Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #14: Gendered Sounds?

Sounding Off2klatsch \KLAHCH\ , noun: A casual gathering of people, esp. for refreshments and informal conversation  [German Klatsch, from klatschento gossip, make a sharp noiseof imitative origin.] (

Dear SO! Community:  Our SOCK this month comes to us from Mike D’Errico, author of the piece on the masculine “hardness” of brostep that everybody was talking about after we published it last week.  Click to read the post that started it all, “Going Hard: Bassweight, Sonic Warfare, & the “Brostep” Aesthetic.”  Click to read the response from DJ/Rupture, “Brostep, Mansplained.”  Click to read a response from Robin James, “Bro-gemony and Dubstep Production.”  Click to read a response from SO! regular Primus Luta, “To the Max, Bro.” Click to read “Forget about Brostep,” D’Errico’s response to the responses. Whew!

But we know our crowd still has so much more to say and we hope this SOCK gets at some of the larger stakes of  D’Errico’s post.  So, here comes the drop–let’s work it out! —J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief

Can sound(s) be gendered?

Comment Klatsch logo courtesy of The Infatuated on Flickr.


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About mikederrico

PhD candidate in the UCLA Department of Musicology and the Digital Humanities Graduate Certificate Program. Research interests and performance activities include hip-hop, electronic dance music, video games, sound, interface, and design. Former web editor and social media manager for the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. Technical editor for Echo: a music-centered journal and Ethnomusicology Review. Performed as a DJ, drummer, and electronic musician for various experimental music acts from Boston to Los Angeles.

22 responses to “Sound Off! // Comment Klatsch #14: Gendered Sounds?”

  1. marycaton says :

    Currently a very pregnant woman, I’ve been thinking a lot about sound and labor. This is my first child, so I’ve not yet experienced the process, but much of what I am reading talks about a very particular low groaning and moaning sound that women tend to vocalize during the last stages of labor. During a childbirth class, my midwife advocated for the use of deep, slow moans rather than high, shrieking pitches to facilitate the baby’s movement through the birth canal. These recommendations are grounded in physiology, but I love how they they expand my notion of what a distinctly female sound is. Many birth practitioners also claim to be able to tell what stage of labor a woman is by hearing her voice. I find it fascinating.


    • mikederrico says :

      Mary, that also brings up an a potential connection between acoustics, physiology, and anatomical sex. While these are the seemingly “pre-given” aspects of both sound and human biology, it’s interesting how they are shaped and shifted through everyday practice. For example, even though a low groaning sound is a “natural” sonic response to facilitate a baby’s movement through the birth canal, the high-pitched shrieking often gets pinned as a sonic trademark for socially constructed notions of the “hysterical” woman. Connecting the material aspects of sound to the social constructions of sound can provide interesting insights on the question of sound and gender.


      • marycaton says :

        Exactly! Great points, Mike.


        • j. stoever-ackerman says :

          Mary Caton, your response brings back memories of my son’s birth, where I went against my own birthing training, that suggested I take the contractions in silence so to “conserve energy” and the desires of the nurses at the Catholic hospital where I gave birth. In addition to moaning and shrieking–I can’t tell you in what order or in what pitch because i have little to no sense of chronology of the experience (I had no drugs but felt like I was on *something* nonetheless. man!)–I was CURSING A BLUE STREAK. AND LOUDLY. I got the sense from the nurses that A) my undrugged sonic exclamations were freaking other birthing mothers out (birth has become such a quiet experience since the epidural, and now this mellowness seems “the standard”) and that b) cursing like a sailor was “unladylike.” I remember the nurse kept telling me to quiet down because, at the very least, I was going to be hoarse, and I remember telling her, quite frankly, that it was “the least of my f**** problems.” You are definitely onto something here, but it is hard, if not impossible (or even, perhaps, desirable?), to separate the cultural from the biological in terms of sound. All I know is there was no way on EARTH I was going to be quiet, not for all the training or dirty looks in the world, but that the noises I made seemed to be based on past practices of what lets out stress as much as what my body was or wasn’t “telling” me to do. Not that I don’t think there is something interesting about the low moans helping the contractions hypothesis, though, as I experienced the last “pushing” phase as a series of waves moving through my body with a definite shape and direction.


