Soundscape | Karen Kao


For a writer, sound is finicky. It’s difficult to describe in words, let alone render onto the page. Cliches abound. Babbling brooks, birdsong, a lover’s sigh. And yet, to reach for that sensory detail of sound can make or break a piece of writing. Think of how we feel when robbed of our sense of hearing in real life. We believe ourselves to be isolated. We’re suddenly unable to use any of our remaining senses to perceive the world around us.

To craft a compelling piece of writing, it pays to appeal to all five senses. Not just sound but also taste, touch, sight and smell. And wouldn’t you know it? Sound can serve many purposes.


For example, sound is a way to set the writer’s stage just as a movie soundtrack warns you when something bad’s about to happen. Some noises belong to a specific time and place. Think of the sound of a thousand vuvuzelas at full blast during a soccer match.

Just as the idea of a packed sports arena seems far-fetched in these times of corona, other sounds can evoke a dying way of life. In Shanghai, the communal life of the longtang is disappearing under the rumble of earth movers and the clang of the wrecker’s ball. Listen to this soundscape of 1940s Shanghai.

The day typically began with the “Cantata of the Alley,” the sound of night stools (bucket-shape latrines) as they were cleaned with bamboo sticks after being emptied by night soil men. Then the first vendors would arrive, selling hand-wrapped won tons, fried bean curd and fresh green olives, often delivered in baskets lowered from upper-floor windows. The alleys echoed with the cries of children running off to school

Taras Grescoe, “Shanghai Dwellings Vanish, and With Them, a Way of Life” in The New York Times, 23 Jan 2017


We don’t have to reach so far back in time to see how sound functions as a memory receptor. Last May, the New York Public Library produced a recording entitled Missing Sounds of New York. An auditory love letter to New Yorkers, the soundscape was created in lieu of a physical celebration of the library’s 125th anniversary. The library’s intention was to offer comfort, though many have cried upon hearing the familiar sound of garbage trucks and subway trains. Who would have thought we’d miss that?

Anyone who has watched TV in quarantine has likely caught scenes of pre-COVID New York that pique nostalgia, even if they’re only from February. Audio tracks, the thinking went, could be even more Proustian. “When you listen, your imagination brings you to those places and situations even more intimately.”

Bruce Handy, “Soundtrack to a Lost New York” in The New Yorker, 25 May 2020
Image source: New York Public Library

When I was traveling the world in pre-COVID times, my husband and I spent a while on the North Island of New Zealand. Out in the middle of nowhere, cities ceased to exist. There were so many birds chattering, whistling, and knocking on wood that it was impossible for me, city mouse that I am, to identify any of them. But there was one sound in particular I had to record. Even now, that sound evokes a sense of freedom. Maybe it was a morepork?

In the garden some tiny owls, perched on the branches of a lace-bark tree, called: “More pork; more pork.” And far away in the bush there sounded a harsh rapid chatter: “Ha-ha-ha … Ha-ha-ha.”

Katherine Mansfield, “Prelude” in The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (Penguin Books 2007)

The Voice

Sound as setting, sound as memory receptor, sound to build a mood: there’s still more. Sound at an entirely different level. I speak of The Voice. Sven Birkert, editor-in-chief of literary journal AGNI describes it as the alchemy of rhythm, tone, syntax, and diction that transmutate into an author’s voice.

Rhythm is a form cut into time, a combination of stressed and unstressed syllables that create a pattern of yearning and expectation, of recurrence and difference. Your choice of words — slang, scholarly or scatological — will create the tone. Syntax is how you arrange those words into a sentence (or not) and diction will give your reader a sense of how far or close the narrator stands.

Voice is, most simply, identity as transmitted through words and their tones; it is a distinct vibration that communicates the feeling of an authentic other life. Voice need not be confiding or confessional. What matters is the authenticity, that it come across as self-consistent and unique. Not the sound of an admired other, or of a prevailing tendency or a workshop consensus, but the expression of an independent sensibility experiencing of the world.
Sven Birkert, “That Continual Hmmmmm” in The AGNI Newsletter, Oct 2016

Now, how does that sound?


Note: Soundscape was originally published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.


Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for reminding us, so insightfully (a visual term), that we dwell in worlds of sounds as much or more than of other sensual effects - adding the distinctive sounds of your experiences. Each of us has a unique set. And, as you point out, words themselves are also sounds, a realization essential to good writing. I grew up in the last radio generation, not experiencing stories visually on TV or the Internet (except maybe once a week at the movies). I was always fascinated with sounds - and at one point thought I'd be a sound engineer when I grew up, slamming fake doors behind the scene and making automobile and cricket noises. I loved noises of all kinds, rude and sublime!
Peter Leyland said…
Sound is very important to me Karen as I am partly deaf and so your post fairly resonated. I like your reference to the Katherine Mansfield story and about the birds on your New Zealand visit. Many people say when they get hearing aids that the first thing they notice is birdsong. How true.

Thanks for your post and all the interesting references.

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