Sonic Agents

›Sonic agents‹ – whether human or non-human – are the ones that shape and perform the soundscape.

Usually we tend to speak of sound sources as the origins of environmental sound. But, as Birger Ohlson noted, ›in actual practice, sound sources are seldom as simple as point sources. They may have a large extension and an irregular shape‹ (Ohlson 1976, 34) such as the ocean surf which stems from innumerable events and interactions between wind, water, weather as well as the shape and material composition of the coast. To speak of a sound source then may easily invite a certain reductionism since a complex coaction of materials and forces is denoted by a single term.

AUDIOSPHAERESound propagation and listening (illustration by the author)

For example, if we hear the sound of an airplane, it is not ›the airplane‹ that we hear, we perceive certain patterns of air vibrations. These air vibrations are the result of a multilayered intermingling of events happening inside the airplane engine, between wings and air, dependent on size and speed of the airplane, on wind regime and many other environmental features. What, then, is ›the sound source‹ here? Instead of simply relating (or reducing) sound to a tangible, physical sound source I am more interested in the specific form of energy that we are able to perceive as sound and how these sound fields are distributed across space and time.

Listening, then, is an encounter with someone – or something – that creates this sonic energy – including airplanes, creaky windows, the rain, steam engines, crickets, and violins. This is why I would like to call them sonic agents. In terms of sound, even engines or electronic devices somehow seem to be awake, and I would argue that – besides physical movement – sound is a characteristic that makes things seem to be alive. At the very moment a thing emits a sound, it seems to gain a certain amount of vitality.

As an abstract concept the term ›sound source‹ tends to standardize sonic phenomena, treating sound as a rather passive consequence, a predictable emergence of physical modalities. In contrast, the concept of the sonic agent emphasizes the active, performative role that a ›sound source‹ plays. Holger Schulze seems to refer to something similar by the term sonic persona, ›the sonically perceptive, performatively generated traces that any vibrating entity leaves in a specific culture and historical era as well as in a situational sonic environment‹ (Schulze 2012).

The idea of innumerable sonic agents generating the soundscape may at least serve as a methodological tool for the de-familiarization of our everyday experience. In any case, cultural-anthropological studies of listening and the sonic environment should be aware of the fact that soundscapes, like landscapes, are ›as much cultural constructs as material ones‹ (Feld 2006, 226). Read more on ›the drone‹ and other sonic agents.

Audio samples


Feld, Steven (2006): A rainforest acoustemology. In: Michael Bull und Les Back (ed.): The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg, p. 223-239.

Ohlson, Birger (1976): Sound fields and sonic landscapes in rural environments. In: Fennia 148, p. 33–43.

Schlüter, Fritz (2011): Mapping the Drone. Sonic Agents in Urban Soundscapes. In: Petr Gibas, Karolína Pauknerová and Marco Stella et al. (eds.) (2011): Non-humans in Social Science. Animals, Spaces, Things. Cerveny Kostelec: Pavel Mervart. ISBN 978-80-7465-010-9

Schulze, Holger (2012): Anthropology of Sound. Online presentation. . Visited November, 15th 2012, 8 p.m.


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