“Cremation of senses in friendly fire”: on sound and biopolitics (via KMFDM & World War Z)

drum crisper fayltrash

There’s a 20-year gap in chronology between KMFDM’s 1993 song “A Drug Against War” and Marc Forster’s 2013 film World War Z, but sonically and ideologically they’re very, very similar. They contain the same kinds of sounds–machine guns, military orders barked over radios, buzzing crowds–and they use these sounds in the same way: to build sonic intensity past its breaking point (a “sonic bombardment brighter than sunlight,” as the KFMDM lyrics say). Their sonic similarity is evidence of neoliberalism’s intensification in the 20 years between them: what was once avant-garde opposition is later mainstream norm.

The songs’ sonic similarity reveals the central role of sound in contemporary biopolitics. By listening closely to “A Drug Against War” and the soundscape of World War Z—a film in which Brad Pitt saves humanity from a zombie apocalypse by giving all survivors a terminal disease—I show sound as more than a privileged aesthetic domain; sound actually provides the epistemic background and the concrete mechanisms for organizing society. Just as vision and “the gaze” are the ideological and technological foundation of panopticism, sound is the ideological and technological foundation of contemporary biopolitics. Much more is at stake in this post than just a song and a film: it takes on how—and why—society is organized as it is. It’s also about a particular understanding of “the sonic”: sound as dynamic patterning.

Because “A Drug Against War” lays out, in fairly elementary form, this “biopolitical” sonic vocabulary, it makes sense to start there. But before I do that, I will briefly define what I understand as ‘biopolitics.’


Like “neoliberalism,” “biopolitics” is a trendy concept whose precise meaning can get lost in loose usage. By “biopolitics,” I mean both an ideology of health and vitality and a political strategy whose medium is “life.” “Life,” here, isn’t individual health, wellness, or existence; it’s the ongoing vitality of the segment of society that counts as “society” tout court (e.g., in white supremacy, that segment would be whites). Biopolitics manages society like a living thing; for example, we often talk about the “health” of the economy, or use metrics such as obesity rates to compare different countries.

"Overweight or obese population OECD 2010" by ZH8000 - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Overweight or obese population OECD 2010″ by ZH8000 – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As Foucault explains in Society Must Be Defended, biopolitics’ “basic function is to improve life, to prolong its duration, to improve its chances, to avoid accidents, and to compensate for failings” (254). But to do that, power sometimes has to kill. Pruning my raspberry bush causes more berries to sprout, for example, just as weightlifting tears all my muscle fibers so they’ll rebuild in bigger, stronger shape. Killing off the weak is a positive investment in society’s overall strength. Again, Foucault:

The fact that the other dies does not mean simply that I live in the sense that his death guarantees my safety; the death of the other, the death of the bad race, of the inferior race (or the degen­erate, or the abnormal) is something that will make life in general healthier: healthier and purer. (Society, 255).

Hitler’s “final solution” is an obvious example of this biopolitical approach to killing, but this practice also informs many contemporary US policies and practices. In the US, black people as a population have significantly higher mortality rates than any other race, for example. Following Foucault, we could say it’s in the interest of white supremacist society to maintain a high mortality rate among black populations because this makes white supremacist society “healthier.” The key point here is this: biopolitics promotes and administers life by generalizing and naturalizing what Foucault calls “the relationship of war: ‘In order to live, you must destroy your enemies’” (Society 256). Biopolitical warfare is precisely what is waged in both “A Drug Against War” and World War Z, and sound emerges as a weapon of choice.

“Kill Everything”

DrugagainstwarIn its original context, KMFDM’s “A Drug Against War” used sound to counter US Presidents Reagan and Bush 1’s War on Drugs/”New World Order” thinking. Indeed, in 1993, it was hard not to hear it as a response to 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, the US’s first military action as the ‘winner’ of the Cold War. It performs, in music, the “cremation of senses in friendly fire,” that its lyrics describe. It burns out our hearing, realizing through sound the sort of “creative destruction” or “shock doctrine” that characterizes neoliberalism more generally. In this rather Nietzschean model, the only way to make something “stronger than ever, ever before” is to first kill it. Death is the means to the most vibrant life.

