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The "Sound Studies” Masters Specialisation: Interview with Prof. Dr. Rolf Großmann

2017-03-03 The first thing you hear in your life is a sound: the beating of your mother's heart. People only tend to notice the noise that the keys on a computer keyboard make when they buy another one that sounds different. If a mobile phone illuminates in a lecture hall, only one person will look at it; when the Android text message melody sounds, however, half of those in the lecture hall will take their phone out. Sounds play a major role in our lives, and one that is at least as big as images, but we only address them very little. The “Sound Studies” a specialisation unit in the Masters programme “Culture, Arts and Media” at the Graduate School provides an academic perspective and a study programme on the topic of sounds. Course Leader Prof. Dr. Rolf Großmann and students Jonas Kellermeyer and Jakob Wössner discuss the course in an interview.

What can the Sound Studies students expect, what is the key focus of the course?

Rolf Großmann: The key points of focus of the course are the digital perspectives and the many changes that the media have caused to the configuration of sound. In conventional disciplines, it is often the case that these are not addressed correctly. It isn’t easy to address them correctly either, since they are new and they encompass several disciplines: Media Studies, Cultural Studies, Technology and Information Technology, for example. In Sound Studies, we also address genuine factors relating to cultural studies, such as gender and interculturality.

What is the link between interculturality and sound?

Rolf Großmann: You can see how different cultures approach the topic of sound with Auto-tune, for instance, which is the automatic pitch correction system for music productions: in Europe, this is mostly used to improve the sound, while African-American cultures – hip-hop for example – approach it completely differently. In this case, a creative artefact is created and used for different possibilities.

And gender?

Rolf Großmann: Researching the relationships between gender and sound is a relatively new topic. Children, women and men have different worlds of sound, which means that they are defined differently at the auditory level. One thing that we all know about this difference is that women generally sing at one octave higher than men do, and, of course, that they also speak at a higher pitch.

Does this mean that it is transdisciplinary?

Rolf Großmann: Yes. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be possible for people to find their way around the variety of tone-sound-audio-noise-music. To take the example of urban sounds: in the summer, we are going to hold a summer school in Brazil together with the department of Architecture, and do some sound recordings in São Paulo. The project has received financial support from DAAD. With a project of this kind, the traditional musical sciences such as harmony theory aren’t of any help. You also have to know something about urban development: what does a city sound like?What artistic interventions are possible?

Why should a student decide to study the Sound Studies specialisation at Leuphana?

Rolf Großmann: The Leuphana has a long tradition in this topic. When we had the old Degree’s system, this field was called “Advanced Musical Sciences”. On our website, we called it “Audio”, however, because we didn’t want to narrow it down to music. Music is an important aspect of audio, or sound, but it is just one aspect of it. We also work together with other pioneers of Sound Studies at the international level, for instance, with Prof. Dr. Holger Schulze from the University of Copenhagen. The specialisation unit  in “Music and Auditive Culture” at the college is the perfect gateway to the Masters degree programme. We are also very strong on theory – this has been the case for many years – and also at the practical level. If the students want to, they can go into our AudioLab and make their own productions.

What are the requirements for being able to study on the course?

Rolf Großmann: Above all else, a keen interest in sound – that’s the most important thing. And it certainly isn’t something that everyone has. Students should also have had some contact with the topics of cultural studies or media studies in the area of audio and sound. Another thing that is desirable, although not compulsory, is experience in musicology; this can be helpful when it comes to the more detailed areas of music.It is also helpful if you know a bit about IT and musical technology.

Information technology?

Rolf Großmann: Yes. Let’s take “GarageBand” as an example, a widely-used music app which also features an automatic drummer. When playing back music which is created on the app, many people don’t even realise that the drums are computer generated. The innovations that we currently have in the world of music have a lot to do with technology. As design technology, or as cultural technology for auditive design, we no longer use written notes, but digital script, sampling, and all of the analogue phonography from the 20th century. Today’s innovative designers in the world of music are people who work in this way, such as DJs, and in fact everyone who uses remixes or does editing. In the old days, if you couldn’t read music, you couldn’t be a composer. Now, however, if you don’t know what phonography is or what a sampler is, you won’t be able to play a part in the music of today.

What does the cooperation with the University of Hildesheim involve?

Rolf Großmann: There is an initiative there for a Masters programme that focuses on musical anthropology. They turned to us because we are compatible with this field, and we have therefore combined our strengths and are exchanging our teaching capacity. In this way, we can also import fields from Hildesheim that we don’t have here, such as post-colonial musical theory.

How has the feedback been after the first semester?

