Sound and Image

What is the value of sound as a communication system?  How does the transmission of information by sound compare to that revealed through images? What information do sounds provide? And, can knowledge about the state and “health” environments be obtained by studying the sounds from locations?  These are some of the questions the inform the following study on the Cowling Arboretum soundscape at Carleton College.

Photographs contain static elements of a moment in time – two-dimensional fragments– that reveal information about life in that instant.  They are enclosed within a border that inhibits the entry of further information, as only the material within the frame is accessible.  In contrast, cinema is dynamic with changeable components.  The medium does not inhibit the communication of information per se, rather, cinematography styles can prevent the transmission of knowledge depending on how content is framed, what is included and excluded within the shot, and how editing manipulates the transmission of a particular message.

Photography and, to a large degree, cinema, rely on the visual image as the central means of conveying a message.  Because sound is invisible, whereas visuals are not, many people thus believe sound is secondary to the filmed material.  Yet, sound can transmit information about the world within and beyond the frame that visuals cannot.  Heightened attention to the visual system detracts awareness from other sensory systems.  The result is a kind of “eye culture” where the visual image dominates the social and cultural experience in the arts and entertainment.  While this result is acceptable for many forms of entertainment and communication, the devaluation of sound does have a consequence because sound is able to communicate valuable facts about: context, meaning, temporality, space, the relationships between entities, physiological and psychological states, etc.  It is a vital resource for understanding environments, people, organisms, and the interactions between these groups.  Hence, when the goal of a communicative experience is to place the observer in a dynamic setting that conveys a complete appreciation of a place or event, the sonic component of communication is critical.

In the absence of visuals, the communicative nature of sound may be enhanced because only the auditory system of the audience is privileged.  As a result, active engagement, listening, with acoustic information occurs because sensitivity to sound is increased.  In contrast, hearing is a more passive mode of attending to acoustics that may reduce the quality of information gained from sound, typically in connection with the focus being directed to an accompanying visual image.  As “eye-culture” strengthens with developments in technology, entertainment, and media arts, sound as a communication mode is increasingly diminished in importance; hearing may occur in many media experiences, but the skill of listening is not as often called upon or developed.