The lyric–“stronger than ever, ever before”–is the first line of the chorus. At the end of every verse, there’s a short drumroll that leads into it. As S. Alexander Reed notes in Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music, “clocking in at “322 bpm, the eighth-note snare fills at the end of the verses fire at about eleven rounds every second–the same rate as an AK-47” (29). This flourish foreshadows the gesture that, in the song’s bridge [after the second chorus, around 2:17 in the video above], musically “cremates” our senses in friendly fire–in this case, in the rapid fire of percussion. This rapid-fire percussion is one of the sonic elements that “Drug” shares with WWZ; in fact, the chorus uses what is likely (according to Reed) a machine gun sample. The machine gun effect mimics blast drumming. As Ronald Bogue explains in Deleuze’s Wake, blast drumming is a “tactic of accelerating meters to the point of collapse,” produced through the “cut-time alteration of downbeat kick drum and offbeat snare, the accent being heard on the offbeat but felt on the downbeat” (99). “A Drug Against War”’s AK-47 rolls actually accelerate to the point of auditory collapse, i.e. to the point at which humans generally can’t distinguish individual sonic events—the aural equivalent of seeing 24 frames per second as one continuous image. The AK-47’s rolls of ‘friendly’ fire cremate our sense of hearing.

The song’s chorus includes many other sonic elements shared by World War Z: doppler effects (such as the sounds of dropping bombs or planes buzzing the ground), rubble being moved around, military orders barked over radio. In the bridge several kinds of crowd noises are introduced: first, guitars buzz like a swarm of insects; then, a call-and-response in which singer Sascha Koneitzko echoes the chorus (which reverses the usual order in which the chorus echoes the individual leader); finally, a chaotic rabble of voices builds in intensity and leads into the sense-cremating climax.

KMFDM, 1 October 2009, Image by Flickr User Axel Taferner

KMFDM, 1 October 2009, Image by Flickr User Axel Taferner

An extended and intensified version of the “friendly fire” at the end of each verse, “A Drug Against War”’s climax builds to a peak by layering two full measures of AK-47-style drumroll on top of sounds of rabble, evoking the image of the military firing on an unruly crowd. This roll barrels towards the point of auditory collapse–if it got much faster, we’d be unable to distinguish individual rhythmic events, and hear a constant buzz (like in the beginning of the bridge), not a series of eighth notes. The roll’s forward momentum intensifies musical energy to an apex, culminating on the downbeat of the next measure in a florid lead guitar solo.

Describing the song as “sonic bombardment brighter than sunlight,” the lyrics confirm the music (and vice versa). The song overdrives sound until it sublimates into something else–if sunlight is more intense radiation than even soundwaves, here soundwaves amplify to a state more powerful than that. Cremating our senses in friendly fire, KMFDM channels soundwaves into a revolutionary drug, a drug against war. The band presents cleansing fire meant to purify us of disease: just as a fever kills pathogens in our bodies, the song burns our senses to kill a pathogenic ideology. Overdriving mainstream musical taste, offering something so brutal, so damaging to one’s ears, that only the avant-garde can survive, KMFDM inoculates the population against its most reactionary, war-mongering elements. “A Drug Against War” uses sound to perform a biopolitical operation, one that emerges as the basis of WWZ’s plot: the only way to save the human race from the zombies is to kill everything.


WWZ Stencil Duncan CWorld War Z intensifies the horrors of contemporary biopolitics to the point that the only way to recuperate from them is to intensify them even further: in order for humanity to survive, everyone must be dead on their feet. In the sci-fi universe of World War Z, zombies aren’t eating for their survival, but for the survival of the virus they carry; they only attack and eat prey that are also (and primarily) attractive hosts for the virus. Pitt’s character, protagonist Gerry Lane, discovers that terminally ill humans aren’t legible to the zombies as human—that is, as attractive hosts. They won’t live long enough and/or are too weak to aggressively spread the virus. So, he decides the best way to protect humans from zombies and the virus they carry is to infect the remaining people with a deadly but ultimately curable illness. The World Health Organization develops a vaccine that allows healthy people to ‘pass’ as terminal cases. The only difference remaining in the post apocalyptic world of WWZ is between the quasi-dead and the walking dead. Death is the drug against WWZ.

The film doesn’t represent or express the biopolitical recuperation of death visually, but sonically: to make audiences feel what the narrative depicts, WWZ cremates their sense of hearing–often with more amplified and complex versions of the same sonic elements mobilized in “Drug.” Doppler effects, crowd noises, machine guns, military orders barked over radio bombards the film’s audience as sonic “friendly fire.” Though the film’s soundtrack doesn’t actually blow out its audience’s ears (what lawsuits!), it repeatedly simulates sonic cremation; the tinitus-y buzzing one hears after auditory trauma–what one hears in lieu of hearing—functions as a constant refrain. Narratively climactic moments are composed, cinematically, as sonic overdrive. The massive car crash as everyone tries to evacuate NYC in the beginning of the film, the moment when Pitt’s character thinks he may have been infected atop the NJ apartment building, the plane crash outside the Cardiff WHO office–each of these events culminates in tinitus-y ringing. As physical and psychological trauma overwhelms the characters, the film pretends to inflict overwhelming—cremating—auditory trauma on its audience.


