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Articles    H2'ed 5/30/12

Sound spheres: A model of psychoacoustic space in audiovisual media

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David Sonnenschein

Author, "Sound Design: The Expressive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema"

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The importance of localization of sound in our real world is explored and compared with the use of diegetic sound in audiovisual media, which has been usefully codified by Michel Chion as on-screen and off-screen. To further develop the theory of filmic psychoacoustic space, the Sound Spheres model offers six levels of sonic experience, beginning from the most inner personal sphere and expanding toward the most outer unknown sphere: I Think, I Am, I Touch, I See, I Know and I Don't Know. Real world experiences and perceptual exercises of these spheres inform us how they can be applied to the creation of filmic stories.

(Note: Since original publication, Sound Spheres model has also been applied to multi-media and interactive performance. See )

Genesis of Sound Spheres

As a sound designer, musician and filmmaker, much of my creative work is based on personal experience in the world, based on my own senses. I have spent a great deal of time alone in the wilderness listening to unknown animal calls and finely sculpted natural soundscapes, as well as in foreign countries that offer unexpected sonic reflections of human culture. Through the simple act of listening and observing my own physical, mental and emotional reactions to the surrounding sounds, the stories of these places, people, creatures and events began to coalesce into a pattern.   This pattern was drawn from the previous theoretical structures I had learned from studying and creating films (traditional models mentioned above), but extended beyond into this dynamic model that I now call Sound Spheres.

Several revelations occurred, as I noted a sonic experience that felt like it could be translated into the filmmaking world of sound design.   The experience of, "Did I hear that, or was that my imagination?" gave me the tingle of excitement that happens in a good film with subtle cues, like a detective novel. Sometimes that inner sound would compel me into action as much as any externally heard event. I began to consider that my own mind generating the thought of sound could be as significant as the external sounds, and this became the innermost Sound Sphere in the developing model, the I Think sphere.

Another significant psychological impact was discovered when I or someone else would be startled or humored by a sound, saying, "What was that?" It obviously was "offscreen" and out of our sight, but even more important to note was that it was out of our minds to be able to identify the source, creating a specific emotional reaction. In Chion's terms, I could identify with reduced listening (volume, pitch, timbre, etc.) and often with semantic listening that evoked some emotional feeling, but I would be clueless to the causal listening because I didn't know the source. Most often this wouldn't last long, being revealed when I'd turn my head or someone told me what was going on, but sometimes that strangeness would linger in the dark unknown, building tension and even motivating a physical reaction to go find out or run away from the sound. This became the outermost Sound Sphere, the I Don't Know realm, out of balance, full of intrigue and ripe for discovering something new.

Being in meditation, simply listening to the sounds and identifying their whereabouts and my feelings (if any), was a fairly passive experience. It didn't capture my genuine interest to stay with the experience, until I began to note the movement of sounds between the spheres.   For example, when I couldn't figure out what the source of a sound was, that caused me anxiety. Upon seeing where it came from (entering the I See sphere) I would be able to relax or go into action depending on my reaction to the true nature of the sound source.   Another movement between spheres occurred when I caused a sound by touching an object like a sweater (I Touch sphere), but the sound was unusually crisp, giving me a surprise. When I looked (I See sphere), I had touched a potato chip sitting on top of the sweater. Not extremely dramatic, but it did reinforce the notion of movement between the Sound Spheres as a clue to sonic storytelling.

The continued experiences that I had, plus the experimentation in this area for several years with my sound design students, resulted in a formalization of the Sound Spheres model presented here.


Sound Spheres model


If we consider the human experience of our environment from its most intimate to most external, a model of six concentric spheres serves to describe the various levels of sonic information available. Like the layers of an onion, an outer sphere may encompass some of the properties of inner spheres, but not as an absolute rule. As a perceptual construct of our world, this is a model to be to be explored, debated and expanded upon in relation to other audiovisual theories, as well as psychoacoustic and philosophical approaches.

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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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