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Posted by on May 10, 2011 | 4 comments

David Sonnenschein Special: Sound Spheres

David has offered up an excerpt of his article, “Sound Spheres: A Model of Psychoacoustic Space in Cinema,” to our little community. The full article appears in the Volume 1.1 of The New Soundtrack, available through Edinburgh University Press (an excellent journal that I highly recommend). David and I will be having a phone discussion on Friday about this new model of his, to be transcribed here on DS. So, if you have any questions or feedback about this article, make sure to leave a comment. I’ll do my best to include each one in our conversation.

Genesis of Sound Spheres

As a sound designer, musician and filmmaker, much of my creative work is based on personal experience in the world, based on my own senses. I have spent a great deal of time alone in the wilderness listening to unknown animal calls and finely sculpted natural soundscapes, as well as in foreign countries that offer unexpected sonic reflections of human culture. Through the simple act of listening and observing my own physical, mental and emotional reactions to the surrounding sounds, the stories of these places, people, creatures and events began to coalesce into a pattern. This pattern was drawn from the previous theoretical structures I had learned from studying and creating films (traditional models mentioned above), but extended beyond into this dynamic model that I now call Sound Spheres.

Several revelations occurred, as I noted a sonic experience that felt like it could be translated into the filmmaking world of sound design. The experience of, “Did I hear that, or was that my imagination?” gave me the tingle of excitement that happens in a good film with subtle cues, like a detective novel. Sometimes that inner sound would compel me into action as much as any externally heard event. I began to consider that my own mind generating the thought of sound could be as significant as the external sounds, and this became the innermost Sound Sphere in the developing model, the I Think sphere.

Another significant psychological impact was discovered when I or someone else would be startled or humored by a sound, saying, “What was that?” It obviously was “offscreen” and out of our sight, but even more important to note was that it was out of our minds to be able to identify the source, creating a specific emotional reaction. In Chion’s terms, I could identify with reduced listening (volume, pitch, timbre, etc.) and often with semantic listening that evoked some emotional feeling, but I would be clueless to the causal listening because I didn’t know the source. Most often this wouldn’t last long, being revealed when I’d turn my head or someone told me what was going on, but sometimes that strangeness would linger in the dark unknown, building tension and even motivating a physical reaction to go find out or run away from the sound. This became the outermost Sound Sphere, the I Don’t Know realm, out of balance, full of intrigue and ripe for discovering something new.

Being in meditation, simply listening to the sounds and identifying their whereabouts and my feelings (if any), was a fairly passive experience. It didn’t capture my genuine interest to stay with the experience, until I began to note the movement of sounds between the spheres. For example, when I couldn’t figure out what the source of a sound was, that caused me anxiety. Upon seeing where it came from (entering the I See sphere) I would be able to relax or go into action depending on my reaction to the true nature of the sound source. Another movement between spheres occurred when I caused a sound by touching an object like a sweater (I Touch sphere), but the sound was unusually crisp, giving me a surprise. When I looked (I See sphere), I had touched a potato chip sitting on top of the sweater. Not extremely dramatic, but it did reinforce the notion of movement between the Sound Spheres as a clue to sonic storytelling.

The continued experiences that I had, plus the experimentation in this area for several years with my sound design students, resulted in a formalization of the Sound Spheres model presented here.

Sound Spheres model

If we consider the human experience of our environment from its most intimate to most external, a model of six concentric spheres serves to describe the various levels of sonic information available. Like the layers of an onion, an outer sphere may encompass some of the properties of inner spheres, but not as an absolute rule. As a perceptual construct of our world, this is a model to be to be explored, debated and expanded upon in relation to other audiovisual theories, as well as psychoacoustic and philosophical approaches.

The descriptions below pertain to real life experiences. Applications in the Audiovisual world will be discussed in a later section.

I Think

When we perceive a sound, but no one else can hear it, it is likely an internal sound that is generated by one’s own mind. There may be a doubt of its physicality if it is an extremely soft sound or pitched very high or low, perhaps one that is beyond the hearing range of most normally endowed listeners. But for the most part, this sphere represents personal audio thoughts that are simply not available to other listeners, unless we are told about them.

