Geography Sonic Methods in Geography
Jonathan Prior
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0172


Research into sound—including both musical and nonmusical sound—amounts to a varied body of work that straddles numerous disciplines, including history, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, musicology, and ecology. Scholarship focused on sound has also led to the formation of discrete subdisciplines, most notably sound studies, bioacoustics, and acoustic ecology. Much of this wealth of material considers the spatial properties of sounds and their reception (both by humans and nonhumans), yet geographers have been relatively slow to consider sound in a systematic manner, and explicitly geographical studies of sound remain few and far between, even if this has picked up since the 2000s, especially by cultural geographers (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Geography article “Geographies of Music, Sound, and Auditory Culture”). Much of the geographical scholarship on sound and music, which, broadly constituted, has been referred to as audio geography or sonic geography, has tended to rely upon already existing methods of data collection, analysis, and (re)presentation, including interviews, close textual readings, and written forms of dissemination. Of course, such methods remain invaluable, and they have their own particular sonorities, yet they also raise important questions that sound researchers are only just starting to grapple with. Principally, it has been questioned whether existing research methods need to be extended or complemented, or new ones initiated, so as to account for the diverse ways in which sounds produce spaces, and how spaces affect sounds and their reception at different scales, as well as helping to generate entirely new forms of data. This has been met by a range of responses that generally do not reject existing ways of undertaking research, but instead seek to complement them.

General Overviews

While there is currently no single text that provides a comprehensive overview of sonic methods pertinent to geographical research, much can be gleaned from a number of different texts. Given its role in developing an array of methodological approaches and coining a considerable amount of relevant terminology, Schafer 1994 is a foundational text within sound studies that has a lot to offer sonic geographical inquiry. Gallagher and Prior 2014 provides an introduction to some of the most prominent sonic methods and outlines how these could be expanded, while Wood, et al. 2007 discusses how researchers could better account for in-the-moment musical performances. Bull and Back 2016 is an edited collection that brings to life a variety of sonic methods through worked examples, and Makagon and Neumann 2009 is essential methods reading for ethnographers (and others) who want to delve into the world of audio documentaries.

  • Bull, Michael, and Les Back, eds. The Auditory Culture Reader. 2d ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

    An edited volume of short chapters that cover a wide range of topics, from urban regeneration to music subcultures, predominantly from a sociological perspective. Many of the chapters explicitly focus on research methods, including ruminations on tape recorders, soundwalks, and ways to approach listening to historical materials.

  • Gallagher, Michael, and Jonathan Prior. “Sonic Geographies: Exploring Phonographic Methods.” Progress in Human Geography 38.2 (2014): 267–284.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132513481014

    Provides an overview of existing methods relevant to sonic geographical research, and makes a case for their further development, before moving to consider a range of epistemological and ethical questions that such methods raise.

  • Makagon, Daniel, and Mark Neumann. Recording Culture: Audio Documentary and the Ethnographic Experience. London: SAGE, 2009.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781452226590

    A short but very informative text on the production of audio documentaries as a tool for ethnographic research, and how these may allow ethnographers to move beyond written text and potentially find new audiences outside of the academy. Provides a useful historical overview of ethnographic audio recording, as well as different approaches to the composition of audio documentaries and practical tips for getting started.

  • Schafer, Raymond M. Our Sonic Environment and the Soundscape: The Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1994.

    Originally published in the late 1970s, this text remains one of the most important texts on sonic research across a variety disciplines, and is still widely cited. Among other contributions, it provides a variety of different approaches to the spatial study of sound, from sound and listening walks to methods of classification, notation, and sound mapping.

  • Wood, Nichola, Michelle Duffy, and Susan J. Smith. “The Art of Doing (Geographies of) Music.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 25 (2007): 867–889.

    DOI: 10.1068/d416t

    Considers the challenges of researching music-making and musical experience through existing social research methodologies, before discussing ways to expand these, with an emphasis on non-representational and performance-based research practices.

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