One distinctive feature of modernity is the proliferation of constructed sound, to the point where noise pollution is regarded as one of the greatest threats to human well-being. An ecology of violence invests the modern soundscape, encompassing the noise of industry, transport, and recreation. It is not simply organic damage but, insofar as the distinction remains viable, psychic damage. While this is especially true in situations of armed conflict, the threat is not confined to an abnormal “elsewhere.” The distinctiveness of the damage caused specifically by sound in armed conflict is one of degree and frequency, as documented in studies of the effects of both high volume and Low Frequency Noise (LFN).1 There is, as Daughtry says, a “kernel of potential violence that exists within all sounds” (p. 165). As in the general soundscape, so too in its bellicose sites, modernity has brought a new level of trauma, especially from the sonic deluges of the First World War.2 The continuous roar of artillery barrages has been superseded by more discrete, heterogeneous, and semiotically discriminated sounds, and it is these, the cause of the most common war-related injury among all US war veterans (p. 94), that are explored in extraordinary depth and detail in Daughtry's study of the Iraq war.

In the last few years we have witnessed a sudden burgeoning of literature on sonic violence. Much of this is little more than a catalog of songs about war and violence, which, based on lyrics, belongs more to the realm of literary than sonic studies, in that it pays little attention to the distinctively sonic phenomenology that helps us to understand the psychobiological foundations of acoustic affect in general and violence in particular. Daughtry's approach, which is aligned with anthropology and ethnography, may be less “conventional” (p. 12) but it is much more instructive. Although his particular research site is armed conflict, his findings “are intended to have a broad application both inside and outside the war zone” (p. 123).

The book's main argument is that “the sonic dimension of armed violence demonstrates that the ranks of victims are even larger, the costs of war even greater, the amplitude of violence even more intense and extensive than we have been conditioned to think” (p. 273). To support this claim Daughtry provides a wealth of information. His examples include the remarkable technologies that testify to the military's recognition of sonic power, ranging from LRADs and the use of music in torture to highly discriminating sound source locators (pp. 144–47). One instance of the latter is the “Boomerang gunfire detection device,” which “deployed seven microphones on a vehicle, each of which timed the exact moment a bullet passed it, allowing identification of the source point which was then relayed to the crew. The measure was so effective that snipers ceased targeting vehicles visibly carrying this technology” (p.146). Even technologies of everyday life like the iPod are shown to be “thoroughly imbricated with the daily exigencies of war and the symbolic and corporeal violence that surround them” (p. 225). The study reminds us that, like that technology, music has multiple and ambiguous functions that are often unconnected to the text itself.

Daughtry's research rests on an ethnographic foundation of interviews with more than one hundred Americans and Iraqis. Given that, in order to “let the subject speak,” one must be sensitive to the humanity of the informant, it is inevitable that the wide-ranging scope of his inquiry also encompasses the ethics of listening. This ethics is evident even in his typology, which recognizes the need for a discourse that is based elsewhere than in the usual scopocentric modeling of cultural analysis. Instead Daughtry develops a typology that is specific to sonic phenomenology, despite the fact that English is relatively inhospitable to nonvisual modes. Much of what passes as sound studies deploys theoretical models that are derived from other phenomenological orders, and that are deaf to the specifics of sonicity.

The book comes as close to matching discourse to subject as anything recently published in the field. The importance of a discourse specific to the field of study has not been adequately recognized. In the history of social and physical sciences, models imported from other specializations, or implicitly presented as universal across cultural forms, have profoundly crippled a range of disciplinary fields. Perhaps most conspicuously, because Newtonian physics became so dominant as a science, its models were applied to biology. Biology was then modeled as the study of mechanical systems, and human beings were viewed as “machines with a soul”—approaches that have remained obdurate until the emergence of epigenetics and related fields, which held that life cannot be reduced to its physical components. The analogy is useful as a means of underscoring the radical misunderstandings of sonic phenomenology that scopocentric models bring with them. If we are dealing with sound, we need a discourse based on sonicity.

Daughtry is fully sensitive to this, quoting Abraham Maslow: “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail” (quoted p. 9). Thus he devotes himself to constructing tools more appropriate to the task. Noting that sound is inherently in motion, he understands that any theoretical model for the study must be “similarly kinetic. Models that rely upon stasis will be inadequate” (p. 36). Moreover, under the rubric of “belliphonic”—an umbrella term that refers to the sounds associated with armed conflict, as summarized on pp. 3–4—he identifies various zones of (in)audition (p. 95). The full typology is complex and nuanced, and while it is specifically “belliphonic,” it resists the temptation to think of the toxic noise/violence convergence as being safely “elsewhere.” As Daughtry mentions, “sound and violence can be productively imagined as essentially commingled terms, with each manifest in the other as constant potentiality and structural analogue” (p. 159). The link is evident in the general acoustic effects of a modernity that not only fatigues our hearing with its ceaseless flow of auditory data but also damages it irreversibly. In a world increasingly overwhelmed by noise in both senses, the growing zone of what Daughtry calls the “audible inaudible” (pp. 77–80) leads to attenuated attention spans and an insensitivity to nuance and the ethically rebarbative.

Soundscape studies have burgeoned so suddenly that it is now difficult to cover its literature comprehensively, and the field has become fragmented. The massive body of background reading provided by Daughtry was very informative to me, but dating the “sonic turn” in cultural history to the 1990s (p. 5) obscures the work of many first-generation pioneers. Perhaps partly for this reason soundscape studies have evolved deaf spots, often leading to a reinvention of wheels. It is not realistic to expect that any one researcher can cover the whole of the soundscape literature from the last two decades, even the specialist area of sound and violence. But there are some foundational writers from the 1960s onward whose work provides discursive models, including Barry Truax, Hildegard Westerkamp, Meri Kytö, and Helmi Järviluoma, the last of whom has conducted the most explicit development of R. Murray Schafer's initial project in terms of geographical scope, methodology, and social ramifications.3 These writers have been developing a very serviceable theoretical apparatus. For example, in trying to categorize and describe the unsettling impact of “acousmatic sounds … whose sources cannot be pinpointed” (p. 172), the work of Augoyard and Torgue at CRESSON (Centre de Recherche sur l'Espace Sonore et l'Environnement Urbain, founded nearly forty years ago) provides an established model in what they define as the “ubiquity effect.”4 Similarly, the pretextual, precognitive affect of sound (pp. 162–63) can be discussed succinctly by reference to what neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux calls the “quick and dirty path” to the amygdala.5 

The growing realization that sound-specific typologies are needed is encouraging, though when they proliferate and overlap there is a danger that theoretical apparatus will get in the way. It is important to think about what insights these models provide into social practices and formation. Sometimes they raise the specter of a kind of neoscholasticism trying to impose order on sonic phenomenology, whose messiness can itself yield some of its most instructive lessons by virtue of its intractability to established modeling.6 Theoretical models can be most illuminating when they begin to collapse under the weight of the practices they are supposed to explain, and it is at that point of failure that we are likely to learn the most.

I have the highest regard for this study, but there are moments when I wonder if we need such an elaborate theoretical model in order to understand certain phenomena—for example, that civilians and military personnel exist in different relationships to war zones and their soundscapes (pp. 151, 152). There is a danger of going back around the world just to get to the other side of the road. A discussion of the psychophysical damage caused by the belliphonic—the internal shocks, perforation, bleeding (pp. 208–12)—recalls the potentially lethal pulmonary lesions of pneumothorax that have been identified in some supposedly normal acoustic conditions. The experience is then subjected to extended discussion in such terms as “territorialization” of “intrasubjective space”:

There was an insurgent sonic campaign within which the explosion was situated and cathected … also a localized military auditory regime that considered the belliphonic (1) a source of information, and so asked auditors to listen to it and decode it; (2) a contaminant, and so urged auditors to wear a technology (earplugs) to mitigate its force; and (3) a stimulant, and so encouraged auditors in the trauma zone to adopt a hypermasculine stance to it. (p. 210)

From this we learn that belliphonic sounds “interpellated audiences into violent acoustic territories, but auditors regularly pushed back, refusing to acknowledge that they were being hailed” (p. 211). This analysis, which unfolds over several pages, seems to juggle with discourse for its own sake, and thus stands in stark contrast to the following account by a victim, an Iraqi refugee: “Every sound we hear we were terrified, because the bombing was inside us, its voices were inside our heads” (p. 210, Daughtry's italics). Take your pick: the long (and, to my mind, distancing) journey, or the short, scarifying one. I suppose this really begs the question of the purpose of academic discourse.

These reservations aside, I believe that this study represents a coming of age of research into sound and violence. I have not read a more thorough case study of military conflict and sound, one that is so scrupulously documented, with its own implications and methodologies so fully explored. If, in fact, this study is exhaustive, what is the next step in research? The monograph gestures toward some answers. For example, the discussion of acoustic territories (p. 189 and elsewhere) is a further reminder of the interconnectedness of mind, body, and the physical environment, and fortifies the argument that the study of sonic experience provides the most promising platform for the further development of studies in cognitive theory. Apart from its own awe-inspiring comprehensiveness, the book provides a foundation for continued exploration of such emergent fields as cognitive ecology, extended mind theory, and the relationship between gesture and cognition.


See, for example, Colin H. Hansen, ed., The Effects of Low-Frequency Noise and Vibration on People (Brentwood, UK: Multi-Science Publishing, 2007). These essays are reprinted from articles that appeared in the Journal of Low Frequency Noise from 2000 to 2005.
See Bruce Johnson and Martin Cloonan, Dark Side of the Tune: Popular Music and Violence (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008), 50–56.
See, for example, the essays collected in Helmi Järviluoma, Meri Kytö, Barry Truax, Heikki Uimonen, and Noora Vikman, eds., Acoustic Environments in Change (Tampere, Finland: University of Applied Sciences, 2009).
Jean-François Augoyard and Henry Torgue, Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds, trans. Andra McCartney and David Paquette (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005), 130–31, 136–37.
Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain (London: Phoenix, 1998), esp. 138–78, 224–66.
See, for example, Judith Becker, “Anthropological Perspectives on Music and Emotion,” in Music and Emotion: Theory and Research, ed. John A. Sloboda and Patrik N. Juslin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 135–69, esp. 154.