The best books on sound and why you should care about it

Alejandra Bronfman Author Of Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean
By Alejandra Bronfman

Who am I?

I have been doing research in the Caribbean for twenty-five years. The region is diverse and magnificent. Caribbean people have sought creative solutions for racial inequality, climate and sustainability, media literacy and information, women’s and family issues. The transnational connections with the US are complex and wide-ranging, and knowing more about this region is an urgent matter. I work to understand how sound and media work because they structure our reality in important ways. Listening as a way of approaching relationships in work and play is key to our survival. So is understanding how media works, where we get our information from, and how to tell what’s relevant, significant, and true, and what is not. 


I wrote...

Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean

By Alejandra Bronfman,

Book cover of Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean

What is my book about?

The Caribbean has always been a site of explorations of modernity and technology, and this book makes that case through a history of broadcasting and media. With a peripatetic approach, the book scans the emergence of broadcasting as the central medium in the region with attention to Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica. While in Haiti the US military occupation brought radio as a disciplining and governing tool, in Cuba it was US commercial interests that supported the radio boom. In Jamaica, by contrast, local radio was limited by the colonial government until an explosive anti-colonial rebellion changed everything. The book tracks radio’s significance in politics, racial dynamics, and cultures of belonging. 

The books I picked & why

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The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics

By Charles Hirschkind,

Book cover of The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics

Why this book?

Cassette tapes of Muslim sermons played by taxi drivers in Cairo set the stage for this profound investigation of the intersection of sound, spiritualism, and technology. The tapes, Hirschkind argues, are not mechanisms for social control as much as jumping-off points for Muslims to find their way towards ethical self-improvement. 


The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction

By Jonathan Sterne,

Book cover of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction

Why this book?

Sterne explores the cultural history of how and why Americans developed technologies that reproduced and transmitted sound. It is a surprising story that takes us through the Civil War and ideas about death, deaf children and their teachers, the discipline of medicine, and the practice of folklore. It turns out that cultural shifts encouraged the preservation of sound, and those machines we developed in turn changed the ways we listen.


Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia

By Ana María Ochoa Gautier,

Book cover of Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia

Why this book?

This book understands ideas about citizenship as entangled with language, sound, and voice. It traces the ways that exclusion and a politics of second-class citizenship arose in Colombia, as a result of specific ideas about how people should speak and sound. It is at once an intellectual history and historical anthropology of the ways the aural has been foundational to ideas of citizenship and belonging. 


Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music

By Kyle Devine,

Book cover of Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music

Why this book?

Just as important as thinking about how music sounds and what it means is thinking about where technology comes from and crucially, where it goes after we’re done with it. This book lets no one off the hook and insists that anyone who cares about music should be cognizant of its economies of waste and decomposition. 


The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening

By Jennifer Lynn Stoever,

Book cover of The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening

Why this book?

The author points to the ways American media designated sound as “black” or “white” even as “colorblindness” became the dominant paradigm for liberal attitudes towards race. While Americans claimed that they didn’t “see race”, they were exposed to an increasingly segregated soundscape and media environment. Stoever opens up new ways for us to listen to familiar voices, such as those of WEB du Bois, Lena Horne, Lead Belly, Richard Wright, and many more.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in sound, communication, and race?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about sound, communication, and race.

Sound Explore 16 books about sound
Communication Explore 25 books about communication
Race Explore 12 books about race

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Perfect Sound Whatever, Herman Klein and the Gramophone, and Ten Ways to Hear Snow if you like this list.