Bringing Sounds into Use: Thinking of Sounds as Materials and a Sketch of Auditory Affordances

Christopher J. Steenson*, Matthew W. M. Rodger
School of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast, United Kingdom

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© 2015 Songpimet al.

open-access license: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC-BY 4.0), a copy of which is available at: ( This license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

* Address correspondence to this author at the School of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast, United Kingdom; Tel: +44 (0) 28 9097 4558; E-mail:


We live in a richly structured auditory environment. From the sounds of cars charging towards us on the street to the sounds of music filling a dancehall, sounds like these are generally seen as being instances of things we hear but can also be understood as opportunities for action. In some circumstances, the sound of a car approaching towards us can provide critical information for the avoidance of harm. In the context of a concert venue, sociocultural practices like music can equally afford coordinated activities of movement, such as dancing or music making. Despite how evident the behavioral effects of sound are in our everyday experience, they have been sparsely accounted for within the field of psychology. Instead, most theories of auditory perception have been more concerned with understanding how sounds are passively processed and represented and how they convey information of the world, neglecting than how this information can be used for anything. Here, we argue against these previous rationalizations, suggesting instead that information is instantiated through use and, therefore, is an emergent effect of a perceiver’s interaction with their environment. Drawing on theory from psychology, philosophy and anthropology, we contend that by thinking of sounds as materials, theorists and researchers alike can get to grips with the vast array of auditory affordances that we purposefully bring into use when interacting with the environment.

Keywords: Affordances, auditory perception, dance, ecological psychology, music, sensorimotor coordination.