Sonifying Space

Sonifying Space: A History of the Science of Background Music, 1900 to 2001

Alexandra E. Hui


U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Thomas Edison National History Park.

“Sonifying Space” is a history of listening. It takes as its departure point the often-mocked, even hated, music of waiting spaces, which have become more ubiquitous than ever: background music (also known as environmental music or Muzak). In particular, I focus on the formation of new perceptual systems in relation to the introduction of new sounds into personal and public space through the development of recording and replay technology during the twentieth century. This study of the co-development of modern, technology-dependent background music and the active cultivation of new forms of listening also informs larger questions about the relationship between individuals’ and communities’ understanding of their environment and their (often indirect) experience of it. This is ultimately a story of the construction of sonic spaces, both perceptual and material. It lies at the intersection of the history of science, technology, psychology, and marketing and environmental history. The project examines how science contributed very explicitly and deliberately to a new musical aesthetic and a new form of listening, thus aiding the development of new sounds and new listening practices and fundamentally altering the soundscape of the twentieth century.

  • Hui, A. (in preparation). First re-creations: Phonographs and new cultures of listening at the beginning of the twentieth century. In C. Thorau & H. Ziemer (Eds.), The art of listening (under review with Oxford University Press).
  • Hui, A. (forthcoming). Aural rights and early environmental ethics: Negotiating the post-war soundscape. In A. Allen & K. Dawes (Eds.), Current directions in ecomusicology: A field guide. London: Routledge (anticipated publication 2015).
  • Hui, A. (2014). Lost: Thomas Edison’s Mood Music found: New ways of listening. Endeavour, 38, 139–142.
  • Hui, A. (2014). “Muzak-while-you-work”: Programming music for industry, 1919–1948. Historische Anthropologie, 22, 364–383.
  • Hui, A. (2014). From the piano pestilence to the phonograph solo: Four case studies of musical expertise in the laboratory and on the city street. In D. Morat (Ed.), Sounds of modern history: Auditory cultures in 19th- and 20th-century Europe (pp. 129–152). New York: Berghahn.
  • Hui, A. (2012). Sound objects and sound products: Creating a new culture of listening in the first half of the twentieth century. Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research, 4, 599–616.