WWZ Screen Capture

In the WWZ universe, sound is destructive; it unleashes the zombie horde. At 49:00, a soldier says: “remember these things are drawn to sound…there’s only one way we’re getting you on that plane, and that’s quiet.” In a scene set in Jerusalem, excessive sound turns something miraculously positive—a Muslim girl and a Jewish girl leading a mixed crowd in song, a mini Arab-Israeli peace accord—Into a massacre. The sound attracts the zombie horde, leading them to swarm and overrun Jerusalem’s walls. Similarly, at the film’s end, Pitt’s character empties a soda machine so the cascade of cans will attract zombies away from the doors he needs to enter. By this point, Pitt’s character has injected himself with a deadly disease, effectively killing himself in order to preserve himself from zombification. The cascade of cans aesthetically represents this narrative point and hearkens back to KMFDM. The cans drop out of the machine at an increasingly rapid rate, mimicking “Drug”’s intensification of percussion events to and/or past the limit of human hearing. Just as Pitt’s character has crashed his body, the cascade of cans crashes our hearing.

The climax presents a narrative and the auditory convergence on the same biopolitical idea: kill everything, because then the best will bounce back, phoenix-like, from that sensory cremation, stronger than ever. Zombies can’t rebound from death, but still-living humans sure can (via immunization). Like a sonic bombardment brighter and more radiant than sunlight, this anti-zombie camouflage tactic phase-shifts death into exceptionally lively life. Just as the muted, tinitus-y moments in the film make the subsequent scenes feel comparatively more sonically rich and dynamic, intentional and carefully managed mass extinction ultimately makes the living more vibrant.

Sound & Biopolitics

Such vibrancy–that is, what Julian Henriques dubs “the dynamics of [the] periodic motion of vibrations” in Sounding BodiesReggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing (265)–is what “life” and “sound,” as they are conceived by and function in contemporary biopolitics, have in common. “Sound,” according to Henriques is “a particular kind of periodic motion, variation and change” (247). Sound waves are dynamic patterns of intensities (pressure); they move through matter and respond in turn, both to that movement itself and the secondary sound waves (harmonics) that movement produces. WWZ treats this notion of periodic motion, variation, and change as the conceptual basis for the ideally biopolitical “life.” At around 20:00, when Pitt’s character attempts to convince the Latino family sheltering him to leave their apartment with him, he says “movement is life…Moviemento es vida.” Sedentary fortresses protect no one from zombies–we see this repeatedly in the film. The only way to survive is by rapidly adjusting to new conditions. The dynamism of adaptive flows—the ability to bounce back and recuperate (like an echoing pressure wave), to dynamically recombine (like both harmonizing frequencies and like a virus), to find signal in noise–this dynamism is life. Because it adapts to new challenges, because it moves, varies, and changes, life can bounce back from total annihilation, stronger than ever before. Only life lived like sound can be properly and sufficiently resilient. In WWZ, the zombie virus is a eugenic tool that weeds out insufficiently “sonic” life, life that is too static to respond to capitalist and biopolitical mandates for calculable motion, variation, and change.

WWZ Shooting in Glasgow, Scotland, Image by Flickr User Gerry McKay

WWZ Shooting in Glasgow, Scotland, Image by Flickr User Gerry McKay

When read through “Drug,” WWZ illustrates the epistemic and ontological importance of sound to contemporary biopolitics. We think “life” works like we think sound works. Because “life” is the object and the mechanism of biopolitical government, power works on and through us sonically. If we want to analyze, critique, and fight the institutions, structures, and practices that put power to work for white supremacy, cis/het patriarchy, and all other forms of domination, then we need to start thinking and working sonically, too.

Some theorists, such as Elizabeth Grosz and Adriana Cavarero incorrectly think this move to sound and voice is itself revolutionary and counter-hegemonic. Just as the critique posed in 1993’s “Drug” has been co-opted by 2013’s WWZ, white feminist theory’s sonic counter-modernities are the medium of biopolitical white supremacist patriarchy. When we think and work sonically, we’re working with the master’s tools; to bring down the master’s house, we have to use them critically and strategically.

Featured Image by Flickr User crisper fayltrash


Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism will be published by Zer0 books this fall, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.


Sounding Out! Podcast #34: Sonia Li’s “Whale”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.





Reflecting on Whale, an interactive, multichannel sound installation, this sound art piece documents how the installation came about. When designing Whale, Sonia Li used sound to communicate the often visceral emotions underlying her personal narrative.

