Sonic Rhetoric: Aural Terraforming and Sonder

I wanted to resist Michael Bull’s overly simplistic suggestion that we use iPods to recontextualize our worlds into something more experientially desirable than what’s really taking place around us. Annoyed at first by the implication that iPods (and now, I suppose, smartphones at large) are somehow accomplishing a sonic isolationism that Discmans, Walkmans, or personal radios did not, I wanted to dismiss Bull altogether, But I really can’t.

Early on, Bull very nearly attributes a willful choice where there likely isn’t, or at least not one made consciously: “iPod users aim to create a privatised sound world, which is in harmony with their mood, orientation and surroundings, enabling them to respatialise urban experiences through a process of solipsistic aestheticisation. iPod users aim to habitually create an aesthetically pleasing urban world for themselves as a constituent part of their everyday life” (199). While I still resist Bull’s implication of grand intent, I acknowledge this passive act of privatized soundscapes evident in the personal narratives of iPod users. I realize that I too have experienced moments where privately-consumed music has converged with the world I view around me to give each a significance unattainable without the influence of the other. A moment I recall particularly well was almost too perfect: while listening to R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People while working in a café, I just happened to observe a perfect stranger look up from their phone in frustration, presumably having read something greatly distressing, and close their eyes in an entirely relatable effort to collect their temper. As if Michael Stipe was speaking directly to that moment, the lyrics of “Everybody Hurts” rang through my earbuds, inducing an almost tangible sense of sonder: the occasional moments of clarity we experience in which we are acutely aware that the background characters in our lives have lives every bit as complex, interwoven, and important as our own. While I don’t think that we are often deliberate in Bull’s posited act of aural terraforming – and I certainly have no idea why this would be any more pronounced in urban life than elsewhere – our music does inform the soundscapes we inhabit.

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