Session F.11: Sound and Mediascapes


C&W19 Review of F.11: “Sound and Mediascapes”

Presenters: Stan Harrison and Jen Ware

Though initially scheduled for three speakers—Stan Harrison, Michelle Davidson, and Jen Ware—“Sound and Mediascapes” ended up featuring presentations from only Harrison and Ware. The former presenter argued that composition lacks a conceptual framework for discussing soundwriting, while the latter presenter provided frameworks for creating more dynamic and inclusive transcripts for sonic projects.

Harrison started the panel with an extemporaneous presentation in which he claimed that composition, as a discipline, lacks a conceptual framework for discussing soundwriting. While he acknowledged the field’s history of soundwriting scholarship—specifically mentioning Cheryl Ball and Byron Hawk’s special issue of Computers and Composition (2006), Heidi McKee’s essay “Sound Matters” (2006), Cynthia Selfe’s essay “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning” (2009), and the “Writing with Sound” issue of Currents in Electronic Literacy (2011) among others—he argued that the field lacks a clear vocabulary for discussing sound and teaching soundwriting.

To develop such a sonic vocabulary, Harrison first turned to the radio guides of the 1930s and 1940s; then, he combined this vocabulary with the audio theories of Charles Grivel, whose essay “The Phonograph’s Horned Mouth” (1992) he distributed to the audience, to create a conceptual framework for both why compositionists should teach sound and how we can help students overcome their unfamiliarity with the medium in order to move towards excellence in composing and become “sound artists” who write specifically for the ear rather than for the eyes.

Harrison’s goals extend beyond providing students with experience composing in a potentially unfamiliar medium; rather, he asserts that having students create sonic texts that decouple their identities from their physical voices helps students to realize that they are more than their physical selves and are capable of creating texts that will likely outlive them. For Harrison, such composing practices provide students with the opportunity to reflect on both their mortality and their identities.

Ware then began her presentation by providing the audience with a link to a shared Google Drive Folder with her materials: an activity sheet, video, slideshow, and two examples of transcripts that utilize dynamic equivalence to describe sounds.

Once everyone had access to those materials, Ware showed a video she created defining and providing examples of nat sound pops—key sonic elements in videos that composers want their audiences to hear. In the video, Ware notes that when recording these sounds, composers make sure to “Put the Lav [microphone]where the sound is” or “where the sound lives,” and she uses this observation to argue that when transcribing those sounds composers, “should also, put the description where that sound is.” For Ware, this means writers should “put the essence of all the elements of the soundscape in our transcripts. Describe the sounds where they live in our ears, through our eyes, in our minds. [Because] They set the scene. They are the essence of story.” And, through a description of her own challenges creating a transcript for her and Ashley Hall’s soundscape “The Vibratorium” (2018), she demonstrates how creating accurate, detailed, illustrative, and impactful transcripts is much more difficult than one might at first imagine.

Moving to her slideshow, Ware explained that her work with transcripts builds on Janine Butler’s work with integral captions and subtitles (2018), which argues for methods of captioning that make the written language an essential element of video that works with other elements—sound, visual, etc.—to create meaning. Ware argued that like traditional captions, traditional transcripts will flatten the sonic elements of a composition (for example, many transcripts with simply place a music note to signify “nonessential background music”), but she asserted that composers should describe sounds more dynamically.

In order to help the audience think through what such dynamic transcripts might look like, Ware borrowed two concepts from translation studies: formal equivalence, word for word translations that focus on an author’s “intent” and dynamic equivalence, conceptual translations that translate “to the audiences cultural tone and style.” Then, she asked us to transcribe the ambient sounds of the room using dynamic equivalence. After, the exercise, the audience arranged themselves into small groups to discuss their transcriptions and their effects.

As the small groups merged into a large group discussion, participants talked about using layout, effects, colors, wording, and even fonts to describe not only what they were hearing but also the other characteristics attached to the sound. For instance, a deaf participant suggested using blue to not only describe the sound of the radiator but also to signify both the feeling attached to it. Ultimately, participants realized that transcription is a choice, and though there are better and worse methods, there is no correct option; Ware herself even suggested that sonic pieces should have multiple transcripts, each with different depths and foci.

As this conversation began to meander, Ware shifted the focus from her work to the panel as a whole. Some areas of overlap between the two projects were discussed, and there was some gentle pushback on Harrison’s argument; however, the question and answer portion of the panel did not last particularly long as participants were eager to discuss ideas among one another in small groups and hurry off the lunch keynote.


Ball, C. E., & Hawk, B. (Eds.). (2006). Sound in/as composition space [Special issue]. Computers and Composition, 23(3).

Butler, J. (2018). Integral captions and subtitles: Designing a space for embodied rhetorics and visual access. Rhetoric Review, 37(3), 286-299.

Davis, D. (Ed.). (2011). Writing with sound [Special issue]. Currents in Electronic Literacy.

Grivel, C. (1992). The phonograph’s horned mouth. In D. Khan, & G. Whitehead (Eds.), Wireless imagination: Sound, radio, and the ant-garde (pp. 31-61). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

McKee, H. (2006). Sound matters: Notes towards the analysis and design of sound in multimodal webtexts. Computers and Composition, 23(3), 335-354.

Selfe, C. (2009). The movement of air, the breath of meaning: Aurality and multimodal composing, College Composition and Communication, 60(4), 616-663.

Ware, J., Hall, E. A. (2018). The Vibratorium. In J. Rice, C. Graham, & E. Detweiler (Eds.), Rhetorics change/rhetoric’s change (pp. 33). Anderson, SC: Parlor Press and Intermezzo.


  • Ben Harley

    Ben Harley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages, Literature, and Communication Studies at Northern State University. He studies how sound helps the field of rhetoric and composition to rethink the risks of public writing.

    View all posts
Leave A Reply