Whale creates an environment where one experiences oneself. By laying in darkness on a subsonic vibrating bed, users openly confess their thoughts and feelings into a sonic field, which then translates their words into correlating amplitudes of whale sounds. This process of transduction prompts listeners to consider how sound works to shape a perception of themselves as they hear a distant and alien rendering of their own voice. By experiencing Whale we can consider how sound challenges our physiological and psychological perceptions of self.


Sonia Li is a Brooklyn based artist, designer, and creative technologist. She holds a Masters in Interactive Design from ITP/NYU, 2014, and a BFA in Interdisciplinary Sculpture/Papermaking from SUNY Purchase, 2005.

Sonia has performed with musicians, exhibited in various group shows, and has been featured on various websites such as Prosoundnetwork.com, create-hub.com, modcloth.com blog, and fashionista.com. She produced soundscapes for the Poison exhibition/iPad app at the American Museum of Natural History, worked in Art Direction for film, architectural lighting, and Art Studio Manager positions.

Sonia is currently working on designing private art storage facilities and personal projects. To find out more about her work, go to www.soniali.org/artandtech

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Toward a Civically Engaged Sound Studies, or ReSounding Binghamton – Jennifer Stoever

Sounding Out! Podcast #21: Jonathan Skinner at the Rutgers University Center for Cultural Analysis – Jonathan Skinner

Playing with Bits, Pieces, and Lightning Bolts: An Interview with Sound Artist Andrea Parkins – Maile Colbert

Pleasure Beats: Using Sound for Experience Enhancement 

"Biophonic Garden" by Flickr user Rene Passet, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sound and Pleasure2After a rockin’ (and seriously informative) series of podcasts from Leonard J. Paul, a Drrty South banger dropped by SO! Regular Regina Bradley, a screamtastic meditation from Yvon Bonenfant, a heaping plate of food sounds from Steph Ceraso,  and crowd chants courtesy of  Kariann Goldschmidts work on live events in Brazil, our summer Sound and Pleasure comes to a stirring (and more intimate) conclusion.  Tune into Justyna Stasiowskas frequency below. And thanks for engaging the pleasure principle this summer!--JS, Editor-in-Chief

One of my greatest pleasures is lying in bed, eyes closed and headphones on. I attune to a single stimuli while being enveloped in sound. Using sensory deprivation techniques like blindfolding and isolating headphones is a simple recipe for relaxation, but the website Digital Drugs offers you more. A user can play their mp3 files and surround themselves with an acoustical downpour that increases and then develops into gradient waves. The user feels as if in a hailstorm, surrounded by this constant gritty aural movement. Transfixed by the feeling of noise, the outside seems indistinguishable from inside.

Screenshot courtesy of the author

Screenshot courtesy of the author

Sold by the i-Doser company, Digital Drugs use mp3 files to deliver binaural beats in order to “simulate a desired experience.” The user manual advises lying in a dark and silent room with headphones on when listening to the recording. Simply purchase the mp3, and fill the prescription by listening. Depending on user needs, the experience can be preprogrammed with a specific scenario. This way users can condition themselves using Digital Drugs in order to feel a certain way. The user can control the experience by choosing the “student” or “confidence” dose suggestive of whether you’d like your high like a mild dose of marijuana or an intense dose of cocaine. The receiver is able to perceive every reaction of their body as a drug experience, which they themselves produced. The “dosing” of these aural drugs is restricted by a medical warning and “dose advisors” are available for consultation.

Screenshot, courtesy of the author

Screenshot courtesy of the author

Thus, the overall presentation of Digital Drugs resembles a crisscross of medicine and narcotic clichés with the slogan “Binaural Brainwave doses for every imaginable mood.” While researching the phenomena of Digital Drugs, I have tried not to dismiss them as another gimmick or a new age meditation prop. Rather, I argue the I-Doser company offers a simulation of a drug experience by using the discourse of psychoactive substances to describe sounds: the user becomes an actor taking part in a performance.

By tracing these strategies on a macro and micro scale I show a body emerging from a new paradigm of health. I argue that we have become a psychosomatic creature called the inFORMational body: a body that is formed by information, which shapes practices of health undertaken to feel good and form us. This body is networked, much like a fractal, and connects different agencies operating both in macro (society) and micro (individual) scales.

Macroscale Epidemy: The Power of Drug Representation 

Heinrich Wilhelm Dove described binaural beats in 1839 as a specific brain stimuli resulting in low-frequency pulsations perceivable when two tones at slightly different frequencies are presented separately through stereo headphones to each of the subject’s ears. The difference between tones must be relatively small, only up to 30 Hz, and the tones themselves must not exceed 1000 Hz. Subsequently, scientific authorities presented the phenomena as a tool in stimulating the brain in neurological affliction therapy. Gerard Oster described the applications in 1968 and the Monroe Institute later continued this research in order to use binaural beats in meditation and “expanding consciousness” as a crucial part of self-improvement programs.

