Enjoy the Silence: Jonathan Sterne’s Sound Studies

Though considered the absence of sound, an entity defined by lack, silence is its own swollen signifier. We often find it awkward in social situations, public forums, on the radio. Anywhere we expect the sound of a voice, silence is suspect. “Uncomfortable silences,” Mia Wallace complains in Pulp Fiction (1994), “Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?” We fill every space with sound. But, as the sultan of silence, John Cage (1991), taught us, “[S]ilence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around” (p. 59)

The most successful ideological effects are those which have no need of words, and ask no more than complicitous silence.
— Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice

Orfield Lab's Anechoic Chamber

Silence indicates unheard voices, both figuratively and literally. In The Sound Studies Reader (Routledge, 2012) edited by Jonathan Sterne, Mladen Dolar writes, “The absence of voices and sounds is hard to endure; complete silence is immediately uncanny, it is like death, while the voice is the first sign of life” (p. 540). Orfied Laboratories’ Anechoic Chamber, built by Eckel Industries and pictured above, is a foam room within a room, built on i-beams and springs, surrounded by steel. The outer room is encased in foot-thick, concrete walls. There’s a running bet at the lab offering a case of beer to anyone who can stay in it with the lights off for over 45 minutes. In a rather psychological example of what Douglas Kahn (1999) calls the “impossible inaudible” (p. 189), no one’s been able to stay inside for more than half an hour. Its death-like silence makes its Guinness Book of World Records award as “The Quietest Place on Earth” seem sinister.

The Sound Studies ReaderIn her investigation of silence in fiction, Alix Ohlin (2012) notes, “Silence, created through ellipsis, white space, and repetition, is another form of erasure; it tells the reader of a pain that is too great to bear, yet must be borne” (p. 58). As Susan Sontag (1969) writes, “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech” (p. 11). The complaint is often hidden until heard. Breaking the silence is the first step to its resolution. Tara Rodgers’ essay in Sterne’s collection, “Toward a Feminist Historiography of Electronic Music,” also equates silence to a unspoken grievance, quoting poet Adrienne Rich: “The impulse to create begins–often terribly and fearfully–in a tunnel of silence… [T]he first question we might ask a poem is, What kind of voice is breaking the silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?” (p. 478). Similarly, in “The Audio-Visual iPod,” Michael Bull equates it with isolation. Silence makes an uneasy companion.

 Air has so much to say for itself. Sound is just bugged air.
— McKenzie WarkDispositions

Bugging the air and bugging the airwaves, sound surrounds us. In his essay, “The Auditory Dimension,” Don Ihde phenomenologically relates hearing to seeing, the silent to the invisible. Rephrasing the age-old, tree-falling-in-the-forest question, he writes, “Does each event of the visible world offer the occasion, even ultimately from a sounding presence of mute objects, for silence to have a voice? Do all things, when fully experienced, also sound forth?” (p. 27).

MP3: -The Meaning of a FormatTackling the presence of no object, Sterne’s other new book, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Duke University Press, 2012), investigates the evolution and epistemology of our prevailing sound format. Originally intended as a way to transfer sound over phone lines, the MP3 has become a case study in the digital reorganization of an industry. “Chances are,” Sterne writes, “if a recording takes a ride on the internet, it will travel in the form of an MP3 file” (p. 1). Identifying the internet as its native environment, the “dot-mp3” file extension was born on July 14, 1995. “At some point in the late 90s,” says Karlheinz Brandenburg, whose Ph.D. work in 1982 landed him in the middle of the development of the format, “MP3 was technically the best system out there, and at the same time, it was accessible to everybody.” These two aspects gave the MP3 an early foothold, it was patented in 1989, and now every device that plays digital audio files can play one (Wikström, 2009). With the introduction of the first portable MP3-player in 1998, the record industry’s early-eighties nightmares were coming true (Coleman, 2004), and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) started its ongoing legal battle against the digital revolution. Once online file-sharing and the iPod came online around the turn of the millennium, the floodgates were open, and music was liberated not only from the dams of physical formats but also physical spaces. What once took rooms of equipment and stacks of physical media to enjoy is now in everyone’s pocket.

Where the printing press gave us “an eye for an ear” (McLuhan, 1962, p. 27), the MP3 gave us all an endless, solitary soundtrack. The visual is still culturally privileged over the audible (Kahn, 1999), but studying sound has never been more imperative. The Sound Studies Reader and MP3: The Meaning of a Format, along with Sterne’s earlier book, The Audible Past (Duke University Press, 2003), provide a solid foundation.

Without sound, celebration and grief look nearly the same.
— Sam in Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet

Sharing silence can be the ultimate sign of intimacy. The unspoken solace of a loved one close by manifests a complicit quiet. Mia Wallace continues, “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.” Amen.


Bourdieu, Pierre. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press, p. 188.

Cage, John. (1991, Winter). An Autobiographical Statement. Southwest Review, 76(1), 59.

Coleman, Mark. (2004). Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money. New York: Da Capo.

Kahn, Douglas. (1999). Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Marcus, Ben. (2012). The Flame Alphabet: A Novel. New York: Knopf, p. 181.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Ohlin, Alix. (2012, December). “I Am In Here”: On Silence in Fiction. The Writer’s Chronicle, 45(3), 56-63.

Sontag, Susan. (1969). Styles of Radical Will. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Bender, Lawrence (Producer) & Tarantino, Quentin (Director/Writer). (1994). Pulp Fiction [Motion picture]. United States: A Band Apart.

Wark, McKenzie. (2002). Dispositions. Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing.

Wikström, Patrik. (2009). The Music Industry. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.