New Disquietude podcast episode: music by Lesley Flanigan, Dave Seidel, KMRU, Celia Hollander, and John Hooper; interview with Flanigan; commentary; short essay on reading waveforms. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #field-recording, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

tag: sounds-of-brands

Teaching “Sounds of Brands” (2020), Week 6 of 15

In the age of COVID-19

This post will be out of order when I catch up with recent weeks, but it’s timely, and I don’t want to delay. Countless educators around the planet are quickly needing to come up to speed with how to translate an in-person class to an online class. My case is fairly straightforward, as it’s lecture/discussion-based. I did find my “virtual chalkboard” to be very useful, and I hope that others do, too.

Remains of the day: The university where I teach in San Francisco moved classes online as of today, resulting from COVID-19 precautions. The students and I met at noon for Sounds of Brands, week 6 of 15, via video conference. I thought there would, as a result, be no chalkboard to share afterward. But then I realized, shortly before our first online session, that I might employ a shared Google doc as a virtual chalkboard. I found it worked quite well. For one thing, it gave students something to look at other than my (along with each other’s) face. For another, it kept things focused, allowing me to collate their input in real time. I think without this virtual chalkboard I would have ended up with less discussion, because their unrecorded responses would have felt fleeting. The approach worked great.

This week’s class was part of the second of the course’s three arcs. The first is Learning to Listen. The second is the arc from which the course takes its name: Sounds of Brands. Today we discussed the role of sound in product design. This isn’t a complete summary of the day’s session. I just want to unpack a bit, as a series of line items, what’s on the virtual board:

“Accessibility” is the department at the school where students can reach out if they need support, which I imagine might be the case right now.

The “$72.80” is from a story I told the students. I wanted to share, at the start of class, a disruption I had myself experienced during college. I mentioned how my first semester at school, much of the non-teaching staff went on strike. That $72.80 is what our tuition included for food. We got that amount back weekly to feed ourselves. I talked about the negatives (for example, having elected to spend most of the money on used records, I ended up quite ill by Thanksgiving), but also about how this bonded our class through the mutual support we provided each other.

The list on the left (“Sounds in Product Design”) is examples students shared. I talked through a variety of topics, including how Harley-Davidson once tried (and failed) to trademark its engine (the big on “reverse engineer” arose from this, as well), and how Brian Eno made a Windows start-up sound on a Mac. None of the students (this is toward a bachelor’s degree) had heard of Brian Eno, so there are some notes in there about who he is.

I then shared a bunch of R. Murray Schafer’s thoughts and writing on sound: first, a 1972 Canadian government document in which he defined “soundscape” (derived from “landscape”) and then language from Tuning of the World on the “soundmark” (from “landmark”). The “Soundmarks (of SF)” list is of sounds the students said they associated with San Francisco as among the city’s soundmarks. One neat aspect of this virtual chalkboard is that I could fix spelling and reorder material.

After the students listed their soundmarks, I then reordered the entries in what I thought of as ranging from sonically unique to the city (the Tuesday public warning system, currently on hiatus) to the non-unique yet still closely associated (seals). That quote under “Soundscape” is Schafer’s definition, and we discussed how the word “audience” might be added to it.

The last bit is in the lower right. We discussed the difference between “explicit” and “implicit” sounds relating to products and services. The idea is to apply Schafer’s concept of the soundscape (and related concepts that didn’t make it to the chalkboard) to things and the environment in which those things are utilized. (For example, the sound of a kickstand, the rumble of tires on pavement, and the noise of wind are all part of the Harley-Davidson experience.) Those three examples on the chalkboard were ones students contributed to the discussion.

Anyhow, with about 40 or so hours’ notice to prepare the transition, that’s my first video-conference teaching summary. Class met for three hours. It went OK. I’m used to pacing, and I had to sit still. I’m used to drawing and writing on the chalkboard, and had instead to just type. I’m used to lots of things, but it went OK, and it’ll go better next week. One student showed up in our video conference about 15 minutes early for class, when I had the chalkboard on default: black type on a white background. Spur of the moment, I reversed the colors, so it began to resemble an actual chalkboard. The student agreed it was an improvement, so I stuck with it.

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Teaching During COVID-19

Social distance in the virtual classroom

It looks as though my Sounds of Brands course as of this coming Wednesday — March 11, week 6 of 15 — will become an online course. That’s real-time online (aka a video conference), not an asynchronous online course. This is, of course, due to efforts in San Francisco to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. I had a guest speaker scheduled, but I think we’ll hold off on guest speakers until we’ve put the conference technology to the test.

And, yes, this means no chalkboard photos.

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Teaching “Sounds of Brands” (2020), Week 1 of 15

This past Wednesday, February 5, 2020, was the first class meeting of Sounds of Brands / Brands of Sounds: The Role of Sound in the Media Landscape, a course I’ve been teaching since 2012 in San Francisco at the Academy of Art. The course is about the ways things express themselves through sound, and by “things” I mean companies, products, services, and so forth. It can be everything from the sound design of an electric vehicle to the jingle of a fast-food restaurant to the music played in a retail establishment. How sound is employed as a form of expression in the marketplace, especially beyond the realm of pop-music storytelling, is what we explore each week.

I’m hopeful to find the time this semester to detail the class sessions here on, but I also know I’ve tried and failed every semester so far. I’ve occasionally started off strong, and then the realities of teaching, and work beyond school, and life beyond all of that become reality, and the posts pretty soon fade out. I’ve documented the first week of class several times in the past, so the point of today’s post — as I get tomorrow’s class materials together — is primarily to link to those posts (2012, 2015, 2016).

