Ass. Prof. Dr. Jacob Kreutzfeldt: Auditory Grammar – Introduction

University of Copenhagen

Talking about radios auditory grammar takes as point of departure the idea that radio as a sound medium, that has reached whole populations and has been incorporated in everyday lives and practices, has taken part in building a structural framework for comprehending auditory environments, not only in radio but as such. Listeners not only listen to radio – they learn to listen through radio. Radio not only represents the world, it structures the world – it presents auditory models for experience.

This is an introduction to one way of approaching radiophonic sound, an approach that I have found particularly meaningful in archive-based, historical radio research. Though it is concerned with aesthetics, it is not particularly aimed at radiophonic art or other forms of sound art, but rather at everyday radio, particularly features and reportages.

Talking about radios auditory grammar takes as point of departure the idea that radio as a sound medium, that has reached whole populations and has been incorporated in everyday lives and practices, has taken part in building a structural framework for comprehending auditory environments, not only in radio but as such. Listeners not only listen to radio – they learn to listen through radio. Radio not only represents the world, it structures the world – it presents auditory models for experience.

Activating a vocabulary of speech, music and indexical sound (or real sound) for the purpose of instant communication – rather than for archiving and distributing art, folklore or heritage as did predominantly previous forms of sound media – radio highlighted a new form of experience: that of listening alone, and it offered a possibility to develop the sense of hearing in new ways. Rudolf Arnheim noticed this in 1936, where he described radio as a parallel art form to that of music (“Only two arts renounce the ear entirely and deal exclusively with the ear: music and broadcasting [rundfunk]”). Radio to Arnheim offered a new kind of expression in its ability to combine what he understood as the spiritual world of music, the logical world of speech and the concrete realities of indexical sound. But while Arnheim wanted to place this new powerful means of expression in the service of abstract art, I would argue that it was already in the hands of reporters and programmers struggling to find meaningful forms of articulation in various sonic environments. Particularly when faced with modern and increasingly noisy urban environments and when faced with the equally modern transnational spaces made audible via radio, reporters did play a crucial role in establishing an auditory “language” for contemporary experiences.

The question I ask is: if radio producers find meaningful ways to express experiences in the contemporary world aurally (and not only verbally), how do we as researchers describe the forms of this? It is not satisfying for me to say that sonic form resides in some quasi-musical ‘spiritual’ domain that cannot and should not be put into words. Nor is it satisfying to suppose that radio is merely an extension of written and spoken language, and that sound in for example reportage only works as an illustration of the spoken words. Maintaining that the ways in which radio structures sound is meaningful, I am suggesting that is could be meaningful to talk about an auditory grammar working in radio.

The concept of auditory grammar emphasizes the observation that, like language, most radio consists of elements structured in sequence, which in combination generate meaning. In linguistics, grammar concerns the rules for combining clauses, phrases and words into meaningful structures. In radio, auditory grammar concerns the rules for combining words, indexical sounds, music etc. into broadcastings. Underlining that radio communication is governed by rules, it is important to say that these rules are dynamic, and that rules and norms seem to have been handed on in informal ways inside institutions and organizations, rather than in prescriptive accounts of ‘proper radio grammar’. The rules of auditory grammar are changing as are cultural and linguistic rules and norms, and the study of auditory grammar must be sensitive to gradual changes as well as to radical inventions. It would make little sense – at least in research – to come up with a prescriptive grammar, but it is equally more interesting to investigate the ways in which sound and combinations of sound make meaning in radio.

It is sometimes stated that radio’s primary code is linguistic (Crisell 1986 p. 54 and Shingler & Wieringa 1998 p. 30), and hence the use of other sounds (music, real sound, sound effects) must be ‘anchored’ in by the spoken text, that is, sound needs some kind of spoken explanation to be meaningful in radio. My approach to auditory grammar in radio sees this relation as more reciprocal, and claims that sound anchors speech as well as speech anchors sound. What we are dealing with then are not merely sonic illustrations and expansions of a text, but also the embedding of speakers and musical styles and performances in contexts through sound.

Language, according to the linguist Norman Chomsky, can be regarded as “a particular relationship between sound and meaning” (according to Cook & Newson p. 5), and the then ‘grammar’ designates the “whole knowledge of language in the persons mind” (ibid.). The primary task for linguistics, according to Chomsky, is to investigate what knowledge the language user has, in order to decide whether a sentence is meaningful or not. I think that is a useful question for the study of auditory grammar as well, and is directs attention on the one hand to the experience of failure, of technical breakdown and silences in the air, and on the other hand to the establishment of meaningful sequences in radio even though radio allow overcoming mind breaking distances in time and space.

In my studies so far I have focused on the implementation of sounds from the urban environment in radio. When radio producers in the late 20’es and early 30’es started to go out from their safe studios and into the city to make transmissions or outside broadcastings they encountered another kind of sonic environment than that of the sound proof studio. All kinds of noises from the modern city would be uncontrollable to the reporter, and the task was to produce in this situation a meaningful account. This encounter with real sound, actuality, wild sound o-ton or whatever we chose to call it, was not only new to the radio producer – but also to many of the listeners in the countryside who had never had a chance to experience modern cities first hand.

To illustrate this I will play two examples of this situation from the Danish radio archive separated by 17 years: the first from 1936 and the second from 1953. Needless to say this time span marks a revolution in sound technology, and while both broadcastings are obviously recorded (and archived), the first was broadcast as a transmission, while the other one was broadcast as a reportage, the first one being live (more or less), the other one being edited as a feature (most probably on reel tape).

PDF iconKreutzfeldt_auditory grammar slides.pdf

What I hope this will illustrate is what could be called a gramaticalization of environmental sound.