What is auditory knowledge?

Experiences of tinnitus can tell us something about sound, listening and the relationship between them. Tinnitus may change the way in which we think about different sounds and sonic environments, complicating the association of ‘peace’ with ‘quiet’ and ‘noise’ with ‘disruption’. Likewise, people who experience tinnitus often ‘know’ their own listening – they might have developed an aware of what environments, experiences and situations can alleviate or aggravate their tinnitus. Alternatively, tinnitus might be a way of ‘knowing’: it might be able to tell us something about, for example, our stress or tiredness levels; or the places we have been. As a result, ‘auditory knowledge’ is central to this project.

Auditory knowledge refers to both knowing about and through listening. Put differently, auditory experience is both the object of knowledge and a means of generating knowledge: it is something to be understood and something that can create new understandings – of, for example, social life, the environment, history and art.

The idea that auditory experience can generate knowledge is a core principle of acoustic ecology: an interdisciplinary field that examines the social, cultural and ecological dimensions of different sonic environments. Acoustic ecology is associated with the work of R. Murray Schafer, the World Soundscape Project and Schafer’s 1977 book The Tuning of the World. A Canadian composer, music educator and environmentalist, Schafer has produced listening exercises through which sonic environments can be understood, analysed and imagined otherwise. However, Schafer’s work – and indeed much acoustic ecology – tends to assume an ‘ideal listener’ with ‘perfect’ hearing. Terminology such as ‘ear cleaning’ and fears of a ‘universal deafness’ , meanwhile, suggest an underlying audism.

This project treats tinnitus as something to be understood; and something that can generate alternative understandings of auditory experience. Indeed, paying critical attention to tinnitus requires us to take seriously what John Levack Drever has called ‘auraldiversity‘. An auraldiverse approach recognises that there are important differences between different listeners; but also, that the same person may have different capacities and capabilities of listening at different times in their lives. Tinnitus, meanwhile, can be understood as one manifestation of ‘auraldiversity’. A person with tinnitus hears differently to a person without; but also, different listeners with tinnitus may hear differently to one another. What’s more, a person with tinnitus may hear differently throughout their lives. To think about, with, and through tinnitus therefore requires us to move beyond the ideal listener that  underpins much ‘knowing’ of sound.


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