Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Sound at the Inauguration: A Listener’s Guide

The inauguration events of 2017 afford the attentive listener an opportunity to attend to sounds that extend beyond the realm of what is traditionally considered music, but that are important nevertheless, perhaps even more so than musical performances by individuals and ensembles. Here I am addressing the ambient sounds associated with the proceedings, i.e. the unintentional/unplanned or situational sounds that are audience- or location-generated and that can subliminally yet powerfully contribute to the meaning of the event. (Curtin 2010: 220) These sounds can transform the performance or speech into an interactive experience, depending on the context.

The most obvious of such sounds are those of approval, in the form of applause, cheering, or laughter, and they may occur at any time during the inauguration event, from approbation of the marching bands in the parade to responses to the swearing in ceremony. These sounds tend to be affiliative (collective) rather than individual, and can occur after, during, or before the musical performance or speech, functioning as corporate expressions of affirmation. (Bull 2006) However, applause can also serve “as a vehicle for audience empowerment” (Heim 2016: 31), hence redirecting attention towards the listeners as performers themselves. As such their sounds take an active role in shaping the event experience. The audience can also withhold approval, as much through silence as through vocal expressions of displeasure.

The sonic communication of disapproval in its various manifestations has always contributed to the political scene, but it acquired a potentially new level of significance at the party conventions of 2016, both of which featured prominent displays of displeasure through booing. Research has revealed that, as a form of collective behavior, booing differs from the spontaneity of applause: “booing is usually delayed and is coordinated primarily by audience members monitoring each other’s conduct so as to respond together.” (Clayman 1993: 110) Other sounding forms of disapprobation depend on its degree, starting with murmuring and sporadic boo-calls (or whistles in European contexts), through corporate booing and individual shouting, to attempts to shout down—silence—or heckle the performer or speaker. All of these expressions rely upon the primary tactic available to audiences to vent their dissatisfaction: sound.

It is unlikely that any of the musical performances connected with the inauguration would experience sonic disruptions of the kind described above. However, other interesting sound-related phenomena may occur, such as the unintentional collision of music from adjacent marching bands or different aural perspectives—points of audition—afforded by the microphone placements of the sound team for the indoor events. And the applause itself can vary in quality, depending on length, dynamics, and volume, the intensity and duration indicating level of approval.

The listener should pay attention to all of the sounds described above, as well as any that may be heard alongside the outdoor events, such as sounds from the environment (bird song, wind, traffic noises, sirens) or that encroach upon the proceedings like protester chants and reporter commentary (coverage of the parades and indoor activities). It will be interesting to observe the oratory of the speeches, especially Trump’s, since he will undoubtedly use a number of identified rhetorical devices to draw applause, including naming (supporters or opponents), expressing gratitude, taking a position, making a joke, and explicitly asking for applause. (Bull & Miskinis 2015: 522-23)

Listening to the sounds surrounding the inauguration should make it a more meaningful experience for anyone among us, whatever their political affiliation.


Bull, Peter. “Invited and Uninvited Applause in Political Speeches.” British Journal of Social Psychology 45, no. 3 (2006): 563-78.

Bull, Peter and Karolis Miskinis. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 34, no. 5 (2015): 521–38.

Clayman, Steven E. “Booing: The Anatomy of a Disaffiliative Response.” American Sociological Review 58, no. 1 (1993): 110-30.

Curtin, Adrian. “Defining and Reconstructing Theatre Sound.” In Theatre and Performance Design: A Reader in Scenography, edited by Jane Collins and Andrew Nisbet, 218-22. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Heim, Caroline. Audience as Performer: The Changing Role of Theatre Audiences in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Routledge, 2016.

No comments:

Post a Comment