I-Doser then molded this foundational research into a narrative presenting binaural beats as a brain stimulation for a desired experience. The binaural beats can be simply understood as an acoustic phenomena with application in practices like meditation or medical therapy.

I-Doser also employs the unverified claims about binaural beats into a narration that consists of the scattered information about research; it connects these authorities with YouTube recordings of human reactions to Digital Drugs. Video testimonies of Digital Drugs users caused a considerable stir among both parents and teachers in American schools two years ago. An American school even banned mp3 players as a precautionary measure. In the You Tube video one can see a person lying with headphones on. After a while we see an involuntary body movement that in some videos might resemble a seizure. Losing control over one’s body becomes the highlight of the footage alongside a subjective account also present in the video. The body movements are framed as a drug experience both for the viewer who is a vicarious witness and the participant who has an active experience.

This type of footage as evidence was popularized as early as the 1960s when military footage showed reactions to psychoactive substances such as LSD.

In the same manner as the Digital Drugs video, the army footage highlights the process of losing control over one’s body, complete with subjective testimonies as evidence of the psychoactive substance’s power.

This kind of visualization is usually fueled by paranoia, akin to Cold War fears, depicting daily attacks by an invisible enemy upon unaware subjects. The information of the authority agencies about binaural beats created a reference base that fueled the concern framing the You Tube videos as evidence of drug experience. It shows that the angst isn’t triggered by technology, in this case Digital Drugs, but by the form in which the “invisible attack” is presented: through sound waves. The manner of framing is more important than the hypothetical action itself. Context then changes recognition.

Microscale Paradigm Shift: Health as Feeling 

On an individual level, did feeling better always mean being healthy? In Histoire des pratiques de santé. Le sain et le malsain depuis le MoyenAge, Georges Vigarello, continuator of the Foucault School of Biopolitics, explains that well-being became a medicalized condition in the 20th century with growing attention to mental health. Being healthy was no longer only about the good condition of the body but became a state of mind; feeling was important as an overall recognition of oneself. In the biopolitical perspective, Vigarello points out, health became more than just the government’s concern for individual well-being but was maintained by medical techniques and technologies.

In the case of Digital Drugs the well-being of children was safely governed by parents and media coverage creating prevention in schools from the “sound drugs.” Similarly, the UAE called for a ban on “hypnotic music” citing it as an illegal drug like cannabis or ecstasy. Using this perspective, I would add that feeling better, then, becomes a never-ending warfare; well-being becomes understood as a state (as in condition and as in governed territory).

Well-being is also an obligation to society, carried out by specific practices. What does a healthy lifestyle actually mean? Its meaning includes self-governance: controlling yourself, keeping fit, discipline (embodying the rules). In order to do it you need guidance: the need for authorities (health experts and trainers) and common knowledge (the “google it” modus operandi). All of these agencies create a strategy to make you feel good every day and have a high performance rate. Digital Drugs, then, become products that promise to boost up your energy, make you more endurable, and extend your mind capabilities. High performance is redefined as a state that enables instant access to happiness, pleasure, relaxation.

"Submerged" by Flickr user Rene Passet, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Submerged” by Flickr user Rene Passet, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

inFORMational Body 

Vigarello reflects that understanding health in terms of low/high performance—itself based on the logic of consumption—created the concept of a limitless enhancement. Here, he refers to the information model, connecting past assumptions about health with a technique of self-governing. It is based on senses and an awareness of oneself using “intellectual” practices like relaxation and “probing oneself” (or knowing what vitamins you should take). The medical apparatus’s priority, moreover, shifted from keeping someone in good health to maintaining well-being. The subjective account became the crucial element of a diagnosis, supporting itself on information from different sources in order to imply the feeling of a limitless “better.” This strategy relies strongly on the use of technologies, the consideration of a sensual aspect and self-recognition—precisely the methodology used for Digital Drugs’ focus on enhancing wellbeing.

Still, this inFORMational body needs a regulatory system. How do we know that we really feel better? Apart from the media well-being campaign (and the amount of surveillance it involves), we are constantly asked about our health status in the common greeting phrase, but its unheimlich-ness only becomes apparent for non-anglo-saxon speakers. These checkpoint techniques become an everyday instrument of discipline and rely on an obligation to express oneself in social interactions.

So how do we feel? As for now, everything seems “OK.”