Examples: memories, daydreams, dreams, mental rehearsal or notes to oneself, internal music.

I Am

Our bodies are organic factories full of vibration, friction and impacts that create sound. Many of these can only be heard by ourselves, if we even notice, as normally we are habituated to constant low level rhythms of breathing, heartbeat and even neurologically based auditory stimuli like tinnitus. However, slightly louder bodily functions become audible to us and to those around us, sometimes with unintended, embarrassing results. Speaking and clapping are more obvious sounds we make for the purpose of communicating with others. This sphere represents the interface between the very personal, private and personalized arena of sound making and that of interaction with others.

Examples: heartbeat, breathing, digestive sounds, flatulence, mouth sounds (chewing, coughing, hiccup, sneezing, crying, etc.), scratching, clapping, speaking.

I Touch

When we make contact with the outside world, manifesting our willpower through our bodily movements, this action sets up sonic vibrations. Often it is initiated by our hands, the major anatomical marvel that distinguishes us from most other animals. We have the capacity to smash materials with heavy objects, delicately finger minute particles and complex musical instruments, and communicate through sophisticated symbols on electric devices. Our whole body plays the environment like a drum set, slamming doors, pounding up stairs, sweeping the floor and turning the pages of a newspaper.

Examples: footsteps, manipulating tools, utensils, food, contact sports, typing.

I See

The experience of this sphere is equivalent to the filmic notion of “onscreen” audio, where events, objects and actions in our field of vision are perceived as the source of the sound we are hearing. Psychologically, this sphere usually represents a distancing of our ability to affect the world, as the act of listening becomes more passive than I Touch or I Am. However, this might also include the previous spheres of I Touch and I Am, if we are watching our own body creating a sound (like seeing our hands play the piano, or scratching our arm), or may not (like playing the clarinet with our fingers below our field of vision, or scratching our back).

Examples: mouths moving with speech, television, cars passing by, boiling teapot, bat hitting baseball.

I Know

This and the following sphere (I Don’t Know) relate to the sense of offscreen sounds, where the source is not visible to the listener. The context of the environment and types of sounds expected to occur in that environment create a sense of familiarity with the soundscape. When a banging noise happens out of sight in the kitchen area, it is easy to guess that someone is washing the dishes. But the same sound coming from the bedroom generates a big question mark in the listener. It is often easy to identify the person on the other side of a phone call without their name being introduced, because of the personal recognition of the voice. But if the voice is not familiar enough, we have to ask, “Who is speaking?” and this falls outside of the I Know sphere into I Don’t Know. The sound of a coyote howling in the hills of Southern California is very identifiable, but the same sound in the city mall would be strange and misplaced.

Examples: people talking outside our vision, radio music, crickets, birds, wind.

I Don’t Know

Although not so common an experience as the other sound spheres, the I Don’t Know sphere can be a very memorable and potent one. When a sound cannot be identified, for however long, we normally are compelled to find out what is the source. Perhaps if it seems innocuous, weak or doesn’t repeat itself, we may not give much attention and ignore it. But if there is any power to the sound in either reduced listening (e.g. loud, sharp attack, repeated) or semantic listening (e.g. scary, funny, oddly familiar), then our conscious minds can barely resist being drawn into the quest of source with causal listening. It serves as a catalyst for problem solving, shifting complacent energy into action. The speed of moving from unknown to known may also be influenced by culture, education and exposure to similar kinds of sounds. For example, research (Murray et al) has shown we can recognize man-made sounds faster than natural sounds. Auditory Scene Analysis can offer a systematic gradation between I Know and I Don’t Know.

Examples: Because these are all unrecognizable sounds that are out of sight, no source examples (causal listening) can be cited without exiting the I Don’t Know sphere and being thrown back into the I Know sphere. However, acoustic parameters (loud-soft, high-low pitch, short-long, etc.) and emotional qualities (soothing, inappropriate, frightening, etc.) can be described.

Examples of Sound Spheres model

During the last several years I have introduced the Sound Spheres model to my sound design students and given them the following assignment:

Sit for 3 minutes and write down every sound you hear, associating each with a specific sound sphere. You’ll probably list between ten and twenty sounds and their respective sound sphere placement. What informs you of your environment, what draws your attention, what creates a feeling or emotion? Note in particular which sound shifts from one sphere to another. Where do you experience transitions, tension, build, climax and resolution? How can this be used in a filmic scene to move story?

The purpose of the assignment is to have the students experience their own sound spheres, then to apply this in a possible dramatic film scene with an evolving plot. An extra benefit that frequently derives from this exercise is the opportunity to explore related audio theory and applications, which are noted below. Here are some of the results of this assignment.

Example 1 – School orchestra

I play violin in the school orchestra and did this exercise during one of our rehearsals.
I Think – This seemed to happen when I imagined the notes I was going to play in the upcoming measures, kind of like rehearsing them. Also, when the conductor stopped us, I could still hear the music kind of like it was reverberating in my head, a very short term memory.
I Am – I couldn’t hear my own sounds when the orchestra was playing, but when it stopped, I noticed my own breathing. Then I hummed a part of the melody, so I guess that was also in this sphere.
I Touch – That was really obvious when I played my violin. I’m the one controlling the bow and changing the length of the strings to create the sound. There was also the page turning and my foot tapping the beat (although I’m not supposed to do that for performance, doesn’t look good to the audience).
I See – All the other musicians I can see playing their instruments and the conductor talking and tapping his baton on the podium.
I Know – All the other musicians I can’t see behind me or hidden behind their music stands, but I know what instruments are being played by their sounds. Somebody behind me whispered something, couldn’t tell the words but I know who they are.
I Don’t Know – Our practice room is pretty well insulated, but I could hear a low thump outside, very muffled, couldn’t tell what it was. It didn’t seem like a problem, nobody else paid attention.

NOTE: This experience highlighted the overlap between music, sound effects and dialogue in our everyday experience. Although these areas of audio are frequently separated in the production and postproduction processes of filmmaking, the application of the Sound Spheres model applies equally to all types of sounds.

Example 2 – Police station

I’m a part-time student and have a job as an administrator in a police station.
I Think – I’m still listening to the song in my head that was playing on the radio when I was driving to work.
I Am – I’ve still got a little tickle in my throat from a cold and have to cough a couple times, take a drink of water. I talk to a guard who needs some information about a prisoner.
I Touch – I’m typing on the computer, making some notes with a pen on paper. When I lean back, my chair squeaks. I set a cup of water on the desk.
I See – The guard talks to me. The phone rings.
I Know – I hear the footsteps of the guards and several doors and bolts, knowing where they are even though I don’t see them. I can hear what seems like an air conditioning hum. More unusual is the sound of a cricket inside the station, which I look for but can’t locate.
I Don’t Know – I don’t hear any sound I can’t recognize.

NOTE: The cricket sound generated a lively discussion about the nature of having a living being inside a high security building that can’t be located. Furthermore, the cricket most likely has the ability to come and go with little restrictions, a very unique skill in contrast to all the people there in their fixed roles and pre-determined locations. We considered that this cricket sound could become a sonic story element, representing a “ghost in the machine”, rebellious, free, unbound by the rules of that place.

Remember to leave your comments below (before Friday 5/13/11) to have them included in the discussion with David. Again, for the full article, check out Volume 1.1 of The New Soundtrack, available through Edinburgh University Press in both print and electronic document. Reprinted with permission.


  1. I think that’s a very interesting article and for sure a great way of thinking while working in the sound design of anything. I never thought about it before, maybe just in an unconscious way but after I read this article I started thinking how the sound spheres could be related together and attract people more and more into the action in a film scene. Thank you, I appreciated the article very much.

    Best Regards,
    João Nunes

  2. I think that’s a very interesting article and it’s for sure a great way of thinking while working in the sound design of anything. I never thought about it before, maybe just in an unconscious way but after I read this article I started thinking how the sound spheres could be related together and attract people more and more into the action in a film scene. Thank you, I appreciated the article very much.

    Best Regards,
    João Nunes

  3. David is the Eckhart Tolle of sound!


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