Reading Notes for “Sound Matters: Notes Towards the Analysis and Design of Sound in Multimodal Webtexts” by McKee

Reading Notes:   McKee                                                         Ed Lessor

Key Terms and Concepts

We begin with a discussion of the four elements of sound that McKee isolates for the purposes of her discussion:  vocal delivery, sound effects, music, and silence. We work through samples in class, so it is useful to have a list of the qualities for each of these elements handy. For example, we would discuss tension, roughness, breathiness, loudness, pitch, and vibrato when we are analyzing the vocal component for a piece. I try to organize this discussion as a search for the “affordances” of the audio: what meanings are made available by having these elements present that would be lost in a strictly alphabetic text.

With an element such as sound effects, it is interesting to discuss how effective they are for the overall argument. In many cases students will view the sound effects as a distraction, or more as punctuation than as an integral part of the overall argument. It helps here to ask the students to identify information about the scene provided by the sound effects, cuing, mood creation, and emotions that may be invoked by the sounds. When they have a short list of what they are looking for, it seems easier for them to tie a discussion of sound effects back to the level of meaning creation, and argumentative support.

I do not spend a lot of time discussing the sensuous plane, the expressive plane, and the sheerly musical plane when talking about the music of the piece, but tend to focus on the individual elements such as tempo and key in terms of the mood and overall impact that this has on the audio piece.

The last concept that I discuss with the students for this essay is that of the “sound envelope.” As McKee has split up the components of sound for her discussion of the various elements, this is a useful way to remind students that these elements are, in fact, experienced in a unified manner and that discussion of the tensions and effectiveness of the relationships between the various elements discussed can also yield fruitful analysis of the meaning created by the audio composition.

Student Reception
Student reaction to the piece seems to be mixed. I have had a few students that find it a bit long and dry, and others that feel as though it makes them think about sound in a very different manner. It is a bit on the long side, but is a very accessible text for undergraduate students to read. When we discuss the concepts in class while listening to some audio clips, I find that the class is able to appreciate the concepts much better than just reading about these. I suppose this makes sense when talking about audio essays. The more that you can do to ground this discussion with sound examples, the better the reception will be. Students seem to feel very comfortable talking about the impact of music on the presentation of the audio pieces—probable due to the fact that many of them spend quite a bit of time listening to and talking about music in various ways.

Unit Goals
I use this as my primary introduction to audio texts for CO 300. Discussing each of the components of the overall “sound envelope” enables students to make strong observations about audio sources that they may include in their research and convincing argument portfolios. This also gives them some specific criteria for making choices about what to include in their own audio production pieces. The discussion of silence as one of the components of sound always seems to strike them as quite profound! In final presentations I have had several students that very intentionally consider the pauses that they include in their audio pieces.

Course Goals: This essay aligns well with several of the larger course goals for CO 300:

Extend knowledge of rhetorical concepts, demonstrated by a student’s ability to:

  • Read and discuss theoretical texts from rhetoric, discourse studies, communication, and related disciplines
  • Analyze texts reflecting disciplinary/professional/specialized discourse
  • Reflect on the synthesis and communication of knowledge in alternate modes of composition

Extend experience in composing processes, demonstrated by a student’s ability to:

  • Hone strategies for generating ideas, revising, editing, and proofreading mono- and multi-modal texts in disciplinary/professional/specialized discourse
  • Critique one’s own compositions and the compositions of others
  • Use a variety of composition technologies (research and composing tools)

Extend mastery of argumentative conventions, demonstrated by a student’s ability to:

  • Adapt genre, mode, and other compositional choices to meet audience and purpose
  • Focus and sustain arguments in different modes using effective arrangement
  • Use audience appeals, including pathos, ethos, and logos
  • Anticipate and address audience questions and objections

Extend the application of advanced rhetorical concepts, demonstrated by a student’s ability to:

  • Compose arguments in different modes for specific audiences and purposes
  • Adapt content and style to respond to the needs of specific audiences and rhetorical situations