Featured image: “Biophonic Garden” by Flickr user Rene Passet, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Justyna Stasiowska is a PhD student in the Performance Studies Department at Jagiellonian University. She is preparing a dissertation under the working title: “Noise. Performativity of Sound Perception” in which she argue that frequencies don’t have a strictly programmed effect on the receiver and the way of experiencing sounds is determined by the frames or modes of perception, established by the situation and cognitive context. Justyna earned her M.A in Drama and Theater Studies. Her thesis was devoted to the notion of liveness in the context of the strategies used by contemporary playwrights to manipulate the recipients’ cognitive apparatus using the DJ figure. You can find her on Twitter and academia.edu.

tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:

Papa Sangre and the Construction of Immersion in Audio Games–Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

On Sound and Pleasure: Meditations on the Human VoiceYvon Bonenfant

This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith


The Better to Hear You With, My Dear: Size and the Acoustic World


Hearing the Unheard IIToday the SO! Thursday stream inaugurates a four-part series entitled Hearing the UnHeard, which promises to blow your mind by way of your ears. Our Guest Editor is Seth Horowitz, a neuroscientist at NeuroPop and author of The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind (Bloomsbury, 2012), whose insightful work on brings us directly to the intersection of the sciences and the arts of sound.9781608190904

That’s where he’ll be taking us in the coming weeks. Check out his general introduction just below, and his own contribution for the first piece in the series. — NV

Welcome to Hearing the UnHeard, a new series of articles on the world of sound beyond human hearing. We are embedded in a world of sound and vibration, but the limits of human hearing only let us hear a small piece of it. The quiet library screams with the ultrasonic pulsations of fluorescent lights and computer monitors. The soothing waves of a Hawaiian beach are drowned out by the thrumming infrasound of underground seismic activity near “dormant” volcanoes. Time, distance, and luck (and occasionally really good vibration isolation) separate us from explosive sounds of world-changing impacts between celestial bodies. And vast amounts of information, ranging from the songs of auroras to the sounds of dying neurons can be made accessible and understandable by translating them into human-perceivable sounds by data sonification.

Four articles will examine how this “unheard world” affects us. My first post below will explore how our environment and evolution have constrained what is audible, and what tools we use to bring the unheard into our perceptual realm. In a few weeks, sound artist China Blue will talk about her experiences recording the Vertical Gun, a NASA asteroid impact simulator which helps scientists understand the way in which big collisions have shaped our planet (and is very hard on audio gear). Next, Milton A. Garcés, founder and director of the Infrasound Laboratory of University of Hawaii at Manoa will talk about volcano infrasound, and how acoustic surveillance is used to warn about hazardous eruptions. And finally, Margaret A. Schedel, composer and Associate Professor of Music at Stonybrook University will help readers explore the world of data sonification, letting us listen in and get greater intellectual and emotional understanding of the world of information by converting it to sound.

– Guest Editor Seth Horowitz

Although light moves much faster than sound, hearing is your fastest sense, operating about 20 times faster than vision. Studies have shown that we think at the same “frame rate” as we see, about 1-4 events per second. But the real world moves much faster than this, and doesn’t always place things important for survival conveniently in front of your field of view. Think about the last time you were driving when suddenly you heard the blast of a horn from the previously unseen truck in your blind spot.

Hearing also occurs prior to thinking, with the ear itself pre-processing sound. Your inner ear responds to changes in pressure that directly move tiny little hair cells, organized by frequency which then send signals about what frequency was detected (and at what amplitude) towards your brainstem, where things like location, amplitude, and even how important it may be to you are processed, long before they reach the cortex where you can think about it. And since hearing sets the tone for all later perceptions, our world is shaped by what we hear (Horowitz, 2012).

But we can’t hear everything. Rather, what we hear is constrained by our biology, our psychology and our position in space and time. Sound is really about how the interaction between energy and matter fill space with vibrations. This makes the size, of the sender, the listener and the environment, one of the primary features that defines your acoustic world.

You’ve heard about how much better your dog’s hearing is than yours. I’m sure you got a slight thrill when you thought you could actually hear the “ultrasonic” dog-training whistles that are supposed to be inaudible to humans (sorry, but every one I’ve tested puts out at least some energy in the upper range of human hearing, even if it does sound pretty thin). But it’s not that dogs hear better. Actually, dogs and humans show about the same sensitivity to sound in terms of sound pressure, with human’s most sensitive region from 1-4 kHz and dogs from about 2-8 kHz. The difference is a question of range and that is tied closely to size.

