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Defining Sound Studies

Northwestern’s Sound Arts and Industries program has distinguished itself from other graduate programs by making sound studies – a relatively new form of research and a developing academic discipline – a core part of its curriculum.

According to MA in Sound Arts and Industries Associate Director Neil Verma, the discipline is so new that scholars resist attempting to define it. Jonathan Sterne, a McGill University professor and pioneer in the field, has emphasized how “sound students” form an interdisciplinary field that examines the various ways sound and how we understand it have differed throughout history.

Since sound studies is broadly defined, it brings together scholars from various disciplines. This is important for Evelyn Kreutzer, a PhD student in Northwestern’s Radio/TV/Film Department and Verma’s former research assistant.

“It’s helped me make sure that what I’m doing actually makes sense and that there is an audience for it,” Kreutzer says.

Kreutzer’s studies focus on representations of the Western classical music canon in film, TV and video art, and how these representations relate to issues of class and taste. More specifically, she’s considering how various artists and filmmakers have played with pre-conceived notions of “high-brow” art music and “low-brow” media settings. Kreutzer says musicology is one of the fields she has interacted with on a regular basis. Access to musicologists through sound studies has been incredibly beneficial.

“Being in the sound studies community has helped me a lot,” Kreutzer says. “It can be intimidating for someone based in another field like myself to take on a different ‘language.’ I’m thankful to be connected with musicologists in the local sound studies community.”

Kreutzer had a hand in making sure the local sound community existed at all. In 2016, she assisted Verma and fellow professor, Jacob Smith, as they started the Great Lakes Association of Sound Studies (GLASS). According to its charter, the goal of GLASS is to “establish a set of regular meetings to gather faculty and graduate students working in sound studies … at institutions of higher learning in the Great Lakes region.”

“Most disciplines have annual conferences and create intellectual community around things, and our field didn’t have anything like that,” Verma says.

Composed of universities in the region, including Northwestern, Indiana University, Marquette University, Michigan State and Ohio University, GLASS holds events twice a year to help faculty from different schools get to know one another, their programs and facilities.

“We don’t know what kind of facilities other schools have, so just getting people to visit one another I think can help shape new projects,” Verma says.

Outside of his work with GLASS, Verma also teaches the sound studies course Sound Arts and Industries students are required to take.

“For the students, we either use [sound studies] as a point of departure or a point of arrival,” he says.

Verma stresses the importance of complementing more technical and practical courses with classes like Sound Studies. “Students will be taking eight other classes that have to do with the technical and professional,” Verma says. “This is more of the class where we learn to think about sound as a social and philosophical problem.”

It’s this balance between theoretical and practical applications that helps Northwestern’s program stand out.

“There are so many universities that have a very strict separation between production and history and theory,” Kreutzer says. “To have this group of people who take classes on intro to sound science and the history of sound studies, but then also produce podcasts in the same program, I think that’s pretty phenomenal.”

While the more technical courses like Sound for Animation and Contemporary Podcasting require that students produce sound projects, Sound Studies challenges them to think more abstractly.

“This is more like a PhD seminar,” Verma says. “We all sit around a table and listen to important works of sound art … we talk about a lot of terminology. It’s more of a discussion.”

As with any post-graduate program, Northwestern’s goal is to prepare students to enter the workforce with the necessary tools to succeed in the sound industries. But Verma is quick to point out that understanding the ideas behind those technical aspects is equally as important. And there is perhaps no better proof than testimony from professionals themselves.

“When we have famous sound designers come here, that’s what they want to talk about,” Verma says. “They want to talk about what is a sound effect? How does it work in the mind? These are the kinds of philosophical questions we find that people at the top of their game are interested in … We want students who don’t just get jobs. We want them to change fields, start companies, create new devices, new apps; you can’t do that with technical knowledge alone.”