A Dictionary For Your Ears

Students create sound-based archive
September 25, 2014

The foothills are alive...with the sounds of creaky wooden porches, husky train whistles, and tobacco plants being scythed. These sounds are stored in the Sonic Dictionary, a digital archive of acoustics hosted by the Audiovisualities lab at Duke’s Franklin Humanities Institute. It’s a kind of “Wikipedia of sound,” according to English doctoral student Mary Caton Lingold, who conceived the project.

While teaching a writing class on music genres last year, Lingold noticed her students were struggling to identify and describe certain instruments. For example, someone might mistake a piano bass line for an upright bass. Students can consult dictionaries to learn the meanings of words, but in terms of sound-based references, Lingold found that academia was virtually mute.

On that note, she asked her students in her “Sounds of the South” class to collect sounds characteristic of the southern United States. Inspired by literature such as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jean Toomer’s Cane, the students captured more than fifty sound bites, from gospel singing and banjo strumming to barbecue sizzling and peanut-shelling. As they recorded, edited, and narrated the sounds, the students learned about audio storytelling and sharpened their practical multimedia skills. Their recordings became the basis for an open-access, searchable digital archive for academic purposes.

While Lingold originally envisioned the sounds could stand alone, she soon realized that words were essential to helping the sounds tell their stories. “In reality, you need language to contextualize the sound,” she says. “The writing that the students ended up doing to contextualize their recordings ended up being far more interesting and relevant to the content than I anticipated.”

Besides “Sounds of the South,” the dictionary houses other audio exhibits, including “Sound as North Carolina Politics,” for which students documented the Moral Monday protests in Raleigh, and “Sound, Music and the Moving Image,” a compilation of movie sound effects. So far, the dictionary contains 217 sounds, and Lingold plans to keep adding. She hopes to open the archive to other colleges and universities besides Duke.

Lingold’s favorite entry? The rain-like shushing of pine trees.

  • Elizabeth '11 is a writer in New York. She previously worked as a senior editorial fellow for The Trace and a staff writer for Duke Magazine.