Most dogs, even big ones, are smaller than most humans and their auditory systems are scaled similarly. A big dog is about 100 pounds, much smaller than most adult humans. And since body parts tend to scale in a coordinated fashion, one of the first places to search for a link between size and frequency is the tympanum or ear drum, the earliest structure that responds to pressure information. An average dog’s eardrum is about 50 mm2, whereas an average human’s is about 60 mm2. In addition while a human’s cochlea is spiral made of 2.5 turns that holds about 3500 inner hair cells, your dog’s has 3.25 turns and about the same number of hair cells. In short: dogs probably have better high frequency hearing because their eardrums are better tuned to shorter wavelength sounds and their sensory hair cells are spread out over a longer distance, giving them a wider range.

Interest in the how hearing works in animals goes back centuries. Classical image of comparative ear anatomy from 1789 by Andreae Comparetti.

Interest in the how hearing works in animals goes back centuries. Classical image of comparative ear anatomy from 1789 by Andreae Comparetti.

Then again, if hearing was just about size of the ear components, then you’d expect that yappy 5 pound Chihuahua to hear much higher frequencies than the lumbering 100 pound St. Bernard. Yet hearing sensitivity from the two ends of the dog spectrum don’t vary by much. This is because there’s a big difference between what the ear can mechanically detect and what the animal actually hears. Chihuahuas and St. Bernards are both breeds derived from a common wolf-like ancestor that probably didn’t have as much variability as we’ve imposed on the domesticated dog, so their brains are still largely tuned to hear what a medium to large pseudo wolf-like animal should hear (Heffner, 1983).

But hearing is more than just detection of sound. It’s also important to figure out where the sound is coming from. A sound’s location is calculated in the superior olive – nuclei in the brainstem that compare the difference in time of arrival of low frequency sounds at your ears and the difference in amplitude between your ears (because your head gets in the way, making a sound “shadow” on the side of your head furthest from the sound) for higher frequency sounds. This means that animals with very large heads, like elephants, will be able to figure out the location of longer wavelength (lower pitched) sounds, but probably will have problems localizing high pitched sounds because the shorter frequencies will not even get to the other side of their heads at a useful level. On the other hand, smaller animals, which often have large external ears, are under greater selective pressure to localize higher pitched sounds, but have heads too small to pick up the very low infrasonic sounds that elephants use.

Audiograms (auditory sensitivity in air measured in dB SPL) by frequency of animals of different sizes showing the shift of maximum sensitivity to lower frequencies with increased size. Data replotted based on audiogram data by Sivian and White, 1933; ISO 1961; Heffner and Masterton, 1980; Heffner and Heffner, 1982; Heffner, 1983; Jackson et al, 1999.

Audiograms (auditory sensitivity in air measured in dB SPL) by frequency of animals of different sizes showing the shift of maximum sensitivity to lower frequencies with increased size. Data replotted based on audiogram data by Sivian and White (1933). “On minimum audible sound fields.” Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 4: 288-321; ISO 1961; Heffner, H., & Masterton, B. (1980). “Hearing in glires: domestic rabbit, cotton rat, feral house mouse, and kangaroo rat.” Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 68, 1584-1599.; Heffner, R. S., & Heffner, H. E. (1982). “Hearing in the elephant: Absolute sensitivity, frequency discrimination, and sound localization.” Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 96, 926-944.; Heffner H.E. (1983). “Hearing in large and small dogs: Absolute thresholds and size of the tympanic membrane.” Behav. Neurosci. 97: 310-318. ; Jackson, L.L., et al.(1999). “Free-field audiogram of the Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata).” Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 106: 3017-3023.

But you as a human are a fairly big mammal. If you look up “Body Size Species Richness Distribution” which shows the relative size of animals living in a given area, you’ll find that humans are among the largest animals in North America (Brown and Nicoletto, 1991). And your hearing abilities scale well with other terrestrial mammals, so you can stop feeling bad about your dog hearing “better.” But what if, by comic-book science or alternate evolution, you were much bigger or smaller? What would the world sound like? Imagine you were suddenly mouse-sized, scrambling along the floor of an office. While the usual chatter of humans would be almost completely inaudible, the world would be filled with a cacophony of ultrasonics. Fluorescent lights and computer monitors would scream in the 30-50 kHz range. Ultrasonic eddies would hiss loudly from air conditioning vents. Smartphones would not play music, but rather hum and squeal as their displays changed.

And if you were larger? For a human scaled up to elephantine dimensions, the sounds of the world would shift downward. While you could still hear (and possibly understand) human speech and music, the fine nuances from the upper frequency ranges would be lost, voices audible but mumbled and hard to localize. But you would gain the infrasonic world, the low rumbles of traffic noise and thrumming of heavy machinery taking on pitch, color and meaning. The seismic world of earthquakes and volcanoes would become part of your auditory tapestry. And you would hear greater distances as long wavelengths of low frequency sounds wrap around everything but the largest obstructions, letting you hear the foghorns miles distant as if they were bird calls nearby.

