Listening in the Field


My first monograph ‘Listening in the Field. Recording and the Science of Birdsong’ is available from April 2018 with MIT Press.

Scientific observation and representation tend to be seen as exclusively visual affairs. But scientists have often drawn on sensory experiences other than the visual. Since the end of the nineteenth century, biologists have used a variety of techniques to register wildlife sounds. In this book, Joeri Bruyninckx describes the evolution of sound recording into a scientific technique for studying the songs and calls of wild birds and asks, what it means to listen to animal voices as a scientist.

The practice of recording birdsong took shape at the intersection of popular entertainment and field ornithology, turning recordings into objects of investigation and popular fascination. Shaped by the technologies and interests of amateur naturalism and music teaching, radio broadcasting and gramophone production, hobby electronics and communication engineering, birdsong recordings traveled back and forth between scientific and popular domains, to appear on gramophone recordings, radio broadcasts, and movie soundtracks.

I follow four technologies—the musical score, the electric microphone, the portable magnetic tape recorder, and the sound spectrograph—through a cultural history of field recording and scientific listening. He chronicles a period when verbal descriptions, musical notations, and onomatopoeic syllables represented birdsong and shaped a community of listeners; later electric recordings struggled with notions of fidelity, realism, objectivity, and authenticity; scientists, early citizen scientists, and the recording industry negotiated recording exchange; and trained listeners complemented the visual authority of spectrographic laboratory analyses. This book reveals a scientific process fraught with conversions, between field and laboratory, sound and image, science and its various audiences.

Praise, endorsements, reviews

“Birdsong is a charming topic. Listening in the Field not only captures it in a carefully researched account of its study in the age of sound recording. It also shows how fields of expertise collaborated in this endeavor and how their mutual exchange shaped ways of listening to and communicating about sound. The broad range of expertise that Joeri Bruyninckx has worked into the book will make it an interesting read for scholars in sound and music studies, and the histories of science and technology. The outcome is a surprising new perspective.”

Julia Kursell, Professor of Musicology and Codirector of the Vossius Center for the History of Humanities and Sciences, University of Amsterdam

“A field guide to birdsong biology, Listening in the Field takes the reader on an unconventional tour of sound recording across the last century, from onomatopoeic writing to massive tape archives to digital spectrograms. In this history, ornithologists join forces with sound hunters of many other stripes—experimental musicians, filmmakers, schoolteachers, communication engineers—and Bruyninckx brilliantly excavates the industrial, popular, and pedagogical ideals that endure in ‘scientific listening.'”

Mara Mills, Associate Professor, Department of Media, Culture, and Communication; Codirector, Center for Disability Studies, New York University

“If there is a single work that demonstrates the rich fruits of working at the intersection of sound studies and history of science, it is this book. Tracing out networks of field scientists, amateur birders, technicians, sound engineers, the listening public, and the sounds themselves, Bruyninckx’s Listening in the Field is both an important and delightful analysis of the epistemic power of sound and listening.”

Alexandra Hui, Associate Professor of History, Mississippi State University; author of The Psychophysical Ear