Audio Essay

sound essay

In-class presentation: June 24

Final draft and rationale due: June 29

For our first project, you will be creating a sound essay of about five minutes to showcase your understanding of the affordances of sound. According to Ira Glass, the key to broadcasting is to tell the story in its purest form. A story’s building blocks include the action/sequence of events that continually raises questions that keep your listeners engaged and the moment of reflection: your story must have a point. Although Glass speaks specifically of broadcast journalism, his points apply to many aural media—consider the opera or pop music or even beat poetry. All use the affordances of sound to narrate a moment, a feeling, or an event that elicits a moment of reflection. For our sound essay project, then, you will create a short (~5 minutes) audio composition that tells a story and elicits a moment of reflection for your listeners.

 Your task

Write and produce a 4-5 minute audio composition that:

  • makes an argument about an issue (social, cultural, political or aesthetic) important to you and
  • tells a story (loosely defined)
  • elicits a moment of reflection on the part of your listeners


Your sound essay may be a podcast in the style of This American Life, or it may take a more creative format—this is the most open-ended of the projects, so I encourage you to experiment and to support your choices strongly in your rationale. Deploy silence, vocal delivery, music, and sound effects in whatever combination you feel best supports your goals (there is no need to use all four), and be sure that your script is written to be “talky” and doesn’t sound as though it is being read straight off the page—unless, of course, that is your goal. Consider: What affordances of sound, sound recording devices, or sound playback devices can you leverage effectively for your purposes?

As you are deciding your course, try to think of stories you can tell, arguments you can make, experiences you can create that rely on sound for a portion of their meaning. If a person could experience your essay the same way in a written format, you aren’t utilizing the affordances of sound enough. The goal is sound engineering—unity of medium and message.

You are welcome to use any audio editor that you feel comfortable with; there are many excellent tutorials to be found online. I will also talk about how to upload your final podcast onto your blog.

Consider the rhetorical conventions of sound as elements of your composition:

  • How should you structure and pace your project?
  • How can silence of other audio effects function as transitions and organizational devices?
  • What kind of voice should you use? Should you use voice at all?
  • How will you use sound to indicate the genre of your piece?

If you decide to create a TAL-style podcast, consider the rhetorical conventions of narratives:

  • Will you use an anecdote?
  • If so, what kind/tone will set the appropriate mood?
  • What questions will you raise over the course of the narrative?
  • At what points will you provide answers to those questions?
  • How does your anecdote/narrative incite a moment of reflection?
  • Are your narrative and moment of reflection in harmony?


We will begin listening to sound essays on June 24th: please post a link to your blog before you come to class. After presenting your sound essay to the class and receiving feedback, you will have the opportunity to further edit it if you like before turning in the final draft, along with the rationale, by midnight on Wednesday, Jun2 28th.

In your 800-word rationale, you will explain the choices you have made and why you feel they are effective (or, alternatively, why they didn’t work as hoped). Further detail on expectations for the rationale can be found on the “On Rationales” page.

As you create your sound essay and write your rationale, bear in mind that as I grade I will be asking myself the following questions:

  • Does the project deploy sound in strategic ways to create particular effects? Does it feel cohesive, purposeful, and planned?
  • Does the essay tell a story in order to elicit a moment of reflection?
  • Is the argument clear?
  • Is the subject matter well suited to the affordances of sound? That is, is it soundly engineered?
  • Is the level of complexity appropriate for a project that is designed for you to show that you understand how to utilize the affordances of sound?
  • Does any use of sound effects, music, etc., enhance the listener’s experience rather than distracting from it? Are music and effects well timed, well integrated, and well placed?
  • Is voice used to good rhetorical effect, drawing on the elements of vocal delivery laid out in McKee?

Also, bear in mind that as I grade I will NOT be asking myself the following questions:

  • Is it perfectly, professionally produced? Almost all of us are new at this, we’re working with no-cost materials, and you have a week to get it all done. Plus, some of us just don’t have talent to equal our ambitions.
  • Is this something I would want to listen to in my spare time? We’re not all interested in the same things, or to the same degree, or with the same level of knowledge. My main concern is that you have a purpose and audience in mind, not that your audience be me.
  • Is this exactly how I would have done this project? Every person brings their own perspectives, strategies, and tastes to the table. Although I may occasionally make suggestions when I feel you could have met your goals more effectively, I endeavor to judge your project by the standards you set out in your rationale rather than by my personal approach.

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