          • marycaton says :

            Jennifer, you inspire me to be loud and proud during labor 🙂 And I heed your reminder that it is “hard, if not impossible (or even, perhaps, desirable?) to separate the cultural from the biological in terms of sound.” So well put. You brought up the wave-like nature of your final contractions and that makes me think of the fact that sound and contractions and heartbeats are all technologically visualized in wave form… another way that auditory culture influences our understanding of biology.


            • Justin D Burton says :

              Mary and Jennifer, these comments are particularly compelling to me because I was in the room for my son’s birth less than a month ago, and the experience has added to some (very unstructured and undisciplined) thinking I’ve been doing around the intersection of biology, medicine, and humanity (at some point, some day, I’ll hopefully have something profound to say about ultrasounds, aurality, and visual culture). We hadn’t actually encountered the idea of the low groan ahead of time, but as my wife neared the pushing stage, our doula suggested it, repeating with each intensifying contraction, “Follow your voice. Follow it down,” implying that there was something “natural” about the depth of sound that comes at this stage (it was around this time that the doula also suggested a deep squatting pose, as body and sound mirrored each other). Later, when it was time to push, the attending nurse directed what Jennifer mentioned – that sound released during pushing wasted energy that could otherwise be concentrated into longer, more productive pushes. The suggestion seems different from Jennifer’s experience, as our nurse offered it as something to try, not with the implication that my wife’s sounds were otherwise inappropriate. What struck me is that throughout the labor, our team (two doulas, a friend who is also a doula, a husband, a midwife, and a nurse) remained mostly quiet through contractions. The sound came primarily from my wife, and a doula and I would usually offer some quiet support. At the push stage, it all reversed. Now, as my wife held her voice in an effort to channel more energy and strength into her task, the rest of the room would swell with sound, each of us with our own mantra or cheer, a doula in one ear who knew this pain well, a husband in the other who couldn’t string together two words that made any sense, a midwife and nurse who cheered as if they were witnessing their first birth, and a friend who filled all the gaps, smartly finding the empty spaces and placing the sound of encouragement there. I’m not sure that I’m describing gendered sound, but this was definitely collective sound in a gendered space, sound passed from one body to another, channeled, it seemed, through millenia of childbirths, none of which have sounded the same but many of which have sounded kinda like what we heard.

              Thanks to both of you for sharing. Mary, all best wishes.


      • Chris Wells says :

        I definitely don’t want to derail or deny Jennifer’s or Mary’s experiences of sound during pregnancy/labor if they experience these sounds as part of their genders. To me it seems though like we’re talking about a connection between sound and physical sex. I like how Mary qualifies that her observations are grounded in physiology, so I’ll pick that up to ask a question; would the sounds a male-identified pregnant person made during labor also be “distinctly female”?

        Also, this thread is making me think about Iris Young’s “Pregnant Embodiment: Subjectivity and Alienation”, where she uses pregnancy to chip away at phenomenological assertions about body schema and internal coherence as normatively patriarchal constructs of embodied experience. Perhaps my own experience as a cis-male impacted my initial assertions that sounds cannot be gendered outside of a listener mapping gender onto them. I still think that, but perhaps they can be sexed if not gendered? Hmm…


        • j. stoever-ackerman says :

          Great point. I am not sure I experienced myself projecting or engaging with gender in that moment, at least consciously or intentionally (although that doesn’t mean I wasn’t). I do not think pregnancy and childbirth is a universal or universalizing experience. But, the *reactions* to my sounds gendered them. . .and the fact that we all have ideas about how female bodies in labor “should” and “do” sound is key and remains important to the conversation. Also, Judith Butler, in _Bodies that Matter_ helps us to understand that it is difficult if not impossible to imagine a “physical sex” that is not always already gendered. How might that complicate things?


    • stephceraso says :

      This thread is fascinating (thanks for initiating, Mary!). I’ve been thinking about putting together a syllabus on Gendered Sound, but I’ve been having trouble finding sources. Tara Rodgers’ Pink Noises is the first that comes to mind. Anyone know of scholarship that deals with sound and labor specifically, or with sound and other kinds of gendered bodily experiences?


      • j. stoever-ackerman says :

        I agree that this can be a challenge–I often teach “Speaking Up: Voice Amplification and Women’s Struggle for Public
        Expression” —Annie McKay (1988) and “Queer Listening to Queer Vocal Timbres”—Yvon Bonenfant (2011). There are also some chapters of Analog days, particularly the chapter on Suzanne Ciani that are productive too. I’d love to hear about others.


  2. Reina says :

    These are wonderful responses and makes me want to integrate a type of lesson following this line of thought for my courses on race & gender in the U.S… to the Klatsch – though i think it’s important to discern the ontological intent on how the question is posed, this isn’t how i processed the question. my response was more visceral and a strong YES because for me sound is also raced. though i find that in cultural studies we tend to discuss the trinity of race/gender/class there is something to be explored about the listener and the speaker in terms of these subjectivities. when i’m listening to a commentator or storyteller on something like This American Life or the Moth, I also tune in (pun intended) to see if i can figure out the individual’s race or ethnicity. this question of gender is interesting… i would add that “gendered sound” is more about intonation or silence / loudness of the sound. for example, when footplayer Richard Sherman was exuberant or came off as too proud when interviewed after his play in division playoff game the commentaries addressed both about race and gender. these are some immediate thoughts…


    • mikederrico says :

      Reina, the Richard Sherman example is a really interesting point, especially when considering whether we are hearing the sound with or without a visual cue. It’s also interesting to think about the ways both sound and image can be subverted as a potential strategy of “disidentifying” (Muñoz).


    • j. stoever-ackerman says :

      YES–the term “thug” which the dominant sports media applied to him is both raced and gendered!


  3. mikederrico says :

    Phil’s question is really useful here: “when we say “sound,” do we necessarily imply a listener?” It’s clear that most of the commenters agree that sound “can be” gendered in some way, but that gender is not an ontological fact of sound’s existence. Chris made this clear in asking what would happen if we replaced “sound” with “bodies.” A bigger question would then be, is sound an ontological fact of human existence? As Ben suggests, “before scholars begin to consider “what is the ontology of sound,” they need to take a step back and discuss the more basic question, “is there an ontology of sound.” If the answer is “no” (as I would suspect some might say), then not only does autonomy seem impossible, I’m not really sure sound is actually possible (or if it only exists in some realm of the ideal).”

    In discussing the desire for autonomous sound often felt among musicians and producers, Phil brought up another useful point that pokes at my interest in the ontology question: “It’s less interesting to ask whether anyone can really do this than to ask why practitioners of certain kinds of electronic music might want to imagine they can. Perhaps this is a residue of modernism’s desire to transcend human contingencies (well, that’s one strain of modernism, anyway).” This gets at the fundamental phenomenon that inspired my research into the gendered spaces of digital audio production, and the heated responses to my original blog post proved the point that DJs and producers are very dedicated to the setting up a distinction between music and its sociocultural context. My initial question was basically Phil’s response: “why?”

    I was not necessarily concerned with production as an inherently gendered act, but rather I was interested in interrogating technical practices as a way of explaining or at least demonstrating the potential for a seamless “transduction” between gendered practices within and “outside” of sonic practice. In this case, it wouldn’t really matter whether sound is inherently gendered, but since sound is (mostly) perceived to be tied to a human actor of some sort, it could be argued that sound production *is* always gendered. For practical reasons, this answer was helpful in criticizing the very real consequences of hypermasculinity across musical genres that often get coded as “a guy’s thing” (sexual harassment at clubs, etc.). Again, it’s a different thesis than the ontological question of “is sound gendered,” but it made me question the idea of sonic autonomy all the same. It may be useful, in response to Ben’s questions, to ask what exactly an analytical study of musical autonomy can provide, or what it would even look like. Not that I’m eternally averse to it; I actually agree that it could possibly open up new spaces for sound studies.


  4. Chris Wells says :

    I appreciate the wording of this question, because its grammar gets us into core ontological issues about what gender is and does. Read one way, it seems to ask whether sounds can emerge into the world for us to hear with a gender already embedded into their wave forms in some inseparable way. However, if we take “be gendered” as a passive voice construction that obscures the identity of an implied acting agent, then someone or something is assigning gender to the sound.

    To illustrate what I mean, what if we subbed out gender for volume? Then the question might read either as “Can sound(s) be loud?” or “Can sound(s) be louded?” (i.e. is “loudness” a set of characteristics we assign to the sound rather than something that’s fundamentally a part of it from the point of its production?)

    I think it’s an important question because these dual readings get at the heart of conflicts in how people think about gender itself; replace “sounds” with “bodies” and you run into similar clashes about whether gender is an embedded, inescapable part of one’s body or a socially assigned identity (even if this feels like “settled law” amongst the left, academics, and others hip to queer theory, it’s still an active point of conflict in broader discourse.)

    I do think though that even though these issues–gendering sounds and gendering bodies–are similar, we’re far less comfortable envisioning the possibility of bodies without gender than we are of sounds without gender. I think purity is an important part of that, and it makes me suspect that wanting sound to be genderless and wanting sound to be “pure” are part of the same aspirational desire for sound to offer us a kind of transcendence. If sound can resist being gendered and otherwise marked by mucky impurities of the immanent world surrounding it in a way that bodes can’t, perhaps sound can offer an escape from the body shame one feels in a somatophobic culture. (The whole idea of pure sound in a dance music culture thus confuses and intrigues me.)

    So, those are my raw reactions in this moment. To arrive at something like an answer to the question.

    Can sound(s) be gendered in the sense that gender is a natural, fundamental part of what they are? Fuck no!

    Can sound(s) be gendered in the sense that they’re assigned gender because of how they’re received within and articulated to certain scripts and constructs? Of course they can! Mike just did this (pretty elegantly I think), and it pissed a bunch of people off.


  5. Benjamin Court says :

    To address the overall question, my perspective is a resounding “yes,” though I want to respond to Mike’s comment first and try to complicate some of the conclusions that at first seem natural to a “yes” vote on this issue.
    I think music/sound scholars should consider allowing for the possibility of something like “autonomy” (though not exactly) in music or sound. Of course, countless smart people over the last several decades have demonstrated in no uncertain terms that music and sound *definitely* express, reflect, influence, and produce culture. But I disagree with Mike’s method of reading music *as* culture, for at least two reasons. First, on a pragmatic level, I think it limits the possibilities of how we can think of music in a way that is unnecessary. Ultimately, I think the answer to this question is not empirical, and comes down to a *choice* – I would hope most agree with me, regardless of what that actual choice is. And if we can choose what “music” (or “sound,” for that matter) actually means, I would prefer not to limit it to a pure representation of culture (another word for this might be “reductive”), even if for the selfish reason to maintain a larger range of intellectual possibilities. Second, I disagree with this perspective as a matter of philosophy, reading sound as not necessarily a posteriori to its human experience (if this sounds like the old “tree in the woods” question, it’s because it is). The question of “sonic ontology” is huge (as Steve Goodman and others show us), too huge for this klatsch. But I think before scholars begin to consider “what is the ontology of sound,” they need to take a step back and discuss the more basic question, “is there an ontology of sound.” If the answer is “no” (as I would suspect some might say), then not only does autonomy seem impossible, I’m not really sure sound is actually possible (or if it only exists in some realm of the ideal).
    Mike’s first question is *not* ontological…he doesn’t ask *is* sound gendered, but *can it be,* to which I say “yes.” But when we ask of what sound *can be,* I think our answer can be almost anything.


    • Brian F. Wright says :

      I seem to be a little late to the party, but here was what I was thinking:

      Ultimately, I agree with the other commenter’s praise of Mike’s framing of the question. But to take loving umbrage with Ben’s position, I wonder if sound *can be* “almost anything” as much as it *can be interpreted* as “almost anything” (and whether we can really separate ontology from interpretation). I still struggle with the idea of an autonomous “music itself” that is both a product of the culture that created it and somehow can also stand above it, but I’m also not really ready to abandon some limited sense of autonomy just yet.

      The question, for me, is really more about power and reception (which I think takes it closer to Mike’s point about of culture). If we say that sound is gendered, how does it function? Who decides? etc.

