Utopian stories and neurodiversity

I adored the writers panel at the Goldsmiths audio drama festival. Writers always have such interesting thoughts!

One strong motif in their discussions was about dystopias. In the past decade, fiction has been dominated by them, for good reason. We are holding up a mirror to the news, and we need to. One writer, Sarah Woods, also said she feels that artists are now helping everyone to ‘rehearse for the end of capitalism as we know it’.

But they also talked about the duty of society’s storytellers to provide new possibilities for humanity, perhaps even map the path to these destinations. They all agreed that they should be trying to conceive of utopias also, and not just reinforce and entrench the pessimism.

Now obviously, utopias have narrative challenges because of the lack of tension and resolution. As a musician I get that. All the writers agreed that utopias were kind of boring.

But I would be really interested if audio drama, a medium where literally any concept is possible, could be brave enough to try out some novel _routes_ to new ideas of utopia.

One that immediately came to me, as someone with a lot of neurodiversity in her life – in particular some wonderful autistics, who are very dear to me – was how the emerging autism pride movement could influence the rest of the world to be better.

Imagine if we were led by people who care more about the things that interest them than in what other people think of them? Whose sensory experience of the world makes them feel it differently and so they notice things about our universe that many would miss? Who know deeply how it feels to be unseen, misunderstood or underestimated? What kind of decisions would they make, and would the people who follow them learn to seek different kinds of outcome?

If anyone has a go at writing this, I hope they will let me score it

Giving voice

I have had some voice training and read a little around voice science.  I have accompanied both my children through speech and language therapy.  I also spend a day a week working one to one with schoolboys.

Although I am not a speech/voice therapist or a psychologist, I have observed much over the years about what people’s voices might be telling you about their state of mind if one is paying attention!

Observations of the voice in young people at school

Schoolboys in particular, I find, can feel restricted from articulating any vulnerable or unconventional thoughts verbally, perhaps because of peer pressure or a culture that would have boys and men be rational, straightforward beings at all times.  These are the times that I start to notice the little ‘tells’.

Sometimes young people reach a point at which being inspired by a positive, achievement culture becomes being oppressed by a burdensome culture of expectation – feeling they must ‘justify their existence’.  It is not an easy thing to express, that all the advantages you are being given by your parents or by the education system actually feel like reasons that it is unthinkable to fail.

Here are some examples I sometimes notice:

  • Constant clearing of the throat.  When I ask why they feel the need to do it, they often say it feels like there is a lump there.  This is called a ‘globus sensation’ and can be caused by various physiological conditions, like acid reflux, or post-nasal drip… or (according to a speech therapist) it can be a sign that there is tension in the larynx.  It is fascinating to observe how when conversation turns to an uncomfortable subject, the clearing of the throat can occur several times per sentence!
  • Speaking with a voice higher than is natural.  To me, artificially raising the voice (which can literally involve the larynx creeping up in the throat) feels like something wanting to not be in the body, or not wanting to ‘touch’ the places where emotion will seem to sit, the places that also house the vocal apparatus (for very sound evolutionary reasons, I’m guessing!).  In pubescent boys, it can also seem like not being sure whether they are a boy or a young man.
  • Speaking with a voice lower than is natural.  This always feels like an unwillingness to engage, or low arousal, or perhaps trying an adult identity on for size.
What I have noticed about how I use my own voice

Meanwhile, I have become increasingly aware of my own voice in speech.   I rarely use all of it in speech.  I’m not sure I could.  I don’t allow my voice to ‘bed down’ in my body as I speak, nor do I hold my posture in such a way that this would feel natural.

As a self-conscious person, I over-think how my voice should sound (my register, timbre and even accent changes, sometimes from hour to hour).  In particular, I over-complicate the beginning of speech, the moment of transitioning from passive silence to verbal presence: learning about onset in voice training has really helped me to understand that my personality inhibits this function, which really can be as simple as “start making a noise”!

Related to all this is how I carry myself; when I consciously focus on standing with a more confident posture and allowing my voice to settle lower in my body and resonate fully, I find it changes my interactions with people significantly.

