Noisy Texts: How to Embed Soundbytes in Your Writing (A guest post)

Editorial Note: Earlier this year I learned about a Ph.D. student at George Washington University who had come up with an ingenious way to embed sound files in her dissertation chapters using smartphone-scannable barcodes. Jennifer Wood (full bio below) is a specialist in early modern soundscapes and musical-literary relations. I’m very happy to share this guest post with readers of Burnable Books, particularly those who want a slick and unobtrusive way to give readers sound in addition to text in their published writing without the cumbersome bulk of a CD or the distraction of an external website. Previously I featured the musico-digital work of our own Ph.D. student, Joanna Swafford, whose “Songs of the Victorians” site presents an innovative tool for musical analysis.  

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Why has much literary scholarship been so silent?  If texts in the medieval and early modern periods were audio-visual media – listened to as much as viewed – then why don’t we attend to sound more carefully?

The answer comes down, in part, to questions of training and accessibility.  Many literature experts are reluctant to engage with musical examples for fear that they lack sufficient knowledge to discuss them intelligently. Musicologists might feel that lit scholars examine only the lyrics and ignore the music in unsettling and unscholarly ways. The two camps are often content to maintain distance from one another and focus on their respective strengths.

There is also the issue of historical accuracy.  While some critics are right to note that our ears are “tuned” differently in our own cultural moment, I argue that that fact should not discourage us from listening to sounds of earlier periods. Rather, isn’t it more useful to recognize that we all bring different assumptions – and differently tuned ears – to musical examples?  If we acknowledge this starting point, then it becomes more about the amazing things our different ears are able to hear in these sounds, especially as the sounds themselves are reconstructed, often postulated, representations of the past.  (Besides, sound doesn’t operate in a vacuum, historical or otherwise…).

Add to that issue the difficulty of transmission.  I have passed out musical notation to my class only to hear one student say “I don’t read music; I don’t know what to do with this.” I have attended conferences where meticulously notated musical examples were met with legitimate resistance: “I’m a [theater historian/literary scholar/art historian/sociologist/ archaeologist/cultural studies scholar/media studies specialist/etc]. I could look at this all day, and still not be able to read this.” Their valid objections don’t even reflect the difficulty of describing or thinking about sounds that resist musical notation entirely: for example, I discuss the Jew’s Harp in my dissertation. How can one possibly describe the amazingly unusual timbre of that instrument in words?

And yet, despite these and other points of contention, many are interested in thinking, learning, and talking about music and other sound phenomena. Current scholarship has started to tackle these difficult questions through fascinating and interdisciplinary studies.

So, how to productively engage with sounds and music from earlier periods?  My thought is that, while some can’t “make sense” of musical notation, most of us living in the iPod age can be, and are adept at being, listeners. Recent studies, like Ross Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook and Christopher Marsh’s Music and Society in Early Modern England, have accompanying CDs that encourage the reader to become a listener as well. While these are certainly useful tools for engaging with sound (though sometimes unfairly criticized for their clunkiness, as well as failure of reader-interface – i.e., you have to get up and put the CD in the player and hit “play”), I worried about the viability of a CD in the dissertation format, especially as I knew my dissertation would be available online. Online readers would not be able to access an accompanying CD if they were interested in the sounds I discuss in my dissertation (which is every grad student’s dream: that people are interested in her work).

In the past, I had tried embedding mp3, m4a, and .WAV files in my dissertation chapters and sending them via email, but these often made files too large for university emailboxes.  (Oh, the frustration when a long-expected dissertation chapter gets lost in cyberspace due to its electronic musical content!) Not only that, but I had a difficult time ensuring that the files would open and play correctly when run on different computers.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if my reader could scan a QR code with a smartphone and hear my soundbytes?” I pondered while in the state of surreal delirium familiar to those of us completing a large writing project.

