By Vincent Meelberg

It does not happen very often that you read a newspaper article that makes so much sense that it has a profound impact on your academic research. It has happened to me, though, after reading the interview with Hartmut Rosa in the Dutch newspaper NRC. Even though the interview does not discuss sound or music explicitly, which are the areas of my research, the main concept that Rosa introduces – resonance – does.

Rosa argues that modern society is one that operates in what he calls a mode of dynamic stabilization, i.e. a society that systematically requires growth, innovation and acceleration. Such a society can thus only be stable by being in constant motion and acceleration. This kind of dynamics also influences the arts, as contemporary literature, poetry, painting, dancing, theatre and music also seems to primarily value innovation and originality, and in so doing puts the emphasis on constant change. And academia, too, suffers from this. Academic research has to innovate, to produce something new. This is one of the reasons why replication studies, which are crucial to the integrity of academic research, are so unpopular. These studies do not really bring anything new to the table and at most confirm or refute past results.

According to Rosa, these developments have led to a conception of “the good life” as one that is geared towards availability, accessibility, and attainability. At first sight, this may not seem like a bad thing. Take music, for instance. Streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify has made music increasingly attainable and affordable. Virtually every song that was ever recorded is readily available to us listeners. But do we still actually listen? Do we still have the patience to sit down and listen to an entire song, let alone to a complete album, knowing that the next tune is just one click away? 

We simply do not have the time to listen or read anymore, Rosa points out:

As time has become an increasingly scarce commodity, while music and books have become more and more easily attainable and affordable, very often the books and cds or records thus collected are never really or fully read or heard. They are stored away in shelves and cases for possible future use. They are acquired as mere potential, but they are not, or not fully, appropriated in the true sense of “consumption.” (Rosa 2017: 447)

This paradoxical state in which everything is available, but at the same time not fully appropriated, Rosa calls alienation. Alienations is “[…] a particular mode of relating to the world of things, of people and of one’s self in which there is no responsivity, i.e. no meaningful inner connection” (Rosa 2017: 449). Alienation is a state in which it is impossible to make meaningful relations. It diminishes the capacity to feel affected by something, and in turn to develop intrinsic interest in the part of the world that affects us.

The solution to alienation, Rosa suggests, is resonance. Resonance is a dual movement of being touched or affected and responding to this affection in a way that acknowledges the affection. It thus requires an openness and a willingness to affect and be affected. We need to let ourselves be touched, and even transformed, in a non-predictable and non-controllable way. Indeed, this is similar to the manner in which Baruch de Spinoza and Gilles Deleuze conceptualise affect. What Rosa adds to their conception, however, is both a critique of contemporary society and a possible solution to alienation.

The reason why I believe the notion of resonance is so promising for my field of research – sound studies – is first and foremost because sound is resonance. Sounds are a form of resonance and can therefore be understood as a kind of vibrational affect, as Walter Gershon (2013) puts it. Sound literally touches and affects listeners through resonance. So, perhaps sound can teach us how to enter into a state of resonance. After all, as Gershon points out, “[t]he sonic is resonance and knowledge, vibrational affects that effect how individuals and groups are and know” (2013: 258). Sound perhaps is the most explicit manifestation of resonance, and therefore has the potential to incite us to think about what resonance is, or can be.

Yet, sound not only has the potentiality to inform us about resonance, but can also be used in order to stimulate resonance. A good example of this is sound in public spaces. In each and every space that we enter, sounds can be heard. In such spaces we are surrounded by sounds that propagate all around and come from everywhere at once. Sound thus literally places us in the midst of a world and have a huge influence in the manner in which we experience and interpret this space. We interpret this environment and add specific meaning to it, turning the “space” into a “place.” At the same time, we become part of the environment and in doing so contribute to defining its identity. We, as inhabitants of an environment, influence what Jean-Paul Thibaud (2011) calls the ambiance, which is the atmosphere of an environment as experienced by a person. 

Sounds influence the ways in which we get in sync with this environment. Certain sounds may affect us in such a way that we are motivated to open ourselves up to the environment, to let ourselves be touched and affected, and to respond to this affection in a way that acknowledges the affection. In short, to enter into a state of resonance.

Music in public spaces is an example of using specific sounds to influence the ambiance. Music may stimulate certain people to open themselves up to an environment and stay in this environment for a prolonged period of time. But non-musical sounds can have a similar effect, too. Even sounds that we are not consciously aware of may influence our experience of an environment and the manner in which we attune to its ambiance. 

The same holds for the absence of sounds. The recent lockdown, for instance, has resulted in a radical change in urban auditory environments. The city suddenly became quiet and sounds could be heard that previously were inaudible. This has led to a different relationship with urban sounds. People actually missed the sounds that they, in normal times, would label as “noise.” The relationship between these sounds and urban inhabitants changed, and as a result, their relationship with the city as a space changed as well. Sound, and in this case the absence of sound, motivated city inhabitants to enter into a new, meaningful relation with the urban environment. It stimulated resonance. And all they had to do is let themselves be touched and affected by sound, and open their ears.


Gershon, Walter (2013). “Vibrational Affect: Sound Theory and Practice in Qualitative Research.” Cultural Studies – Critical Methodologies 13(4): 257–262.

Rosa, Hartmut (2017). “Dynamic Stabilization, the Triple A. Approach to the Good Life, and the Resonance Conception.” Questions de communication 31: 437–456.

Thibaud, Jean-Paul (2011). “A Sonic Paradigm of Urban Ambiances.” Journal of Sonic Studies 1(1).

Blasted by sounds

by Vincent Meelberg


Music has the potentiality
to move us, sometimes quite literally so. It incites us to dance, triggers emotions,
or helps us remember. Music simply makes us feel something. Listening to music
is not only a mental activity, but a physical one as well. This is not only
noticeable when one listens to very loud
. Soft music can have
a similar impact as well. Yet, there are people who claim that music does
nothing to them. They believe to be insensitive to the moving powers of music. 

As of today, it might be more
difficult to sustain that claim. Salk Institute scientists have found a way to control the brain
cells of a tiny nematode worm through ultrasound.
No devices needed to be attached to the poor creature; it was all done by
simply blasting ultrasonic waves to the worm. Through these sound bursts the
scientist were able to change the worm’s direction. Neural activity thus was
triggered from a distance, by using sounds that penetrate the worm’s body. The
scientists expect that it will eventually also be possible to do this with
larger animals, including humans. 

The intrusive powers of
music and sound isn’t a recent discovery. Steve Goodman, also known as Kode9, for instance, wrote
an excellent book on sonic warfare. And one only needs
to stand in an elevator and listen to the
music played there
to realize how
intrusive, and nerve wrecking, sound and music can be. The fact, however, that
sound can literally change our physical constitution and manipulate and control
our movements does seem to make the claims regarding the influencing powers of
music on consumers, as articulated by companies such as Mood Media,
much more believable, and a bit scary as well…

Image by via under creative commons.

Music as Apps

By Vincent Meelberg


Hardly anyone could have missed the news regarding the new iPhone. In a well-orchestrated keynote presentation, held last month, Apple introduced the most recent iteration of its immensely successful product, again claiming that it is “the best iPhone ever.” Be it as it may, this wonderful device has caused the demise of another, former, hit product created by Apple: the iPod. Along with the introduction of the iPhone 6 the iPod Classic was quietly discontinued.

Of course, the iPod Touch, basically an iPhone without a phone, still exists, but this is a completely different device. An iPod Classic was a device devoted exclusively to music listening. Your entire music collection could be stored on its 160 Gb hard drive. The iPod Touch, on the other hand, does not have that storage capacity. Moreover, it is not meant as a music player, but as an interactive media device.

Perhaps at first sight this might not seem as a big deal, but the fact that Apple, one of the pioneers regarding the digital distribution of music, no longer offers a dedicated music player, may be indicative of a more general trend: a change in the way people appreciate music. In a rather nostalgic article, Wired’s Mat Honan links the disappearance of the iPod Classic to the fact that we are no longer defined by our music, music that we bought, owned, and collected. And I believe he is correct. Even though services such as Spotify and Rdio make most (but definitely not all) recorded music available to their users, creating a playlist in these services is not the same as collecting LPs, CDs, or even iTunes tracks. We no longer need to invest time and money in our music collection, and therefore the value we ascribe to music has changed.

Peter Kirn has a different take on these developments and discusses another recent phenomenon: releasing music as apps. Apps are particularly suited to devices such as the iPhone and iPod Touch, for they use both images and sound and invite interaction. Therefore, releasing music as apps turns music into something more than mere sounds, but at the same time transforms the way we define music. Take Björk’s Biophilia, for instance, one of the first examples of music as app. This app is almost a work of art, with excellent graphics that ask to be touched and manipulated. I have the app myself, but I still haven’t actually listened to the songs themselves. I’ve heard snippets of music while playing with the app, but I cannot really recall any of the songs. So, is music as app the future of music, or will it turn music into something else, a game perhaps?

Image credits: Fe Ilya via Shared under creative commons