In her 2006 article, “Sound Matters: Notes toward the analysis and design of sound in multimodal webtexts,” McKee analyzes four concepts within the aural mode: vocal delivery, music, sound effects, and silence.
Vocal delivery changes the message of what’s being said. The tension, pitch, loudness, breathiness of your voice gives cues to your audience. Mixing these techniques keeps a listener interested and on their toes. There are things about spoken words that eclipse the influence of written words and vice versa.
Music establishes tone and atmosphere. If you walk into a coffee shop, you’ll hear very different music than if you’re at Forever 21. The music in American Sniper is very different from the music in Disney’s Moana. Music inspires you to feel a certain way about the topic or encourages a reaction. It’s the form of the aural mode people are most conscious about.
Sound effects work subconsciously to create understanding, mood, and emotional stimulus. Just think about how your computer uses sound to teach you to pay attention to a pop-up or give it time because it’s starting up. Movies use siren sounds to make you understand something bad has happened, or they use car noises and honking to show you how frustrating the streets of New York are at rush hour.
Silence has been taken for granted as the default setting on most web pages. Increasingly, sound and websites are being combined, which gives us a more acute appreciation for and awareness of silence.Silence isn’t separate from sound, rather, it’s an important part that deserves consideration.
She recognizes that sound is not a fixed, isolated mode, nor should it be considered in isolation. Using these principles, let’s move on to Middle C, a podcast documenting the one-year journey of a woman who is transitioning into a man. Follow the link here to hear the full story.
McKee’s article sheds light on the Middle C podcast. For instance, vocal delivery changes drastically as he transforms, but the way he speaks is constant. His voice grows huskier, the pitch lowers, but also he speaks slowly and candidly. This helps his story be understood easier.
Music is used throughout to symbolize the speaker’s journey. As her voice gets lower with testosterone, the song is sung at an increasingly lower pitch. Finally, at the end, the voice from before the testosterone was given and after overlap to show how far the speaker has transformed. Even considering the lyrics sheds light on the speaker’s struggle with acceptance and freedom. This takes into consideration McKee’s analysis of how music can evoke meaning and emotion.
The podcast also lets us hear as the speaker shaves his face for the first time. We hear the clatter of the razor and the rush of the water. These sound effects put us in the moment, making the speaker’s experience shaving more tangible. McKee says sound effects create understanding. We understand he’s shaving because we hear shaving sounds, not just because we hear the words.
There are patches of silence too, which guide us by giving us time to process the rest of the aural information bombarding our ears. Gaps between music and story, sound effects and spoken words let us breathe. In this way, silence is working just as hard as the other forms of the aural mode in this podcast.
Why does this matter?
This matters because too often we think the aural mode exists in isolation. Sounds are often grouped as just sounds, but there are distinct forms of sounds that work in different ways to influence the listener. The same can be said for any of the other modes. They aren’t meant to exist as one entity in a vacuum. They each have a multiple fascets that interact with listeners and among themselves and the other modes. This makes them a complicated but important study.