Assignment 8

For me, sounds usually work in both culturally specific and universal ways, sometimes separately, sometimes simultaneously.

Something innocuous could feel ominous, for example, because it connotes an entirely different undertone in different circumstances. I grew up in a crowded city, so bustling areas meant high human traffic and more generally, areas which are safe. In contrast, sketchy streets usually have low foot traffic and are very quiet. When I moved to the SF, lots of my friends complained about the traffic noise and city sounds and preferred living in the quiet suburbs. My experience was completely the opposite – I found the suburban areas eerily quiet, and I struggled to feel relaxed in an environment so deathly quiet it felt like a horror movie. I felt way more at ease and fell asleep much more easily being surrounded by ambient city noises.

Sounds can also evoke emotions and feelings from remembrance of a place, or event. Food preparation is a huge undertaking in my family in preparation of the Lunar New Year, so the sound of deep-frying, chopping, mixing, crinkling of plastic and paper wrappers, etc. during that time of year brings up festive feelings of celebration. We used to get incredibly excited at the sound of deep-frying as kids because that was a signal that seafood and vegetable fritters were being made. I had a friend who was overseas so homesick on year that she asked her mum to bring the phone to the kitchen just so she could hear food in the wok frying. For someone who works as a fry cook, however, this sound might not be as energizing.

Even without intending to, mechanical sounds (such as from cars) often convey emotions. It’s possible to honk in a sequence to sound extra-angry, but near impossible to do so to honk in a way that conveys sadness, fear, joy etc. Arguably, when people get excited and honk when sports teams win, they might do so joyously, but the quality of the honk still sounds super angry to me. Lots of other machinery operating also carry an aggressive, hostile undertone. I often find myself feeling belligerent and irritable when I hear a leaf blower nearby. If taken out of context, I would struggle to identify / guess what the Star Trek sounds meant. Combined with the context of a scene, however, that would be much easier to parse. I usually am able to use these cues to infer what new sound effects are supposed to mean.

Sound also operates in universal ways – the fact that we can understand Pokémon perfectly when all they do is repeat their own species shows that tone, volume, pitch, etc. are great at conveying emotion. Music also achieves this on a universal level through different styles of play the same notes – staccato conveys tension and/or energy, while legato is much more soothing. Sleep machines also leverage the universally relaxing sounds in nature (the ocean, rainforest, thunderstorms, etc.) to help people relax and enter restful sleep. These universal sounds can still be experienced differently by individuals though. Rain is a special one for me – I grew up in a place with lots of thunderstorms, and when I first moved to California I was so unaccustomed to the lack of rain that I felt actual physical discomfort, as if I was holding my breath and couldn’t really exhale. Though many people would feel soothed if they hear rain, I doubt that their experience would be so adverse if they didn’t hear it regularly. Similarly, some people find silence deafening and find it much easier to focus against the backdrop of pleasant chatter in a café setting, while others abhor any sort of background noise when trying to concentrate.

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