To recap in brief, the course is divided into three sections, as depicted in the above chart. We spend the first three weeks on Learning to Listen (aka Listening to Media); the following six weeks on the core of the course, Sounds of Brands; and then the final six weeks on the opposite proposition, Brands of Sounds, or how things related to sound (headphones, music equipment, streaming services, record labels, etc.) express themselves in non-sonic ways.

Up top is what the blackboard looked like at the end of the first day of class. The writing seen here is a repository of notes, not a structured document. I’ll unpack some of that here:

“Sound Journal” refers to the centerpiece of the homework: writing four times a week in a diary about one’s experience of and thoughts about sound.

Below that are things like “laugh -> ha” and “keyboard -> click,” a list of a half dozen or so correlations between “things” and “the sounds things make.” That’s the result of the opening exercise in the course, when students sit for 10 minutes and write down every sound they hear. There are various things that come out of the exercise, among them an opportunity to discuss the difference between object and emission. To understand that saying “car” isn’t sufficient to describe the sound a car makes is an important lessons for a student just beginning to explore sound.

The note about onomatopoeia is pointing out that several of the things people heard (the list originated as bits of the students’ work in the exercise) that much of the description is quite literally a verbal expression of the sound. But some achieve a greater, more verbal level of detail, such as the “deep, guttural” sound of a motorcycle, and the “high-pitched, repetitive beeping” of a truck backing up.

The list in the upper left-hand corner contains elements the students noted in a series of TV commercials that, creatively, employ everyday noise sources (keyboards, pencils, coffee, books) to recreate the melody of a classic jingle.

Other terms, such as “soundscape” and “anechoic,” will be discussed more in week two, which happens tomorrow. I’ll try to get the time to report back on that class meeting, and the others as the semester proceeds. There are 15 weeks in all, 16 if you include spring break. There is one class meeting each week, and it lasts roughly three hours, a mix of lecture, discussion, and in-class exercises. Students than have nine hours of homework outside of class. If you’d like a copy of the syllabus outline, shoot me an email at [email protected]

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What Sounds Looks Like: Brands of Sounds

Blackboard edition

Remains of the day. This is the blackboard at the end of the class this past Wednesday, week 11 of 15 in the undergraduate course I teach on sound in the media landscape. Week 11 marks the start of the third and final arc of the course. Arc one is “Listening to Media,” three weeks on learning to pay attention with and to one’s ears. Arc two is “Sounds of Brands,” from which the course takes its name; in it we discuss how things (companies, products, services, etc.) express themselves in sound (jingles, product design, retail design, etc.). Arc three of the course is “Brands of Sounds,” which flips the second arc on its head. We look at how things related to sound (musical instruments, headphones, streaming services, record labels, bands) express themselves in non-sonic ways. This begins with a discussion of what sound looks like. The lengthy class discussion yielded this mid-period Basquiat.

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Sounds of Brands: Initial Concepts

The blackboard after reviewing the first three weeks of the semester

The course I teach each spring, “Sound of Brands,” passed an early milestone this past Wednesday, February 27. Our fourth weekly class meeting, it marked the end of the first major arc of the syllabus and the start of the second arc.

The first arc is “Listening to Media,” three weeks during which students work on their listening skills. They accomplish this by starting their sound journals, which they are to write in four times per week, and by exploring two primary topics: first, a time line of sound and its relation to the nature of being human; second, a more compact time line of sound and its relation to film (and other media).

This Wednesday began the second arc, which is the core of the curriculum, the six-week stint (out of fifteen three-hour sessions total) from which the course takes its name: “Sounds of Brands.” In this arc we explore how things use sound to express themselves in the media landscape. We’ve already looked, to date, at film and television, and a bit at video games, but now we’re looking at products and services and corporations and so forth. (I use the word “brands” because it provides a broad stroke. That said, I do suggest that if the word “company” works fine in a given situation, then please say “company” instead of “brand.” There’s something uncomfortably anthropomorphic about the term “brand,” and something narcissistic to that particular anthropomorphism. When it’s useful and necessary, use it, certainly. When it’s not, don’t feed the beast.)

To make that shift from the first arc of the course to the second, we paused at the start of class Wednesday to reflect back on concepts we worked through during the first three weeks. This blackboard displays what accumulated during about 45 minutes of discussion that I led. Looking at it now, I realize it’s essentially three things: a lot of neat ideas, and a bunch of super-accomplished thinkers, and Dragnet. The board was getting packed and we needed to shift to the new material, so I should mention one additional concept that should have been on there: “sound design as score,” the TV series Southland, associated with it, much as Dragnet is here associated with “voice over,” which in turn is associated with “non-diegetic.”

And while on the subject of diegetic sound, I should mention something else. Now, “diegetic” and “non-diegetic” are useful, hallowed terms in film studies. In case they are not familiar, “diegetic” refers to sounds that correlate with action happening on screen, in the story as it is unfolding (dialog, sound effects, etc.), while “non-diegetic” refers to sounds that are separate from whatever realism you want to attribute to the filmed image. Classic examples of “non-diegetic” sound include the score and, yes, voice-over narration.

I just want to note some issues with characterizing “voice over” as expressly non-diegetic. I think the diegetic/non-diegetic pairing, while useful, suggests a binary when there’s really more of a continuum. There’s an argument to be made that voice overs are sometimes expressions of thought of a character who is part of the story, not an omniscient narrator, and that thought is sometimes concurrent with what is on screen, and that what is on screen is sometimes out of sync with everyday conceptions of time.

In any case, with that over, we moved on to the origins of the jingle. I’m not doing a week-by-week online summary of the course here this semester, but I am mentioning material on Twitter, and will likely do a few more focused write-ups in the coming months.

Oh, and yes, the classroom I’m teaching in this semester does have an actual blackboard, and I am filthy with white dust at the end of each session. There’s a pencil sharpener hanging on the wall, too.

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