Sound Matters – Hearing Loss In Combat

Via the podcast 99 Percent Invisible, through an episode titled “Combat Hearing Loss” (#222), I was able to examine the various elements of sound that Heidi McKee establishes in her article “Sound Matters.” Three important elements that I found to be repeated numerous times throughout the 99 PI episode were sound effects, music, and vocal delivery. Sound effects were perhaps the most common and useful of these elements. The subject matter of the episode, combat hearing loss in the US military, relied on descriptions of numerous types of noises and scenarios where people, both within and outside of military combat, might experience some level of hearing loss. In this way the effects were able to “serve as a cue of reference” for the listener. When host Roman Mars discussed the decibel levels of commonplace noises such as freeway noise (85 decibels) and the sound of a chainsaw (115 decibels), he was able to illustrate the 30 decibel drop-off provided by the protection of quality ear plugs. When he discussed the noises that members of the US military might be forced to endure for several hours at a time, such as the noise of a Blackhawk helicopter, we heard the whirling of chopper blades fly over our heads as the noise transitioned from one ear bud to the other. In this way, the special effects served as a means to “provide information about a scene,” another key component of sound effects that McKee highlights in her article. The second example from McKee’s list that I saw prominently throughout the podcast was the use of music, particularly background music behind the voices of Mars and Mary Roach, whose presence in the episode I will discuss later in more detail. The music in this episode was used regularly to reinforce the tone of the discussion as it progressed with either increasing or decreasing intensity. It is best to analyze most background music, particularly that of a podcast, in the expressive plane. This is due to the fact that it will set a tone for the discussion in most cases. One instance in this episode was during the intro, where a smooth and relaxing baseline set us up for an engaging and intense discussion, fittingly focusing on the military. Another was when a man was being interviewed about his personal experiences with hearing loss following an eight year stint on the ground, his admission of hardened family communication was followed by soft and slow piano notes that reinforced his emotional confession. As Mars and Roach began to discuss solutions for hearing loss and where the hearing-aid industry was headed in the future, the music became more upbeat and optimistic. Finally, the podcast used a great variation of pitch to keep the rhetoric engaging and fresh from start to finish. Discussed during McKee’s key point of vocal delivery, pitch was used effectively in the back and forth presentation given by the male Roman Mars and female Mary Roach, who reported on the story. Although perhaps unintentional, the use of a man and woman with drastically different levels of pitch in their voices kept the 15-minute episode aurally pleasant throughout. It was these three elements (of the four that McKee discussed in her article – the fourth being silence) that I felt were used effectively throughout the podcast, which provided clear-cut examples of how they could be used to their fullest potential.

Link to podcast:



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