Although my hypothesized answer was initially considered the ravings of a madwoman, my Calibanesque cry to hear “noises / Sounds and sweet airs” in a simple digital format was eventually realized, and I am pleased to be able to share this technology with you. While my method certainly does not pretend to solve all the problems of interdisciplinary qualms or user (in)abilities, this way of incorporating sound clips into writing does allow greater accessibility because it reduces the file size of the document (the QR code functions as a small image), the links to sound are always available online, as long as the website containing the sound is operational (more about which below), and sounds are easily accessible via smartphone, which many people have attached to their bodies anyway.  Most importantly for me, this technology allows us, our readership, and our students to hear and engage with sounds in new and productive ways.

One admission for those Luddites among us: I am probably one of the worst offenders, not from an ideological perspective, but from an abilities standpoint.  I think technology is great, but only when it is something that I can figure out. So the fact that I could do this should give heart to those of us who might have trepidations or are, like me, technologically challenged in general.

1) To put songs and sound clips on youtube, you need a YouTube account.  You may create one here.  If you don’t already have one, but have a google account, you can use that. Otherwise, create a google account here.

2) One limit to YouTube is that whatever you want to put onto YouTube needs to be a film clip, not just a sound file. If you already have your sound files on youtube, skip down to step 4 to generate the barcode. You can take most audio files (I used mp3s) and convert them to movies by using the Windows Movie Maker (it’s a free Microsoft download here).  If you have another type of audio file, like an m4a, and wish to convert that to an mp3, you may do so here. Using the Windows Movie Maker, you can also add pictures to your sound files if you want, including musical notation, if you wish (please see also the blog entry on Annie Swafford’s work for her innovative use of visual musical notation in real-time with sound technology). Another consideration: you can also edit or clip musical or sound examples if you want to discuss a specific piece of a larger work or soundbyte. To do this, I used the free Audacity software available here; they also have a helpful tutorial here. After the sound file is edited the way you like and converted to a movie file (*.wmv), it’s ready for YouTube.

3) Login to your youtube account and set up a channel for your project, then click “upload” to upload the files one by one.

4) Each file gets its own link/URL (such as http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o1geANN2AFQ). In order to convert each of these links to a barcode, go to the barcode generating website, accessible here and input the URL.  Choose the “static” option, then click “generate.” The next page will load with a barcode. You then right click on the barcode and select “save image as” and save it to somewhere on your computer.  From there, you can copy it right into your Word or other document that has image capabilities.

Here is a barcode I created for my dissertation:

One of the other benefits to the barcode technology is that it may be scanned through a computer or tablet screen, as well as on the printed page.

Since these QR codes seem to be ubiquitous, many students will have no trouble using their smartphones to quickly scan these codes, which link them directly to the musical or sonic example. In case you need to explain how to use these codes, here are some more brief directions, lifted right out of my dissertation:

“To access these soundbytes, use your smartphone to scan the barcodes (they are readable on the computer screen, as well as on the printed page). This will link you to my youtube channel and will play each sound clip on your mobile device as you scan it. The barcode scanning app is available as a free download, if not already a feature of your smartphone; check programs like Scan, RedLaser, mbarcode,  or you can search for free scanning technology compatible with your device.” Please feel free to copy part or all of these instructions.

Please also enjoy and share this new method of hearing the past (or present).  Happy noisemaking and listening!

Jennifer Wood (jlinhartwood at gmail.com) recently received her Ph.D. in English from the George Washington University, where she specialized in Shakespeare, early modern drama, and travel narratives.  Her essay, “Listening to Black Magic Women: Early Modern Soundscapes of Witch Drama and the New World,” is forthcoming in ‘Gender and Song in Early Modern England,’ edited by Katie Larson and Leslie Dunn.  She is currently teaching at GWU and at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. 

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One comment on “Noisy Texts: How to Embed Soundbytes in Your Writing (A guest post)

  1. Thank you for an excellent article and instructions. After downloading an Adroid app, I found it so easy to open up the link and listen to the chimes.
    Steven Ballou

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