But these sounds are still in the realm of biological listeners, and the universe operates on scales far beyond that. The sounds from objects, large and small, have their own acoustic world, many beyond our ability to detect with the equipment evolution has provided. Weather phenomena, from gentle breezes to devastating tornadoes, blast throughout the infrasonic and ultrasonic ranges. Meteorites create infrasonic signatures through the upper atmosphere, trackable using a system devised to detect incoming ICBMs. Geophones, specialized low frequency microphones, pick up the sounds of extremely low frequency signals foretelling of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Beyond the earth, we translate electromagnetic frequencies into the audible range, letting us listen to the whistlers and hoppers that signal the flow of charged particles and lightning in the atmospheres of Earth and Jupiter, microwave signals of the remains of the Big Bang, and send listening devices on our spacecraft to let us hear the winds on Titan.

Here is a recording of whistlers recorded by the Van Allen Probes currently orbiting high in the upper atmosphere:

When the computer freezes or the phone battery dies, we complain about how much technology frustrates us and complicates our lives. But our audio technology is also the source of wonder, not only letting us talk to a friend around the world or listen to a podcast from astronauts orbiting the Earth, but letting us listen in on unheard worlds. Ultrasonic microphones let us listen in on bat echolocation and mouse songs, geophones let us wonder at elephants using infrasonic rumbles to communicate long distances and find water. And scientific translation tools let us shift the vibrations of the solar wind and aurora or even the patterns of pure math into human scaled songs of the greater universe. We are no longer constrained (or protected) by the ears that evolution has given us. Our auditory world has expanded into an acoustic ecology that contains the entire universe, and the implications of that remain wonderfully unclear.


Exhibit: Home Office

This is a recording made with standard stereo microphones of my home office. Aside from usual typing, mouse clicking and computer sounds, there are a couple of 3D printers running, some music playing, largely an environment you don’t pay much attention to while you’re working in it, yet acoustically very rich if you pay attention.


This sample was made by pitch shifting the frequencies of sonicoffice.wav down so that the ultrasonic moves into the normal human range and cuts off at about 1-2 kHz as if you were hearing with mouse ears. Sounds normally inaudible, like the squealing of the computer monitor cycling on kick in and the high pitched sound of the stepper motors from the 3D printer suddenly become much louder, while the familiar sounds are mostly gone.


This recording of the office was made with a Clarke Geophone, a seismic microphone used by geologists to pick up underground vibration. It’s primary sensitivity is around 80 Hz, although it’s range is from 0.1 Hz up to about 2 kHz. All you hear in this recording are very low frequency sounds and impacts (footsteps, keyboard strikes, vibration from printers, some fan vibration) that you usually ignore since your ears are not very well tuned to frequencies under 100 Hz.


Finally, this sample was made by pitch shifting the frequencies of infrasonicoffice.wav up as if you had grown to elephantine proportions. Footsteps and computer fan noises (usually almost indetectable at 60 Hz) become loud and tonal, and all the normal pitch of music and computer typing has disappeared aside from the bass. (WARNING: The fan noise is really annoying).


The point is: a space can sound radically different depending on the frequency ranges you hear. Different elements of the acoustic environment pop up depending on the type of recording instrument you use (ultrasonic microphone, regular microphones or geophones) or the size and sensitivity of your ears.

Spectrograms (plots of acoustic energy [color] over time [horizontal axis] by frequency band [vertical axis]) from a 90 second recording in the author’s home office covering the auditory range from ultrasonic frequencies (>20 kHz top) to the sonic (20 Hz-20 kHz, middle) to the low frequency and infrasonic (<20 Hz).

Spectrograms (plots of acoustic energy [color] over time [horizontal axis] by frequency band [vertical axis]) from a 90 second recording in the author’s home office covering the auditory range from ultrasonic frequencies (>20 kHz top) to the sonic (20 Hz-20 kHz, middle) to the low frequency and infrasonic (<20 Hz).

Featured image by Flickr User Jaime Wong.

Seth S. Horowitz, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist whose work in comparative and human hearing, balance and sleep research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and NASA. He has taught classes in animal behavior, neuroethology, brain development, the biology of hearing, and the musical mind. As chief neuroscientist at NeuroPop, Inc., he applies basic research to real world auditory applications and works extensively on educational outreach with The Engine Institute, a non-profit devoted to exploring the intersection between science and the arts. His book The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind was released by Bloomsbury in September 2012.

tape reel

REWIND! If you liked this post, check out …

Reproducing Traces of War: Listening to Gas Shell Bombardment, 1918– Brian Hanrahan

Learning to Listen Beyond Our Ears– Owen Marshall

This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground– Jacob Smith

%d bloggers like this: