Listening to COVID 19

Illustration by Sinem Eylem Arslan

In the spring term of the 2019-20 academic year, doctoral candidate Nil Basdurak (left, undertaking a soundwalk in Istanbul in 2019) taught an upper-level undergraduate elective titled An Introduction to Sound Studies. At the time she planned her syllabus no one could have predicted that a global pandemic would shutter universities mid-term. This page presents Nil’s resourceful response to the pandemic: a repurposing of the syllabus to address COVID-19 from a sound studies perspective. It also presents the students’ wonderfully creative responses in a series of podcasts that document a remarkable moment in our history.


Episode 1 Coronascape: Diving into urban and rural effects of COVID-19 Samuel Kerr
Episode 2Music as the soundscape of crisis: Exploring the sounds of COVID-19 Jacob Thomas
Episode 3Rising through our global crises Lydia Shan
Episode 4Silence behind closed doors Vivian Kwok
Episode 5Grocery wars Lian McMillan
Episode 6Racism: The second virus Nicholas Bridi & Hillary Chu

NIL BASDURAK WRITES… On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the global outbreak of COVID-19 – the novel Coronavirus – a pandemic. This date came to define new normalcy in our daily lives while marking the beginning of extraordinary and unprecedented times.

My focus here is on pandemic soundscapes, because the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto offered, for the first time, an undergraduate-level elective entitled An Introduction to Sound Studies, and I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to teach a group of brilliant music students. Approaching sound and listening “as a way of knowing,” following the approach developed by ethnomusicologist Steven Feld, I wanted to encourage students to discover the critical questions of “what sound does in the human world, what humans do in the sonic world” (Sterne 2013) and how sound can affect the ways in which people engage and perceive everyday life in urban spaces. My idea was to provide an “ears-on” approach with a focus on active listening, composing, and sonic ethnography. The assignments also facilitated critical thinking and listening to the ways sounds affect every facet of our lives. While assigned readings, audio-visual examples, lectures, and class discussions aimed to build a theoretical understanding of sound’s relation to larger issues of identity politics, culture, media, power, technology, and capitalism, students also had the opportunity to put these theories into practice through basic recording assignments such as soundwalks and thematic soundscape compositions.

The final projects were about to start for which students would work in groups of two or three to script, edit, and produce 15 to 20 minutes podcasts. Their task was to create an engaging, inquiry-based podcast with a consistent structure, style, and delivery based on their sonic ethnographies under the protocol of the Kensington Market Research Project of the Ethnography Lab at the Department of Anthropology. Then, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, and conducting ethnographic research became impossible, as did the podcast project in Kensington Market. While teaching the rest of the course online, I was also aware that the pandemic would create unprecedented soundscapes and sonic engagements. The Robarts Research Library was still open for a few more days, although in-person classes had stopped. Since I also work at there as a Student Library Assistant, I was spending quite a lot of time in this haunted library, answering phone calls, helping the patrons who were not sure about how the closures would affect exams, teaching, and research projects. I often found myself paying close attention to the sonic environment in the library as well as in the deserted streets in downtown Toronto. Some of the questions that immediately came to my mind during my own active listening practice were: What does a pandemic sound like? What are the sounds that surround me during this 21st century global pandemic? What sounds will be missing in my new normalcy? What kinds of meaning-making processes will we be involved in when listening to our drastically changed new acoustic environment? Will the sound of a cough be heard as it used to be? What will be the role of media and technology in our new sonic environments?

The news and videos shared on social media accounts began to address some of my curiosities. The toilet paper battles in grocery stores, increasingly racist tone of political speeches, Italians singing from their balconies to motivate health workers who also sing and dance in hospitals to motivate each other, and of course President Donald Trump’s insistence on calling the novel coronavirus “the Chinese virus” comprised some of the well-known soundtracks of our daily lives. Online concerts on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram; video chats with friends and family, and the delay times in conversations due to internet speed; musicians’ attempts to rehearse online with their group members, colleagues, and students; and reports of increasing domestic violence – all these things created new questions in my mind. Under the rules of social isolation, hearing, listening, and sounding have become the only possible means of daily interaction. Sound took the place of a “touch” in its literal meaning – sometimes soft, friendly, and comforting, and sometimes a bitter, hurting, exclusionary “touch from a distance” (Schafer 1977). How long will these extraordinary times continue? Will we have enough time to adjust in this new normal? What will be the role of sound and listening in this kind of everyday life? These questions immediately urged me to think about a new project which we decided to call “Listening to COVID 19 Pandemic Podcast Series”: my students collectively voted for this new project during our very first virtual class on 16 March.

The following six podcasts showcase some of the strongest work created in An Introduction to Sound Studies. Each podcast was individually or collectively scripted, edited, and produced in a very short period of time by my students Nicholas Bridi, Hillary Chu, Samuel Kerr, Vivian Kwok, Lian McMillan, Lydia Shan, and Jacob Thomas. I am very proud of each one of them, and of the efforts put forth by all students in the class given the time constraints and the unprecedented nature of the global pandemic.

Acknowledging our privileged positions during this pandemic, we are hoping that these podcasts will create new questions, new research interests, and new sensibilities in our audience while they are self-isolating and trying to remain healthy in the safety of their homes.

Student Podcasts…

Episode 1

Coronascape: Diving into urban and rural effects of COVID-19 by Samuel Kerr

Coronascape was created to examine the general effect the COVID-19 pandemic is having on both urban and rural soundscapes. By analyzing social media use, reflecting on past and present sounds, Coronascape paints a picture of the vastly different sonic world we inhabit today. Furthermore, the podcast introduces the concept of “nonessential sound,” sound that has disappeared from our daily lives since the advent of the pandemic. Coronascape asks the question: is all sound in our daily lives necessary?

Episode 2

Music as the soundscape of crisis: Exploring the sounds of COVID-19 by Jacob Thomas

On March 16, 2020, Italy’s famous flight team, the Frecce Tricolori flew over Italy displaying the nation’s colors while playing Pavarotti’s famous recording of Nessun Dorma. Music in the streets, musicians playing from balconies, and opera singers singing to their neighbours are just a few examples of how the Italian people have come together using music in order to deal with the isolation caused by COVID-19. On 8 March, the nation went into lockdown, and people were forced to stay in their homes unless they were classed as essential workers in an attempt to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Since then, there have been countless examples of Italians making music together in order to express themselves and establish a sense of community in their isolation. This podcast discusses the effect this has had on the people, why we turn to music during the times of crises, and how this new sonic phenomenon is an echo of similar situations in the past.

Episode 3:

Rising through our global crises by Lydia Shan

Rising through our global crises is a podcast that explores the tumultuous soundscapes of the COVID-19 outbreak and what it reveals of social behaviours during a time of crisis. Themes of silence, hope, fear and their unexpected interplay with consumerism and climate-action are examined in this episode. This podcast hopes to bring light to a jarring situation and broaden our perspectives on a seemingly daunting subject.

Episode 4:

Silence behind closed doors by Vivian Kwok

In this podcast, I explore the psychological effects of the emerging silence during the time of social-distancing and self-isolation while Canada is battling COVID-19. My discussion of silence and psychology will be primarily based on Ron Valle’s article “Toward a Psychology of Silence,” which explores different types of experienced silence and discusses views on the human experience of silence across disciplines. This discussion of silence, isolation, and mental health is important as it may be extended to discuss a possible need for the new generation to experience more silence, mental health issues regarding those with hearing loss, and loneliness in the senior population whose members may not be mobile enough to leave their homes. It is also an immensely valuable research topic as now we are the ones in isolation, and we are experiencing self-quarantine first-hand.

Episode 5:

Grocery wars by Lian McMillan

Grocery wars” is a podcast examining the sonic environment of the grocery store during the COVID-19 crisis. This location is fascinating because it’s one of the scariest places to visit right now, yet we have no choice. As people are influenced by the media and overcome with hoarding tendencies, a once family-friendly place has turned into a battleground for supplies. Featuring personally collected soundscapes, viral fights, and pleas for calamity, “Grocery wars” explores how a pandemic can bring out the worst in people, but also the best. As communities prove their strength, the Marxist critique of capitalism becomes increasingly valid – ultimately questioning: who really runs society?

Episode 6:

Racism: the second virus by Nicholas Bridi & Hillary Chu

The novel COVID-19 has recently been declared a pandemic that has rapidly spread all around the world. With COVID-19 travelling to North America, the virus has led not only to a rapid increase in daily number of cases and deaths but also to an enormous spread of panic in society, thus bringing forth rash and impulsive consequences. Due to strong political influences, North America has begun to see an increase in xenophobic acts towards the Asian-American and Asian-Canadian populations that society deems justifiable since the origins of the virus lie in  China. While the recent outbreak has highlighted these unfortunate thought patterns and behaviours, one must recognise that these issues are not new and are actually deeply rooted within North American society. Through the exploration of various sources such as media outlets, interviews, and scholarly publications, a holistic approach has been taken through this podcast to understanding the influences of the outbreak of xenophobic acts as well as their consequences.