March Discussion Recap: Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound, by Don Ihde

listening and voice

In our third meeting, we discussed Don Ihde’s difficult but classic Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound. Below are some highlights from the conversation and Ihde’s ideas:

Ihde reminds his readers that to listen phenomenologically is to hear sounds as they are — to hear their essence — and not to perceive them as attached to some objects, i.e. the sounds of the jackhammer. Sounds are not “sounds of things,” Ihde writes (61). By studying the phenomena of sound, Ihde breaks from the “traditions of dominant visualism,” where sounds serve as “anticipatory clues for ultimate visual fulfillments” (54). He also points out that the limit of sight is not darkness but invisibility, and that even a strong invisible wind has a distinct and tangible spatial presence that we perceive by the sound it creates even if we cannot see it directly.

In response to this dominant visualism, one of Ihde’s biggest interventions is his interest in reclaiming sound as spatial. Ihde writes that the auditory is often associated with temporality; it seems to arise and disappear, not occupying a spatial presence. However, Ihde contends that all sounds, even muteness, have their own auditory space. Matt elucidated Ihde’s claim by noting that muteness is always visually noticeable on a spectrograph.  The absence of sound, then, also occupies space and has a demonstrable spatial presence.

Step by step Ihde illuminates how in listening we hear shapes and surfaces. We can hear if an object rolling in a box is round or some other shape. Simultaneously we hear the surface of the box, just as we can hear the surface of a sidewalk as luggage rolls along it. This association of the sonic with the spatial departs from or, perhaps more accurately, expands on the typical sonic-temporal pairing.

In a sonic-spatial construction, Ihde points out that at times we can hear farther than we can see: we can hear around the corner of a room, even if we cannot see it. Ihde refers to the limits of sound as its horizon, and we cannot identify the horizon without exceeding it. Ihde writes of the horizon of the visual as well. He finds two points of reference in the visual, a center and a horizon. The visual is forward-directed and can shift from focus to fringe. Contrarily, the structure of sound, Ihde says, is unidirectional (77).  The structure of the auditory field is surroundable and directionally based. We can hear where sounds come from or even where they are going, such as with the Doppler effect. We also talked about how the auditory field is mobile and flexible. It moves as the auditor does, and its horizon may be punctured, disrupted, and/or enlarged by a loud noise or contracted by a soft one.

Andrew illuminated some of Ihde’s diagrams and, more broadly, the phenomenological tradition in which Ihde writes. First, Andrew drew our attention to page 92, where Ihde demonstrates the two modalities of listening: the attack and the decay of sound. Andrew distinguished these as the moment of instantiation and the moments of reverberations, which are mapped in the diagram below.  Ihde’s diagram reveals how the present moment at P will inevitably become past event E.  If we shift to right most boundary, we will pay more attention to sonority that has already occurred, to its decay. If we anticipate the next notes to come, we’d be directing our attention towards the future, O and anticipating the upcoming attacks of sound. In both cases it is difficult to focus directly on the exact event P because even in the time it takes us to mentally register that we have heard P, it has become a thing of the past and heads toward E.


Second, Andrew explained that the first phase of phenomenology sought to observe noetic experiences, i.e., how one perceives things, in contrast to noematic experiences, i.e., how the world presents itself to the observer. The second phase of phenomenology tries to determine the underlying structures that determine noetic experiences. Ihde’s work belongs to this tradition, as it aims to move past observation to describe the shape of experience.  Another way of putting this is that Ihde’s work asks, what are the structures of experience?

Dan raised a methodological question about phenomenology: who gets to do the interpreting and describing?  Phenomenology is democratic as it is interested in capturing people’s experiences, but this sometimes raises methodological and even ethical issues. First, does one need a position of academic prominence to describe his/her experiences in an academic context? In other words, will people care about my experience of phenomena? Second, can and should we assume the experiences of o/Others, particularly when we must navigate across historical or geographical boundaries to do so?

Ihde assures the reader at the outset that he writes from his experience and is not necessarily speaking for others, and yet the book itself means that Ihde’s perceptions and ideas will be far more represented than the lay listener’s. He also says, however, that by starting at the perceptual level, he can find unvarying structures that shape human experience, regardless of culture, race, gender, and class. In the diagram below, Ihde differentiates between this perceptual level and the imaginative, interrogating our structures of experience as we modulate between external perception and internal imagination. Ihde notes that at rare moments of hallucination, the two almost touch — the thing we’re perceiving inwardly almost becomes outward. In these extreme moments, the spatiality of sound collapses the internal and external.


**This post was co-authored by Kevin Stevens and Sharon Harris.



  1. Having just come back to Husserl, I’m afraid I have to make a correction to the time-consciousness (triangle) diagram above, which I explained poorly when we read Ihde. The thinking was generally correct, I believe, but my reading of the diagram was inverted.

    In this diagram, time runs horizontally from left to right, in the direction of the arrow. O and P stand for two sequentially distinct past events in the flow of time-consciousness; E stands for the present moment; the future extends further to the right, unlabeled. The vertical line descending from E to P’ and E’ indicates that our present moment of consciousness still contains within it retensions of P and O. More properly, E’ should be labeled O’ — or, perhaps, O”, since O’ might better label the point vertically below P. That is to say, at moment P, I have a retension of O still with me, informing the phenomenal experience of P. At moment E, I have a retension of P with me, P as informed by O, informing my phenomenal experience of E.

    By focusing on the sequence O-P-E, I grasp in my consciousness the temporal span as an object, up until this point. By focusing on the sequence E-P’-E’ (or, E-P’-O”), I grasp in my consciousness the temporal now, informed by retensions of past experiences O and P and protension of an anticipated next moment F (unlabeled in the diagram, but located above the horizontal timeline, if you were to extend E’-P-E upwards).

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