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Sound Instruments and Sonic Cultures: An Interdisciplinary Conference

This interdisciplinary conference will take place on 15–16 December 2020 at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford.

Keynote speakers: 

  • Mara Mills (NYU Steinhardt)
  • Trevor Pinch (Cornell University)

COVID-19 NOTICE: In view of the unpredictability of the current pandemic situation, while we intend to go ahead with an ‘in person’ conference in December, we have a contingency plan to run the conference online should this become necessary and/or to consider online contributions from participants who are unable to travel in December. Please indicate in your submission whether you would want to participate in either/both formats.

Modernity has witnessed an accelerating proliferation of sound instruments—devices that allow humans to purposefully produce, capture, observe, manipulate, broadcast or otherwise interact with sound. Examples are numerous: sound instruments include all musical instruments, acoustic and electronic, as well as scientific, medical, and military instruments that operate sonically, from the tuning forks and resonators of 19th-century acousticians, to Geiger-Müller counters, Fessenden oscillators (sonar), and ultrasound scanners. Sound recording, playback, and listening devices are sound instruments—record, CD, and MP3 players, tape recorders, loudspeakers, headphones, etc.—as are studio and live sound technologies like mixing desks, compressors, reverb units, computers and software devices such as Autotune, and guitar effects pedals. Radio and television sets are sound instruments, as are terrestrial and mobile telephones, as are hearing aids. The list goes on.

The development of sound instruments has been paralleled by the development of sonic cultures—cultures of listening, cultures of creative production and consumption, cultures of scientific and medical practice, cultures of scholarship and heritage, cultures of designing, building, and testing sound instruments. Sonic cultures (to expand upon the perspective offered by musicologist Mark Katz in his book Capturing Sound) can develop in response to, or through the use and/or creation of, sound instruments. A sonic culture exists wherever a social group orients its activities around a particular set of practices that has to do with sound, listening/hearing (or non-hearing), and/or the use or creation of sound instruments. Examples are too numerous to list comprehensively, but Karin Bijsterveld has highlighted sonic cultures among scientists, engineers, and medical practitioners in her book Sonic Skills, and Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco documented sonic cultures of instrument making and use in their book Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer.

As part of the National Science and Media Museum’s recent incorporation of sound technologies as a key area of collecting and research, the purpose of this interdisciplinary conference is to critically explore relationships between sound instruments and sonic cultures. Concurrently, a conference to present the results of the museum’s AHRC-funded ‘Sonic Futures’ collaboration with the University of Nottingham will be happening and participants are welcome to also attend sessions at that event.

Further information and timeline

Conference fee: TBC; we aim to keep the fee to the minimum required to cover costs and hope to be able to waive the fee entirely for PhD students/unwaged.

For enquiries about the conference please contact

For enquiries about sound technologies in the collection at the museum, and forthcoming exhibitions, please contact Dr Annie Jamieson, Curator of Sound Technologies at the National Science and Media Museum:

Indicative timeline

  • Call for participation: May 2020
  • Deadline for submissions: 28 June 2020
  • Notification of acceptance; registration open: 24 July 2020
  • Deadline for registration: 8 November 2020
  • Conference: 15–16 December 2020

Organising committee: Dr Tim Boon (Head of Research, Science Museum), Dr David Clayton (History, University of York), Marta Donati (University of Sheffield), Rachel Garratt (History of Technology, University of Leeds), Prof Graeme Gooday (History of Technology, University of Leeds), Dr Annie Jamieson (National Science and Media Museum), Jean-Baptiste Masson (University of York), Dr James Mooney (Music, University of Leeds), Prof Emilie Morin (English, University of York), Prof Trevor Pinch (Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University), Dr Beryl Pong (English, University of Sheffield), Edward Wilson-Stephens (Music, University of Leeds).

In addition to the below sponsors, we are grateful for financial support from the Cheney Fellowship scheme at the University of Leeds.