Rolf Großmann: The feedback has been very positive so far. I have been surprised that we have such a wide range of students. We have students who like to study theory and want to take their studies further at the academic level. We also have students who work as DJs, especially those from the Hamburg music scene. Their question is: “How can I expand my perspectives in the area of sound?”

What are the career options like at the end of the course?

Rolf Großmann: Cultural studies courses in general prepare students for a broad range of career paths. Our experiences so far have been very good, and most of our graduates find very good employment – that was also the case with the previous Masters Programme and the specialisation on music. Our alumni work in software companies, in middle and senior management positions in the entertainment industry; one of our former students now works at Universal Music, for example. Another runs a studio, managing one of the biggest mastering studios in Germany. Some our former students work in “decision-making organisations”, for example, foundations and ministries, while others naturally work for radio and TV stations.

Have you made use of the practical side of your course?

Jakob Wössner: Yes, I certainly have. On the BA course, there are projects like the Lunatic Festival. These go hand-in-hand with the seminars that I can choose here. I have also founded a booking agency alongside my studies, and I work at a variety of different festivals as a stage manager. In this respect, I try to build a bridge between the theoretical and practical dimensions of my course.

Has the course helped you to gain an overview of the topic of sound?

Jakob Wössner: For me, gaining a more in-depth understanding of this field means trying to perceive sounds as objectively as possible. That means that there isn’t just music and non-music, but all of the sounds that surround us, and that it is worth considering them as well. In other words, there are other phenomena to consider beyond just pop music and classical music.

Why did you want to study the Sound Studies course at Leuphana?

Jakob Wössner: Because I had already got a lot of things under way here and had several points of reference. I got to learn about a lot of topics during my Bachelor programme, but I wanted to take things to a more in-depth level. I also like the in-depth studies here, particularly at the digital level. That gives the course a cutting edge reference. When it comes to the topics that we cover and discuss during the course, you feel that they are particularly relevant to the world of innovation.

What is your personal goal for your course?

Jakob Wössner: I did my Bachelor degree here as well, and with my Masters, I really want to expand my level of knowledge. I want to work in the music industry. I also know, however, that gaining a greater level of theoretical depth will benefit me, as well as looking at the actual music and sounds themselves. That means it isn’t just about making subjective statements, such as “I like that” or “I don't like that”, but finding out why and how different types of music work. It also means gaining both a more open-minded approach and a vocabulary with which it is possible to describe music.

Why did you decide to study the Sound Studies specialisation at Lüneburg?

Jonas Kellermeyer: The Masters course in Sound Studies is basically only available in this shape and form in Lüneburg. That’s why I wanted to study here. I am interested in Sound Studies theory and the associated contexts.

What do you find the most interesting?

Jonas Kellermeyer: Discovering the auditory sphere. That means getting away from the images that you are confronted with all the time. Most of our metaphors also work on the basis of images: “to take a look at something”, for example. The Sound Studies course addresses the auditory dimension. And it does so with a certain depth, focusing on the auditory dimension itself, rather than just by the by. Today there are sound designers for cars who design the sound of electric cars, for example, and answer questions such as “how should it sound when the door is shut?” With a lot of things, it is important for them to sound good. We’re surrounded by sound all the time. Wherever people are, they make noise. It is impossible not to make noise or sounds, and they also connect you with the rest of the world. You can certainly learn a lot on the Sound Studies course, and it is flexible rather than fixed.

What do you want to do when you graduate?

Jonas Kellermeyer: My ideas seem to change all the time. For a long time, I wanted to go into journalism and into classic pop music journalism, which is a field in which I have worked for a long time as a freelancer. Things then changed completely, and I decided that I needed to gain a foothold in the music industry. My Bachelor dissertation focused on the topic of music distribution. But I’ve always found academic research to be very interesting, and I am increasingly finding the idea of a doctorate attractive.

Do you guys go to Hildesheim sometimes?

Jonas Kellermeyer: Yes, I recently attended a very interesting seminar there, which was also very practically oriented, during which we also experimented with synthesizers. It wasn’t about virtuosity, but more about trial and error, and simply testing something new out.

To whom would you recommend this course?

Jonas Kellermeyer: I would recommend it to those who are interested in the cultural theory side of things. You also have to be interested in sounds and to be curious about them.

During the 2015 summer school in São Paulo, the students created so-called soundwalks, in which they captured the sounds of the city. Please click here to watch the Documentary video of the soundwalks.

The Sound Studies team is responsible for creating both academic and artistic work – for example, a piece composed by the students in the style of Musique Concrète.


Apl.-Prof. Dr. Rolf Großmann
Universitätsallee 1, C5.322
21335 Lüneburg
Fon +49.4131.677-1231
Fax +49.4131.677-1246

Interview: Martin Gierczak, University Communication. News from the university surrounding the areas of research, teaching and study can be sent to