message David Sonnenschein

The descriptions below pertain to real life experiences. Applications in the audiovisual world will be discussed in a later section.

I Think

When we perceive a sound, but no one else can hear it, it is likely an internal sound that is generated by one's own mind. There may be a doubt of its physicality if it is an extremely soft sound or pitched very high or low, perhaps one that is beyond the hearing range of most normally endowed listeners. But for the most part, this sphere represents personal audio thoughts that are simply not available to other listeners, unless we are told about them.

Examples:   memories, daydreams, dreams, mental rehearsal or notes to oneself, internal music.

I Am

Our bodies are organic factories full of vibration, friction and impacts that create sound. Many of these can only be heard by ourselves, if we even notice, as normally we are habituated to constant low level rhythms of breathing, heartbeat and even neurologically based auditory stimuli like tinnitus. However, slightly louder bodily functions become audible to us and to those around us, sometimes with unintended, embarrassing results.   Speaking and clapping are more obvious sounds we make for the purpose of communicating with others.   This sphere represents the interface between the very personal, private and personalized arena of sound making and that of interaction with others.

Examples:   heartbeat, breathing, digestive sounds, flatulence, mouth sounds (chewing, coughing, hiccup, sneezing, crying, etc.), scratching, clapping, speaking.

I Touch

When we make contact with the outside world, manifesting our willpower through our bodily movements, this action sets up sonic vibrations. Often it is initiated by our hands, the major anatomical marvel that distinguishes us from most other animals. We have the capacity to smash materials with heavy objects, delicately finger minute particles and complex musical instruments, and communicate through sophisticated symbols on electric devices. Our whole body plays the environment like a drum set, slamming doors, pounding up stairs, sweeping the floor and turning the pages of a newspaper.

Examples:   footsteps, manipulating tools, utensils, food, contact sports, typing.

I See

The experience of this sphere is equivalent to the filmic notion of "onscreen" audio, where events, objects and actions in our field of vision are perceived as the source of the sound we are hearing. Psychologically, this sphere usually represents a distancing of our ability to affect the world, as the act of listening becomes more passive than I Touch or I Am. However, this might also include the previous spheres of I Touch and I Am, if we are watching our own body creating a sound (like seeing our hands play the piano, or scratching our arm), or may not (like playing the clarinet with our fingers below our field of vision, or scratching our back).

Examples:   mouths moving with speech, television, cars passing by, boiling teapot, bat hitting baseball.

I Know

This and the following sphere (I Don't Know) relate to the sense of offscreen sounds, where the source is not visible to the listener. The context of the environment and types of sounds expected to occur in that environment create a sense of familiarity with the soundscape. When a banging noise happens out of sight in the kitchen area, it is easy to guess that someone is washing the dishes. But the same sound coming from the bedroom generates a big question mark in the listener. It is often easy to identify the person on the other side of a phone call without their name being introduced, because of the personal recognition of the voice. But if the voice is not familiar enough, we have to ask, "Who is speaking?" and this falls outside of the I Know sphere into I Don't Know.   The sound of a coyote howling in the hills of Southern California is very identifiable, but the same sound in the city mall would be strange and misplaced.  

Examples:   people talking outside our vision, radio music, crickets, birds, wind.

I Don't Know

Although not so common an experience as the other sound spheres, the I Don't Know sphere can be a very memorable and potent one. When a sound cannot be identified, for however long, we normally are compelled to find out what is the source. Perhaps if it seems innocuous, weak or doesn't repeat itself, we may not give much attention and ignore it. But if there is any power to the sound in either reduced listening (e.g. loud, sharp attack, repeated) or semantic listening (e.g. scary, funny, oddly familiar), then our conscious minds can barely resist being drawn into the quest of source with causal listening. It serves as a catalyst for problem solving, shifting complacent energy into action. The speed of moving from unknown to known may also be influenced by culture, education and exposure to similar kinds of sounds. For example, research (Murray et al) has shown we can recognize man-made sounds faster than natural sounds. Auditory Scene Analysis can offer a systematic gradation between I Know and I Don't Know.

Examples: Because these are all unrecognizable sounds that are out of sight, no source examples (causal listening) can be cited without exiting the I Don't Know sphere and being thrown back into the I Know sphere. However, acoustic parameters (loud-soft, high-low pitch, short-long, etc.) and emotional qualities (soothing, inappropriate, frightening, etc.) can be described.


Examples of Sound Spheres model

During the last several years I have introduced the Sound Spheres model to my sound design students and given them the following assignment:

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Filmmaker, musician, sound designer, author "Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema." 310 455-0750
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