Observing my own children

Having children who have been non-verbal beyond the first 2 years of life, and who continue to find verbalising to be a less intuitive process than do their peers, has also taught me about verbal and non-verbal vocal communication in all its subtleties.

One example is a time when I said to my elder son (when he was aged 3 or 4 years) that we didn’t have any snacks left because he had eaten the last one.  This wasn’t entirely fair.  He had taken it, but I had provided fewer than usual and one had been dropped.  He made a tiny, inarticulate grunt at a higher pitch than usual – it was almost a fragment of a whimper – with a barely perceptible fall in intonation along the very short trajectory of its utterance.  Simultaneously he withdrew eye contact.

I realised that articulating the thought “that’s not fair mum, you’re not telling the whole story there” felt like an insurmountable challenge to him neurologically and probably emotionally too.  The sound he made didn’t even seem to be for any audience, it was almost to himself as he withdrew from the connection between us and back into himself.  It was so subtle, I don’t think anyone but his mother may have noticed it, but it was there.  I said what he could have said for him: “Sorry, you’re right, it is not your fault that there are none left.  I didn’t bring enough and we dropped one.”  The eye contact returned and he touched my hand.  (I would have to add that on this occasion I did get it right, but this level of sensitivity does not always happen!)

Why am I writing about these social observations of mine?

Clearly, these observations, when applied to film, are primarily of use to the director and the actors.  But what could a creative composer, sound designer or sound editor do with this knowledge to influence the empathy of the audience?

Here are some initial thoughts:

  • The continual throat clearing: have that sound as though from inside the head of the speaker, while the actual lines spoken are naturalistic, to emphasise the association between the need to clear the throat and social or emotional discomfort.
  • Have the score or even, perhaps, the ambient sound move up or down, mirroring in sympathy with rising or falling speech intonation (not just speech patterns, but when a speaker has a definite trajectory of pitch over a period of time in speech).
  • A small, eloquent non-verbal utterance like my son’s could be emphasised by suppressed diegetic sound or even absolute silence.
  • I think a skilled composer could gently reflect the social nervousness in choosing to speak and hearing one’s voice emerge, or the tension in the voice itself, or the reticence in the body language heard also in the voice.  Perhaps they could do it using accelerating harmonic rhythm tumbling to the point of utterance, or increasing in textures speaking of discomfort (eg, rattling percussive sounds), or a slow crescendo over a long-held tone.
  • A sound designer might also raise the ambient level as the character is choosing to speak.  This may feel like a transition of point of audition to the character, as though the sound, representing the competing voices or unhearing (or perceived to be, or anticipated as being unhearing) people in the scene and more generally in the world, is like a high wall to climb.

Since reading the Stilwell article on Closet Land (Stilwell 2005) I have become vividly aware of the notion that sound is closer to the subconscious than sight.  Sound is a womb-like envelope in which we exist, a visceral thing, something we cannot choose not to be in nor can we choose not to process that information neurologically and draw conclusions, and it is physically felt (felt physically in the body as vibrations as well as physically heard by the ears).

It is with our voices that we enter this realm and that our presence is known in this visceral way.  How our voices interact with this realm has a profound impact on others and on ourselves.  Perhaps composers and sound designers should pay more conscious attention to voice in film, and work more deliberately to reflect the psychological resonating chamber that voice can emerge from.

Some more information on the relationship between voice and psychological well-being in a very interesting article by the British Voice Association…

STILWELL R.J. (2005) Sound and Empathy: Subjectivity, Gender and the Cinematic Soundscape, in: Screen Methods Comparative Readings in Film Studies Furby, J. and Randell, K. (Eds.) Wallflower Press: London. pp. 48–58.

Reading #3 – neurological differences in sound processing

Auditory Processing in High-Functioning Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder (DePape et all: 2012)

This was a ‘write-up’ of six separate tests conducted on groups of teenagers, some on the autistic spectrum, some with typical neurology.

They looked at the following:

  • The ability to filter out sounds in noisy environments – ASD (autistic spectrum disorder) people needed a higher speech to noise ratio when picking speech out when there is a second speaker than did the neurotypical (NT) group.
  • Whether people with ASD at the age of 1 year could discriminate between speech sounds in their native language when compared to foreign sounds as could the NT peers.  Typically, by one year, a child has already pruned synapses to allow them to discriminate the language spoken by primary carers but the researchers found this to be a less developed process in children with ASD.
  • Whether ASD individuals were less fazed by being shown faces making sounds other than those they were synced up with as they listened than were the NT group.  They were.
  • Whether ASD people are more likely to have absolute pitch (they are).  This is a rare and useful musical ability but also shows that sound processing is more absolute and less contextual for ASD individuals, which has implications for communication in a speech-dominated world.
  • Whether ASD individuals were slower to develop the discrimination of Western music-specific meters (regular, simple-time patterns) in infancy.  Essentially, they found that ASD people retained the ability to hear rhythm in a more absolute way that is less governed by the kind of music they hear where they live, beyond the age where NT peers have pruned their synapses to pick up on native rhythms and meters.
  • They did the same with harmony as they did with the Western rhythms they looked at in test 5 – did ASD individuals retain the ability to hear harmony without a bias to the music that their culture saturated them with for longer?  In this one, there was no big difference between the ASD subjects reactions and the control groups.

This research was clearly geared towards the hypothesis that the neural ‘roads’ that sound travels along and the way sound is organised and interpreted by the brain are different in autistic people and that this affects spoken communication.  However, I found it interesting to note that while the tests seemed to show that it was harder for autistic people to train their brains to hone in on the ‘right’ sounds to be sociable, it could be looked at from the other direction too: what listening benefits does this neural difference bring?

We have discussed in our electroacoustic music sessions Pierre Schaeffer’s notion of reduced listening, in which an audient attempts to detach a sound from its context, meaning, origin or connotations and hear only its sonic properties.  (Schaeffer, 1967) Could I, for example, manage to hear a dentist’s drill, gun shot or moan of pleasure without responding to my knowledge of what makes that sound, and only hear what is in the noise?  I am interested in the concepts of referential versus abstract sound, how much each has respectively on our experience as listeners, and how much we would find them to overlap.

(As an aside, it was also mentioned in lectures that Pythagoras liked to teach from behind a screen.  His theory was that his audience would concentrate better on his words if they were not distracted by his face and body language.  My autistic 8-year-old gets terribly distracted by people’s faces when they speak to him and will often look away in order to hear, whereas I would say that it is more typical for people to find that information is added by the non-verbal parts of communication.  To ‘listen’ to someone’s animated face or body language along with the words can make information easier to absorb and more memorable for me.  I wonder if Pythagoras himself was on the autistic spectrum?)

This research seems to suggest that autistic people ought to be able to practise reduced listening more readily and effectively than neurotypicals, as the neural road along which an autistic’s sound processing travels lends itself better to pure experience of sound than it does to picking out the social (or maybe the referential) meaning within the sound.

DEPAPE, A.-M.R., HALL, G.B.C., TILLMANN, B., TRAINOR, L.J. (2012) Auditory Processing in High-Functioning Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder. PLOS ONE 7, e44084. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044084
SCHAEFFER, P. (1967) Traité des objets musicaux. Paris: Seuil

Leitmotif of Noise?

Welcome to my research and enquiry blog!

I have decided to start by looking afresh at my recent work in the light of our studies at University of Hertfordshire.

We have been given an overview of the varied and interdependent functions of soundtrack in the context of a film in the past fortnight.

A few ideas leaped out as being techniques I have used in some way before, and that might be worth developing.

I’m going to take them one by one and give them a post each.

So, the first one that I started thinking about was…

‘Leitmotif of Noise’

We looked in our first week at the creatively fruitful phenomenon in film that happens when diegetic sound fulfills the traditional role of non-diegetic music.  We were shown a little of Forbidden Planet, with its ground-breaking electronic soundtrack by Louis and Bebe Barron.  We noted that the soundtrack seems to occur in the narrative space and also to comment on the characters’ states of mind simultaneously.

