Sonic skills: sound and listening in the development of science, technology and medicine (1920s-now)

Scholars who emphasize the visual bias in Western culture usually point to science as their favorite example. Doing research seems impossible without using images, graphs and diagrams. Historians and sociologists of science have recently corrected this claim by showing how senses other than seeing, including listening, have been significant in the development of knowledge, notably in the laboratory. The world of science itself, however, still considers listening a less objective entrance into knowledge production than seeing.

This program aims to understand the contested position of sonic skills in knowledge production by studying the role of sound and listening in science, technology and medicine. It centres on the 1920s onwards, thus taking the rise of recording technologies into account. The program has three questions. The first is how scientists, engineers and physicians have employed their ears in making sense of what they studied. The second question is how such listening practices have generated new scientific knowledge and technological design. The final and most crucial question is why in scientific legitimization, listening has remained contested nonetheless. The program’s selection of cases covers different phases in research and design, ranging from tinkering with technology on shop floors and trial-and-error in laboratories, to recording natural phenomena and ‘sonification’: the auditory display of scientific data.

By distinguishing between monitory, diagnostic, exploratory and synthetic listening, this program’s scholarly aim is develop a theory that enhances our understanding of the role and status of sonic skills in knowledge production. We expect that the historically generated differences between professional and scientific expertise will be highly significant in this understanding. The program’s societal relevance is to show how listening connects practices in science to those in music, thus making science more accessible to a wider audience.

The Sonic Skills research program consists of five sub-projects:

  1. Listening to Machines
  2. Recording and Listening Practices in Ornithology
  3. Laboratory Senses
  4. Listening in the Hospital
  5. Sonification of Scientific Data

Research team: Prof. Dr. Karin Bijsterveld, Dr. Melissa van Drie, Dr. Anna Harris, Dr. Stefan Krebs, Dr. Joeri Bruyninckx and Dr. Alexandra Supper.
Type of project: NWO-VICI grant
Period: June 2010 – June 2015.

For more information, visit the (external) project page.

Main publications:

Karin Bijsterveld (2019), Sonic Skills: Listening for Knowledge in Science, Medicine and Engineering (1920s- present). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Joeri Bruyninckx (2018), Listening in the Field: Recording and the Science of Birdsong. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Alexandra Supper (2012), Lobbying for the Ear: The Public Fascination with and Academic Legitimacy of the Sonification of Scientific Data. PhD Thesis, Maastricht University, Maastricht.



See also this interview on the project: