The College of New Jersey emeritus professor Gary C. Woodward recently turned his life-long fascination for communications work into a book that takes a sound look at hearing in a visual age.

Holding the opinion that sound is the primal sense, Woodward also argues that the proliferation of audio technology over the past century has made sound the “newest” sense.

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His book is broken into three sections. “Human Equipment” focuses on the “motivation to listen” and cultural uses of sound. “Natural, Organized, and Disorganized Sound” looks at the use of sound recording, especially in the film industry.

And “The Modern Assault on Hearing” shows how the seemingly invisible, and generally seen as benign, phenomenon of sound can be turned into a destructive weapon. That includes the unfolding story of sound evidently being employed by foreign governments to sicken overseas American ambassadors. How sonic cannons are being used to disperse crowds, including the incapacitation of participants of a Black Lives Matter protest in New York City.

The weaponization of music also disorients targets, such as when the United States government used music to barrage the building protecting Panama military leader Manuel Noriega after he was charged with drug crimes. The playlist, played off and on at intense volume, included mainly heavy rock music, but other genres were thrown in the mix to send a message, like K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s song “Give it Up.”

Reporting that sound is a sense we can’t turn off, Woodward looks to tune our ear and thinking to what is going on around us and “come to our senses.”

The following excerpt gives a peep into how easily sound is being used to whisper into our ears, minds, and wallets:

Walk around a Disney park or nearly any shopping district and you will find that someone has designed a “sonic atmosphere” to put you in the mood to have fun, to buy, or both. The presence of music and/or any augmentation of ambient sound is meant to create a sense of familiarity or anticipation.

In the case of Disney, no organization is more conscious of using sound to augment but not challenge the expectations of visitors. Indeed, you can hear the “loops” or repeated cycles of familiar songs selected by Disney “imagineers” that constantly recycle in specific locations within the parks.

Guests enamored with what they are hearing can take these atmospheric soundtracks home on CDs that are available for purchase. For example, visitors to the “Pixar Pier” will hear Pixar Studio’s hits in full orchestra arrangements, more or less the equivalent of the usually innovative films that the setting is intended to evoke.

To get a sense of how much these audio loops mean to the thousands who adore all things Disney, the occasion of a “refreshed” Main Street loop available for purchase was introduced in a company news release with the fanfare that usually comes with a new music album from a popular artist.

A similar constructed audio environment is noticeable at many stores. Before they announced their intention to close, visitors to an Abercrombie and Fitch store in a shopping mall would immediately experience the lighting and “club music” of a late-night magnet attracting young revelers. As with most consumer marketing, the target audience is encouraged to buy products “positioned” to evoke an aspirational lifestyle. A particular buyer may not be a regular at a late-night spot, but they can own the clothing on offer in the presence of its music.

Themed restaurants work the same way. Hard Rock Café and Rainforest Café have carefully selected music loops and — in the case of Rainforest — elaborate animal and musical effects placed around the jungle-themed interior. In general, the idea of a careful “sound design” grew from simpler radio “sound effects” into something that has become ubiquitous in retailing and elsewhere. Game designers now compete for talent and composers to give their products the cache of a movie a player partly controls. And with wide availability of sound effects libraries, any ambitious commercial outlet may want their own evocative loops of prerecorded material. One company, Mood Media (“We put people in the mood to buy”), offers help in the form of music for a range of commercial firms including breweries, stores, banks, healthcare facilities, hotels, and spas.

As with Rainforest Café, the sounds are contrived and theatrical. In other businesses, auditory content can be selected to promote a sense of normality, especially in regions guests might think of as more volatile. A useful illustration of this kind of calculated auditory reassurance was demonstrated by researcher Anna Lerchbaumer and her colleagues. They examined three resorts in Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey as “standalone” microcosms in what they considered were politically unstable countries. They found that the hotels used non-descriptive and recognizable music to build a neutral “touristic bubble.” “The three hotels investigated all followed a globalized scheme of a non-place, where tourists feel at home everywhere and the sites are interchangeable.”

For a traveler from the West who may have felt jostled by the crowds or bustle beyond the hotel’s front door, the relative normalcy of a hotel playing instrument “covers” of Western standards might be its own familiar sonic island, even though musical choices are not so easily calibrated to please all. Hotels work to be aural islands. Choices of selections may be made to offend as few customers as possible: part of what Lerchbaumer seemed to find.

It is a more difficult step to identify the particular forms of music a person might choose to hear. For example, some political reporters puzzled over the frequent use of the Village People’s “YMCA” and “Macho Man” at Donald Trump’s 2020 rallies. These “gay” anthems seemed unintentionally funny to beam to audiences attracted to Trump’s brand of traditionalism. Similarly, a local grocery store in my town that vigorously supports LBGTQ causes routinely plays country music on its in-store system. My sense is that it is also out of sync with the preferences of its patrons and a reminder that background music is difficult to match to any mixed group of Americans.

The Sonic Imperative: Sound in the Age of Screens by Gary C. Woodward, 320 pages, $16,

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