Sonic Symbolism + Social Expression

Sonic Symbolism + Social Expression

by Caroline Partamian

You do not need a background in music or sound to participate.

Explore your connection with sound in an effort to understand that sound is something beyond just what we hear but a reflection of who we are. Through listening and drawing exercises, we explore how the combined methods of drawing and listening extend our ability to communicate visually to ourselves and others.

basic list of materials
small sketchbook (or any group of surfaces to draw on, so long as you keep a log of your drawings throughout this process)
utensil with which to draw
open ears and open mind 

In the 1950s and 60s, we saw the embraced use of graphic notation by experimental musicians such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pauline Oliveros. The lack of standardization reflected the nature of the music and their composers because nothing about what they were creating was typical. Graphic notation was not necessarily a transcription of sound, timbre, and intensity, but of the essence and feeling of a piece1, illuminating additional facets of sound such as motion, bodily register, and mood. Extending this practice in notating everyday sounds, music, and conversations around us, how can we too express ourselves via a kinetic process as well as stepping away from pre-determined vocabulary?

Use this meditation as often as you need to re-tune.

You do not need to draw at this time. Just listen. 

Focus on the sound closest to you. Now, imagine taking this sound away from you as far as possible, first 5 feet away, then 20 feet, then perhaps out the window. Now, focus on the sound that is furthest away from you. Bring this sound as close to you as possible until it is right next to you, breathe it in and imagine guiding it to the crown of your head. Draw in three breaths, in and out, while holding this sound there. Once you draw your third breath out, imagine the sound moving away from you. Open your eyes. 

automatic sound drawing 
Exercise 1:
You’ll be making automatic, or kinetic, drawings these can be described as drawing the subconscious. Think about it as your physical body making decisions before your mind has too much time to think about what to draw. 

Listen to a series of 3 pieces of sound. Choose your own or feel free to use the following playlist suggestion:

  • A random voice memo from your phone
  • Nala Sinephro’s Space 2
  • the environment around you, whether outside, on a subway, or in a quiet room


A series of shapes forming waves on a sheet of paper amongst other abstract images
Sound drawing of listening to bugs at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, July 27, 2019, 11:30am, included in Caroline Partamian, automatic sound drawings

Exercise 2:
Draw the sound of your breath: 

  • After waking up.
  • After doing 10 jumping jacks.
  • Breathing in and out through your nose
  • Breathing in and out through your mouth
  • A blend of breathing in and out through your nose and mouth

Exercise 3:
Build your own tuning meditation. Write it out or record it. Practice it on yourself or others. 

Building vocabulary
Listen to the same piece of music of your choice on repeat. Make sure the piece is at least 3 minutes in length. For each sound you hear, develop one graphic for what that note will look like every time you hear it in the song. For example, every time you hear a drum hi-hat, you can draw a short but strong stroke. Or, every time you hear a waterfall in a field recording, draw a stack of three waves on top of each other.


A list in text form of various musical sounds and accompanying abstract shapes on a piece of paper
An excerpt of sounds I heard and drew while listening to Miharu Koshi + Haruomo Hosono’s “Western Bolo” off of the album Swing Slow (1996) on repeat.

Synesthesia + Collaboration
Exercise 1:
Pair with a collaborator or two in creating a new composition. Make sure you are all using different colors of ink or textures of utensils (example, pen, pencil, paintbrush). Using your sonic vocabulary you developed in the previous exercise, invite someone to add an element of sound to the paper. Then, pass it around for your collaborators to continue adding to your collective composition. You can notate linearly or all over the page, up to you. Continue for at least three rounds or more. This exercise is inspired by Makoto Nomura’s Shogi Composition. You can also do this exercise in a shared google doc, using graphic symbols on your keyboard and different colors, font sizes, and boldness of the text; this idea is borrowed from an online workshop led during the pandemic by Audra Wolowiec.


((( )))                  /’/

      ~~~        /’/

Exercise 2:
Gather your drawings you have been collecting throughout the exercises, mix them up, and exchange them with a friend. Or, mix your drawings with collections of symbols you have found from some of your favorite composers throughout this process. Cut them up and rearrange them into a brand new composition. How does sharing vocabulary amplify your expression? How does it limit it, if so?

Optional Readings:
George Lewis, Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives, 2002, Black Music Research Journal 
Galia Hanoch-Roe, Musical Space and Architectural Time: Open Scoring versus Linear Processes, 2003, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music
Daphne Oram, An Individual Note of Music, Sound, and Electronics, 1972, Anomie Publishing
Brandon LaBelle, Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance, 2018, Goldsmiths Press
David Novak, Matt Sakakeeny, Keywords in Sound, 2015, Duke University Press 
Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening, a Composer’s Practice, 2005, Deep Listening Publications
1Caroline Partamian, Beyond hearing: Perception, notation, and expanding our senses, 2021, Splice

Composer References from free-form to computer drawing:
Iannis Xenakis
Lea Bertucci
Billy Martin
Halim El-Dabh 
Makoto Nomura
Wadada Leo Smith
Cathy Berberian
John Cage 
Briano Eno 
Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack