Music 138S: Music and Noise: The Social Life of Sound

Voices of the Rainforest

Cameron Indoor Stadium is famously cramped, hot, and humid. Yet Louise Meintjes says the Cameron experience would be completely different without its one-of-a-kind sound.

“Architecture contributes to the way a space gets used,” she explains. “Often, we discuss it only in terms of the visuals, but the acoustics of Cameron Stadium seem crucial to its character.”

Meintjes, professor of cultural anthropology and music, discusses this “aural architecture” as part of her multidisciplinary course “Music and Noise: The Social Life of Sound.”

Introduced just a few years ago, “Music and Noise” is part of a series of courses combining cultural anthropology and music, a growing field of study called ethnomusicology, which is the class’ central focus, in addition to musical structures, such as concert halls, theaters, sports stadiums, and churches, and the social aspect of recording music.

“The recording studio [is] like a microcosm of the world outside, in terms of social relationships, race, class, gender, language,” says Meintjes, recalling a 1992 trip to an apartheid-era South African recording studio in which multilingual music producers played arbiters between sound engineers and the musicians with whom they could not communicate. “People play different kinds of roles because of the skill sets they bring, but the sociology of it is just as important.… There were all these plays of power over who had creative control, and it had a lot to do with social hierarchies in the context of South Africa in the 1990s.”

The same recording session prompted Meintjes’ interest in recording as an aspect of sociology and compelled her to design a course around it. Among the students’ early assignments is to define noise; at first they’re asked to discuss noises they “wish would go away.” Another assignment is to design a “sound walk,” a path one could trace and gather the essence of East Campus (the classroom is inside the Biddle Music Building) by means of aural intake.

Meintjes describes a major challenge of the class as finding a central point for students to discuss their knowledge of music and listening. Everyone, she says, listens differently. While this means a vast platform for discussion, it can also mean that common ground is difficult to find. The students, however, learn to speak each other’s musical languages and help each other “listen in different ways.” Meintjes also helps students understand the sociology of listening and recording, recalling in particular a visit to last semester’s Nasher Museum of Art exhibition “The Record.” “One student wrote about the fact that he had never played a record before,” she says. “I realized…I could use the changing experiences of students in helping them think about how listening is socialized.”

While Meintjes’ class covers a variety of topics and their relation to sound, the core concept, she says, is simple. “The course is about how we learn through our ears,” she explains. She wants her students to leave with “a sense of the pleasures of listening, the politics of listening, the history of listening, and the potential of listening.”

Louise Meintjes is a graduate of the University of Texas–Austin, where she earned a master’s in music and a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology. She has written one book, Sound of Africa!: Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio, and is working on her second, Dust of the Zulu: Ngoma Song, Dance and Masculinity in the Post Apartheid Struggle.


Readings and Recordings
Zimbabwe: Shona Mbira Music by Rounder Records; Voice of the Rainforest: A Day in the Life of the Kaluli People by Rykodisc Records; various articles and CD tracks

Weekly attendance, short writing assignments, midterm test, final quiz, and research paper or sound project

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