“Communicating Vessels” by Jenny Gräf Sheppard, on at the Sound Studies Lab through fall 2023. (Courtesy Sound Studies Lab)
“Communicating Vessels” by Jenny Gräf Sheppard, on at the Sound Studies Lab through fall 2023. (Courtesy Sound Studies Lab)

A Lab in Copenhagen Looks at How Sound Explains the World

Musicology professor Holger Schulze oversees a program for sound scholars to analyze the many impacts of the sonic realities around us.
By Julian Shen-Berro
August 25, 2022
6 minute read

Holger Schulze runs the Sound Studies Lab at the University of Copenhagen, where scholars and artists gather to explore sonic and sensory experiences. There, researchers trace the aural rhythms of our lives and of the societies we inhabit—both historically and in the present. Mixing field research and critical analysis, the lab tackles projects ranging from the birth of rave culture in the late Soviet Union to how the dramatic effects of climate change manifest in sound.

Schulze, a professor of musicology and the lab’s “principal investigator,” has spent decades trying to understand sonic experiences. Founded in 2011 at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in Germany, the Sound Studies Lab began with a project on functional sounds and sound design. It has since traveled across projects and universities, landing in Copenhagen in 2014. The lab now houses three full-time researchers and collaborates with sound scholars and artists across Europe and the United States.

We recently spoke to Schulze about what sounds can teach us, how they can effect change, and why our sonic experiences shifted amid a world of Zoom calls and pandemic-altered noise.

Holger Schulze. (Courtesy Sound Studies Lab)
Holger Schulze. (Courtesy Sound Studies Lab)

What drew you to the study of sound?

I was always interested in understanding how listening works, not just on an audiological level or physiological, acoustic level, but on an aesthetic level. When I studied in the ’90s, there wasn’t much scholarship about sound to be found. So I tried to create spaces through theater studies, literature studies, and media studies. When the early 2000s came, I realized there was a growing trend of people coalescing under the term of “sound studies.” It was now possible to speak about sound in a way that promoted a cultural study. It was an ongoing interest of mine that only became possible because academia moved in that direction.

What does the study of sound entail? What can we learn from it?

The joy in studying sound is that our topics are everywhere. I go out of the door, and there’s a topic. I’m talking to you and, of course, there’s the topic of Zoom sound. You’re sitting in one space, you have one “room space” in your voice, and I have another “room space” in mine. They are not conflictual, but if people are walking nearby, suddenly the outside world intrudes.

For me, the joy is that through sound, we can analyze the world. There is a long history of approaching the world through vision and through documents, but sound is still a young approach. My researchers try to understand the world historically, contemporarily, and also interpersonally—how people interact, and how political, social, or personal change comes about through sound.

Sound is like a door into the vast array of corporeal, sensory experiences. Once you're there, the step into smell, tactility, kinesthetics, or other areas is not so far away. The reason for that is the body. We don’t just listen from the ears, but from the whole body.

How do sounds enact change?

To many people, the idea that sounds can do something is surprising. But if you look back into history and at present times, there are many moments when simply the activity of sound makes change. In the case of the Soviet Union, there were times when sounds suddenly presented a new freedom or a new radical lifestyle. Or, in the case of contemporary climate change protests, people are present through their sound—through the screaming, dancing, and cries. You cannot ignore this.

Action through sound is sometimes related to words and meaning, but more often has a role in itself. Sound does something to us. It can be unsettling, joyful, or freeing. So that is a range we deal with. It’s difficult to explain briefly, because you have to actually listen to it and experience it. But it has this moment of performance. So you do something with sound, and suddenly it happens. Suddenly, it signifies something. People change through that. That is perhaps the most concise way I can explain it.

How has the pandemic shaped the study of sound?

We were all surprised by how many sound projects suddenly popped up. Many people found that their city, or their village, or their countryside sounded different. Commuting died down, and the way people were doing things changed. You had time to go on a walk at 10 a.m. and listen at a time you might otherwise be at your desk.

Of course, there are also the Zoom call logics—all these dynamics of how we enter a conversation, how we negotiate who is going to speak, how the room sound enters the moment of conversation, how we suddenly look into personal spaces. On a phone call, we wouldn’t do that. So there’s an aspect of intimacy, of privacy, that came into the world.

How would you describe the mission of the Sound Studies Lab?

To understand and interpret the world through sound. To support these sound practices and actions. To transform the world through sound. We want to make clear that sounds are not merely passive, aesthetic objects. They are part of our world, and they change things.