As we examined this, I thought about traditional film scoring’s heavy use of leitmotif to cue audiences into the big themes of the story and the characterisation.  However, contemporary scoring seems to be rejecting this, focusing on acting as the general subconscious of the story.  I wondered if, as a kind of substitute signpost, diegetic sounds crossing into the non-diegetic realm could essentially act as a ‘leitmotif of noise’.  So, associating a certain recurring sonic event with a theme or character.

This would, I thought, need a conscious and deliberate focussing of the use of sound.


I tried to think of examples of where this has happened.

I decided as a starting point, I would have a look at Brief Encounter.  Because the film-makers had chosen to use Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, there was no purpose-built film score to manipulate melody for its own purposes, even though the Rachmaninoff is used effectively to reflect the general mood and emotional arc of the story.  I felt this alone might make it easier to pick out the role of the non-musical, designed soundtrack.

Could this ‘leitmotif gap’ have been filled by the equally iconic train sounds that we all associate as closely with the film as the use of the piano concerto?

(I would have to add, I’m sure this has been examined before, so I will also go on a quest for relevant writing on the subject.  All suggestions gratefully received!  However, it was an interesting exercise for me to do.)

I watched the film again and documented each time we hear the high-pitched, frantic whistle of the express train.  Every time we hear it, seems to represent a moment of psychological danger and/or disarray in Laura’s mind.

Here are the key moments where I spotted it (times are approximate):

  • Just as the music of the opening credits climaxes (at about 1’45); the music is lost in the sound and this moment segues into the opening dialogue.  It seems to serve as an introduction to this particular sound and the music tells us subconsciously, perhaps, to associate it with high feeling.
  • 6’05 – we are told the ‘express’ is going through and the alarming noise obliterates the inconsequential dialogue about chocolate purchasing among secondary characters.  This is the first time we walk through this moment – the second time, at 1’23’30, we know Laura comes close to committing suicide by throwing herself under the train here.
  • 12’11 – Fred makes a joke about the children and Laura starts to cry.  Interestingly, this time we hear it outside of the place within the story where the sound originates – the station.  Although it is possible we are meant to assume that it could be overheard from the nearby railway, this use seems really deliberately non-diegetic to me.  Laura senses the danger of losing control of herself and inadvertently doing irreparable damage to her marriage and home.  This use of it at this early stage in the narrative cements it in my head as being something we are to associate with ‘danger’ – especially in Laura’s mind.
  • 17’53 – we see Alec in the background and it is the first time within the storyline we see him (because I’m not counting the first account of the final scene that we see at the beginning).  Alec looks up and notices Laura just as the whistle sounds faintly.  It is easy to miss but looks very carefully placed when you are paying attention!
  • 18’12 – Laura gets the grit in her eye, thus providing the vehicle for their meeting – fate providing the next step towards infidelity.
  • 59’48 – we hear it quietly as (it turns out, moments later) Alec is making the decision to return to Stephen’s flat with the expectation that she will follow.
  • 1’00’07 – Alec announces his intention baldly – Laura refuses to follow, but we know her tortured ambivalence.  This time, the whistle is long, loud and alarming; the danger of infidelity is now so great.
  • 1’03’39 – after apparently escaping temptation, she changes her mind at the last minute and gets off the train again to go back to the flat.
  • 1’23’30 – we hear the ‘suicide’ whistle for the second time and this time we are fully aware of its meaning.  It is the climax and I believe the longest and loudest instance of the whistle.  The camerawork backs it up this time around.  We do not hear any more train noises after this last, final, greatest danger to her and her family.

So – in conclusion! – I do feel I can justifiably describe this as leitmotif of noise.

As to where this takes my work?

I’m really interested in how different people experience the world differently and how this can be portrayed through visual media with the help of sound.

The ‘dream’ is to use visual + aural media to counteract the polarisation of views and tribalism I’m seeing more and more on social media and to help people identify more strongly with people who seem different to them.

