Penn State University
Spring 2014
Craig Eley
Institute for the Arts and Humanities


The Nature of Sound / The Sound of Nature

This course explores the relationships between human hearing, sound recording technologies, and the idea of "nature" from the late-nineteenth century to the present. During this time, a variety of writers, composers, sound engineers, politicians, social reformers, environmental advocates, and others used the notion of natural sounds—or, more specifically, natural "silence"—as a way to critique the "noise" of urban life. While some of these arguments have remained remarkably consistent over time, they have also been marked by moments of contestation and change. Though we might think about natural sounds as timeless or unchanging, they are in fact shaped by historically and culturally specific ideas about sound, society, and technology—ideas that have had a dramatic impact on both human and non-human life. Advocates for natural silence have often silenced racial and gendered others, ethnic minorities, the lower classes, and the mechanized sounds of industrial capitalism.

In order to navigate these complex issues in American auditory culture, this course will draw on a variety of contemporary scholarly approaches that have come to be known as "sound studies" and ask students to deeply engage with sound on historical, technical, and analytical levels. The course is organized around four thematic units, each of which will include readings as well as hands-on workshops with digital sound recording and editing tools. At the end of the course, students will be asked to synthesize their historical and technical knowledge of sound in the form of a final project, which might take the shape of a formal research paper, a podcast or radio essay, a website with embedded audio, or some other form to be determined in consultation with the instructor. Throughout the semester, students will be encouraged to think in new and innovative ways about how sound shapes the way we understand, analyze, and present historical knowledge.