Review of: Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication, Norwood N.J. 1984 (Ablex)
ISBN 0-89391-263-8 XIX + 244 pp.

by Jos Kunst (1987)

This is an electronic version of an article published in Interface, Vol. 16 (1987) p. 114. Journal of New Music Research, the continuation of Interface, is available online at

Some philosophers of science [*] feel that scientific theories really ought to be described as ordered pairs <K,I>, in which K is the (more or less abstract, "mathematical") theory kernel; and I the set of intended interpretations of the theory, specifying what the theory can be said to "be about". Specification of I may be an entirely natural language, or even largely intuitive affair. Let me invoke this distinction in trying to make precise where exactly lies the (intuitively evident) usefulness of Barry Truax's book on Acoustic Communication. In my opinion, it is (almost) entirely in the I part of its theorizing; the K part, in fact, being largely absent. Nevertheless, the book was initially motivated by the obvious shortcomings of scientific research into what it calls the communicational aspects of acoustics. It does not deny the importance, for its chosen field, of, let us say, physical and biological acoustics, but, as I understand it, it would like to see the study of sound conducted on, say, the mental and social level as well. In that perspective, notions like the general, i.e., not purely linguistic or musical, auditory competence of humans, or, alternatively, their knowledge of the soundscape, are elaborated, chiefly through the use of analogies and examples. Analogies are found, e.g., in the relations of phonetics, conceived as a physical/biological science, to linguistics, conceived as a science of the mental and social. However, the author seems to have inherited from his experiences in a too "laboratory-like" research in perception something like a general dislike for abstract theorizing, which leads him in the case of linguistics to saying that it exhibits the drawbacks found in physical acoustics and phonetics only "to a slightly lesser extent" (p. 28): too many "intellectual concepts, theories, equations, and visual representations of its subject matter" (ibid). I confess to having doubts, myself, whether any acceptable science could ever do without great amounts of these; moreover, I think that intellectual concepts, theories and the like need in no way be alienated from what they should be about. However, in reading through the book, I have felt many times that the author must have some deep-seated suspicions and misgivings about scientific theorizing generally – which, if true, might go some way toward explaining his preference for circumscribing his subject through examples, rather than proposing any theory about it. Theorizing in neighbouring fields (see, e.g., his way of comparing the respective temporal information densities in speech, music and soundscape, p. 44, where, as I understand him, he mixes up phonemes and syllables) is sometimes rapid to the point of sloppiness, but, as it serves no theoretical aims, there is no great harm done. And it has the additional advantage of keeping the reader on his toes and continually trying to supply theoretical sketches of his own.

In sum, the book is a quite stimulating introduction to a relatively unexplored field of research that is of foremost importance to any musicologist who wants to take into account the social and practical realities music is, by its very nature, embeded in and which provide, for that reason, some of the chief sources for its renewal.

* See, e.g., W. Stegmueller, The Structuralist View of Theories, New York; Springer, 1979.