Autism is an obvious way into this, as there are sometimes dramatic differences in an autistic’s perceptions to that of a neurotypical brain, partly due to sensory processing differences.  Autism is also close to me as there are several important people in my personal life who are on the autistic spectrum.  However, I should like to refine these ideas to look at more subtle differences too, in due course.

Earlier this year, as an exercise for myself in storytelling with music and sound, I wrote a soundtrack to accompany a series of stills.  The pictures were rudely snatched from a manga book about raising an autistic child, called ‘With the Light,’ by Keiko Tobe and I combined very traditional orchestral writing for the neurotypical protagonist with sound design for the autistic child protagonist’s point of view.

I was attempting to use music to retell the story along with my own response to it, so the music is in the foreground, and the sound has both diegetic and non-diegetic functions.

Here it is:

For this project, I had some really informative and interesting conversations with adults on the autistic spectrum about what sensory overload feels like, in order to represent little Hikaru’s meltdown – but I’ll discuss that more next time.)

For now, here are the things I did in this soundtrack that could at least partially be described as leitmotif of noise, if further developed in a longer piece.

Hikaru’s Stones

The sound of little Hikaru playing with the sound of stones on a drain in the final segment of the piece is significant.

The book is mostly told from Sachiko’s point of view, but there are odd moments in the illustrations where we observe Hikaru observing.  Many autistic people will tell you that as children – and in some cases into adulthood – they are well used to perceiving a lot more than people around them understand that they do.

I didn’t want Hikaru’s own loneliness and his observations of his mother’s unhappiness to go without note; I didn’t want him just to be a vehicle for Sachiko’s story.

The stones interrupt the music that represents Sachiko’s crisis periodically to help us remember that Hikaru is there – and listening, and, through the corner of his eye, watching.

The stones are the sound of a mother and child impeded in communication with one another, and they persist into the fade-out as the relationship continues not quite to function.

The stones work in conjunction with Hikaru’s own actual leitmotif, which is a diminished fifth resolving inwardly to a major third repeatedly.

(This is something I stole from a real-life little boy with autism, who had discovered and play this figure over and over again at a piano.  It had interested me greatly at the time, having studied diatonic function, as it appeared from this that the dominant-tonic relationship might be something intrinsically meaningful to this child’s ear at least.)

The musical motif is used throughout the piece including as an intrusion in the more sound-based middle section – and represents Hikaru himself.

The knock of the mother-in-law

Perhaps rather ‘cheesily’ I appropriated the unfeeling mother-in-law’s imperious knock on the car window and turned the rhythm of the knock into a rhythmic motif of sorts, signifying the character.  So what began as diegetic sound indicated an unwelcome intrusion, a harsh judgment, incomprehension of the difficult journey, then continued to indicate that meaning throughout.


Future uses?

What is relevant about this?  Why does it matter that I’ve happened upon this device?

Well, if I do go with my initial plan and research and help portray in sound what affects cognitive and sensory world view, as a long-term device this would seem quite useful.

So often formative experiences determine how we respond in later life.  I wonder if this device might be useful to signify this?  A character behaving unreasonably could retain the sympathy of the audience if a sound associated with a formative experience recurs to remind them of the context for that behaviour.

In the example above, the books do continue to chart the progress of Sachiko and her family and (as is usually the case) life gets easier as the parents learn how to support the child’s development, and as the child gets older.

However, there are many difficult times along the way.  What if the sound of the stones returned whenever Sachiko feels as though she and Hikaru are failing to relate to one another, when he feels lonely or misunderstood, or when they are both feeling bruised by an episode of sensory distress?

What if they returned when it seems her behaviour is overly defensive or touchy and she as a character becomes harder to like, helping the audience to recall the sadness of the early days and how it changed her?

I will look for examples of film or animation where this is used and will think about how I might like to use it in due course.


In my next post, I should like to refer again to With the Light, but looking more at the concept of ‘point of audition’ and how it might be exploited to examine different experiences of the world (due to neurology, perhaps, or other differences) some more, and how I can build on this with more subtlety.