      In this sense, if we conceive of all sounds as being culturally-constructed/contingent, then I believe sounds are gendered in that they always already exist within (and possibly unconsciously reinforce) the gender relations of the culture they come from. (There are, of course, modes of resistance possible and all that, but that might be too big of a discussion to have here). I am also intrigued by the possibility of reframing this question in a Althusser/Judith Butler sense, e.g. “Do sounds automatically hail/interpellate subjects into a gendered ideology?” Or, to be more concise, is there any sound that *is not* gendered (or any sound that exists *outside of* culture)?


      • mikederrico says :

        For sure, the question of politics is present all the way through, which is why I question the value of sonic autonomy in specific relation to problematic gender dynamics. What can we learn by arguing for sound as autonomous, and why has there been an almost perennial drive to make it so? I’m definitely intrigued when people make the argument for musical autonomy as a political force (Barry Shank pushes in this direction), and I’d like to hear more ideas coming from this perspective.

        I should also say that the idea of music as culture is coming directly from ethnomusicology, and I can’t pretend to speak entirely from that viewpoint, but it certainly has a lot to do with the idea of musical practice as seamlessly connected to theoretical and historical practice. In that way, it provides something that much cultural studies lacks: the ability to theorize through emic, or insider knowledge. Of course, the framework is premised on an acceptance of the inside/outsider dichotomy, but I don’t find that too disconcerting.

        To make the point clearer: if we cannot envision sound as existing without a human actor of some sort (listener, producer, etc.), then what do we gain from theorizing sonic autonomy, and acting as if sound can exist in a cultural vacuum? Neither of you are arguing that directly, but it’s implied if we take the case for autonomy seriously.


  6. philphord says :

    A version of the if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods thing: when we say “sound,” do we necessarily imply a listener? Is it even possible to imagine sound without some form of sentience to understand it as sound? Without humans (or whales or wombats or whatever) to hear things, what we call a sound is just wiggling air molecules.

    As Mike’s comment above suggests, some folks would like to imagine sound in exactly this way — in a way that leaves human beings out of the picture. Joanna Demers’s excellent book _Listening Through the Noise_ goes into a lot of detail about Pierre Schaeffer’s idea of “reduced listening,” which is a practice (arduous and probably impossible) of eliminating all human associations from hearing. It’s less interesting to ask whether anyone can really do this than to ask why practitioners of certain kinds of electronic music might want to imagine they can. Perhaps this is a residue of modernism’s desire to transcend human contingencies (well, that’s one strain of modernism, anyway). Perhaps there’s a more mystical side to it as well, since a desire to transcend individual subjectivity and experience things in their true suchness (the notion of haecceity, which readers of Deleuze and Guattari might recognize, or the Buddhist notion of tathata, which fans of John Cage might have bumped into) is something of a perennial orientation. Or maybe it just makes things more interesting if you’re a composer, to feel yourself unbound by consensual linguistic or para-linguistic meanings.

    But to return to the question, can sound be gendered: my feeling is, as long as we’re accepting a certain degree of inevitability in the way humans attribute sources, causes, and identities to sounds, we’re going to have to accept that at least some of those sources, causes, and identities are gendered. Because when you manifest in space and time, gender is totally a thing. Not a problem if we’re not manifesting in space and time, but then it gets tricky.


  7. mikederrico says :

    The question of the aesthetic autonomy of dance music was brought up in the previous discussion, with some believing that the sounds produced by electronic musicians are inherently separate from the social or political situations within which the music is sounded. In that case, sound exists as pure vibration, and any “extra-musical” meaning is always imposed on it from the perspective of critics.

    I take the opposite approach, which views music *as* culture, and so the question that I begin with is not “what are the social, cultural, or political *effects* of sound,” but rather “in what ways can we hear society, culture, or politics *in* sound”? Stefan Helmreich’s idea of “transduction” [“the transmutation and conversion of signals across media” (_Listening Against Soundscapes_)] is useful in that it provides a method for understanding potential ways in which gender, or at least gendered affect, can move between technological platforms and communications media. For electronic music producers, we could then ask the more basic question regarding the relationship between the studio (technical practice) and the stage (public practice). Gendered sound (or politicized sound of multiple sorts) can be said to exist between the two.


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