Interviews 3dm

Published on May 17th, 2013 | by David Forshee

Interview with David Sonnenschein (Part 3)

Here is the final install­ment of our 3-part blog series com­ing from a con­ver­sa­tion we had with author, sound designer, and lec­turer David Son­nen­schein about his lat­est project: 3 Deaf Mice. To learn more about 3 Deaf Mice visit

3 Deaf Mice is based on David’s book “Sound Design: The Expres­sive Power of Music, Voice and Sound Effects in Cin­ema”, which is #1 on Ama­zon and the defin­i­tive inter­na­tional resource on sound design for film. As founder of Sound Design for Pros, David has pro­duced lots of great sounds, inter­views and arti­cles, and offers a 12-hour webi­nar series as part of the Kick­starter rewards. His expe­ri­ences as audio con­sul­tant for EA’s “Mass Effect 3″, musi­cian, film­maker and neu­ro­sci­en­tist, com­bine to bring this incred­i­ble sen­sory chal­lenge and unique game play to everyone.

PSE: How do lis­ten­ing modes (source, shape and mean­ing) work in the real world? Doesn’t our brain move among the lis­ten­ing modes very flu­idly in our day-to-day life?

Yes, when we per­ceive sounds in the real world, the lis­ten­ing modes switch con­stantly and auto­mat­i­cally in our brains. In the 3 Deaf Mice game we are cre­at­ing var­i­ous play stages where one spe­cific lis­ten­ing mode can be focused upon at a time.  This way our minds are able to under­stand this form of lis­ten­ing at a cog­ni­tive level, and our sen­sory mech­a­nisms are able to per­ceive it and then cre­ate with it on a vis­ceral level.

PSE:  The third and final lis­ten­ing mode is seman­tic lis­ten­ing or lis­ten­ing for mean­ing. How is lis­ten­ing for mean­ing incor­po­rated into the game play of 3 Deaf Mice?

At each stage of the game there will be dif­fer­ent uses of the sound includ­ing its sig­nif­i­cance to the game play and the story.  In the first stage of game play we’ll want to under­stand the goals of the Mice, and where and why they’re look­ing for the source of the sound.  The mean­ing of that sound is going to have an impor­tant impact on which sounds the player will select. For exam­ple, we know that the Mice have set out to alle­vi­ate their stom­ach aches from the pre­vi­ous verse where they pigged out in the kitchen.  Now when we hear sounds in the bath­room scene that have some­thing to do with solv­ing that prob­lem, like find­ing an antacid relief, we’re going to move towards that, and ulti­mately that will help us make deci­sions about which sounds we choose. That’s an exam­ple how we lis­ten for mean­ing in terms of char­ac­ter goals and story elements.

3dmscreenshot Interview with David Sonnenschein (Part 3)

PSE:  What about the mean­ing in the music of Three Deaf Mice?  How do we lis­ten for mean­ing in music?

The song itself is a struc­ture of sounds that has mean­ing beyond the indi­vid­ual ele­ments.  When we put together the lyrics, the instru­ments, and the sound effects into this song, it’s going to be some­thing that you’re going to get as a gestalt or as a whole. Music in gen­eral could be defined as sounds with mean­ing in a struc­ture that is rec­og­niz­able by the lis­tener.  An iso­lated sound may have no mean­ing to us, just a ran­dom noise. How­ever, that sound begins to have mean­ing when you add other sounds to it. In lan­guage this becomes syl­la­bles, words, sen­tences and ulti­mately com­mu­ni­ca­tion. This is where we develop mean­ing through lan­guage.  In music, we develop mean­ing by string­ing notes together to cre­ate a melody, by string­ing beats together to cre­ate a rhythm, by string­ing dif­fer­ent har­monic struc­tures together to cre­ate a chord pro­gres­sion.   These are the ele­ments we’ve been lis­ten­ing to for cen­turies, and our brains are accus­tomed to find­ing mean­ing with tra­di­tional musi­cal forms. How­ever, if we lis­ten to ser­ial music which is a intel­lec­tual math­e­mat­i­cal sys­tem where you must play all 12 notes of an octave before repeat­ing any note, the orga­ni­za­tion is there but it has no mean­ing to our musi­cally trained brains.  It becomes quite dif­fi­cult to lis­ten to for any length of time because we don’t absorb it as a musi­cal entity and it’s just too abstract.  John Cage played around with a lot of these things to explore the mean­ing of sound and the def­i­n­i­tion of music.  We obvi­ously have found the pop­u­lar mean­ing of music with pop music whether it’s rock or hip hop, but when you move into jazz for exam­ple, the mean­ing of the musi­cal phrases becomes much more com­plex. The lis­tener needs to have a cer­tain back­ground and sophis­ti­ca­tion to appre­ci­ate jazz as much as pop­u­lar music, and the same with clas­si­cal music.  Some Bach, for exam­ple, is very easy to lis­ten to, whereas some of the more mod­ern com­posers like Stravin­sky may be much more dif­fi­cult to lis­ten to.  When Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was first per­formed in 1907, it lit­er­ally cre­ated riots because the music was so out of the ordi­nary and not struc­tured like peo­ple had been used to.  So this is what we’re really explor­ing in the game.  What are the com­po­nents of mean­ing in sound, and how can they cre­ate music? What is music?

PSE:  Are our inter­pre­ta­tions of sound and music based more on cul­tural expe­ri­ences and train­ing or on phys­i­o­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples?  For exam­ple, the sound of nails on a chalk­board is almost uni­ver­sally regarded as an unpleas­ant sound. 

In the West, we are accus­tomed to lis­ten­ing to 12-tone scales like what we have on a piano, but in India they have 22-note scales.  Their ears are sophis­ti­cated enough to hear those micro­tonal changes, whereas when we hear it, it may just sound like some­thing is out of tune.  So music itself has a cer­tain level of train­ing that we must have when we get to that level of sophis­ti­ca­tion.  How­ever, there are some fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­pals that go beyond the cul­tural ref­er­ences that have to do with har­monic struc­ture.  The fact that an octave feels whole, right, sim­ple, and grounded is not just founded on a cul­tural basis.  It’s because the actual fre­quen­cies of the octave and its fun­da­men­tal phys­i­cally and math­e­mat­i­cally fit into each other, and when it hits our ears and our brains process it, we’re going to feel that there’s some­thing very sym­met­ric and bal­anced about it.  So that in and of itself cre­ates a kind of phys­i­cal and emo­tional bal­ance in our beings.  You men­tioned scratch­ing on a chalk­board, and that’s some­thing more phys­i­o­log­i­cal because of the intense mixed fre­quen­cies in a high range that can actu­ally irri­tate the hear­ing sys­tem.  We can go into each sound that we hear and dis­cuss it as poten­tially a cul­tural ref­er­ence or a phys­i­o­log­i­cal stim­u­lus, and as sound design­ers we want to become very aware of how to use each sound effec­tively for an audi­ence.  For exam­ple if you’re watch­ing children’s TV, you may notice that the sounds are extremely sim­ple and inten­tion­ally designed to be pleas­ant.  Very few sounds will make you feel ner­vous or agi­tated.  But you also need a cer­tain amount of stim­u­lus con­trast and sur­prise.  On the other extreme with a hor­ror film, peo­ple go in there expect­ing to be scared. So you deliver to them what they want by attack­ing their ner­vous sys­tem with sound.  I’m not say­ing just loud sounds, and some­times it’s just silence and then a shock­ing or weird sound to cre­ate a lot of anxiety.

PSE: Ulti­mately what skills do you want a player to come away with after play­ing 3 Deaf Mice? 

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills have to do with lis­ten­ing and pro­ject­ing your ideas: it’s a two way street. So first of all, mind­ful­ness is extremely impor­tant in our edu­ca­tional sys­tem. This is becom­ing a key word for stu­dents to become bet­ter learn­ers.  Mind­ful­ness means that they can absorb mate­r­ial and then cre­ate and present their own mate­r­ial when they become more con­scious of their envi­ron­ment.  We’re becom­ing more aware of these dif­fer­ent lis­ten­ing modes and how we hear sounds through their source, shape, and mean­ing. Of course when you begin to com­mu­ni­cate and use sound effec­tively this way, your com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills will obvi­ously become stronger and the results of your com­mu­ni­ca­tion will get you closer to your desired inten­tion.  This could apply to an aca­d­e­mic pre­sen­ta­tion, a cre­ative piece of music, or cre­at­ing a game or a film.

PSE:  How would you con­tinue to develop 3 Deaf Mice?  Any future plans for the game?

There’s another goal that the 3 Deaf Mice game is aim­ing to accom­plish, and that is devel­op­ing com­mu­nity.  Inside of this idea that we can lis­ten and com­mu­ni­cate with sound, we can also share our insights and our sounds with one another in very cre­ative ways.  This will become a plat­form in the future for peo­ple to share their sounds with one another in ways that are very expres­sive and cre­ative. Specif­i­cally, the cur­rent game struc­ture of the ten tracks and verses will be able to be unlocked and remixed, which should be lots of fun.  In the future, we’ll be able to allow peo­ple to share new sounds, new lyrics, and new pieces of audio clips that can then be remixed into the song struc­ture.  Ulti­mately, I’d like to see a game like this become an open source plat­form for other peo­ple to cre­ate their own songs that are very inter­ac­tive.  Just like Karaoke became a whole medium in music, this could become a whole new medium of cre­at­ing songs and par­tic­i­pat­ing with other peo­ple in really fun, inter­ac­tive, and dynamic ways. I see the game can also be re-purposed for spe­cific groups in edu­ca­tion, train­ing and health, for exam­ple help­ing peo­ple with dyslexia, sight impair­ment or jobs requir­ing highly devel­oped lis­ten­ing abil­i­ties like sonar oper­a­tion. I’m excited to explore many new pos­si­bil­i­ties and open to unfore­seen applications.


That’s all folks!  Be sure to fol­low the progress of 3 Deaf Mice at


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