The Race of Sound

Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music

Book Pages: 288 Illustrations: 38 illustrations Published: January 2019

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Cultural Studies, Music > Ethnomusicology

In The Race of Sound Nina Sun Eidsheim traces the ways in which sonic attributes that might seem natural, such as the voice and its qualities, are socially produced. Eidsheim illustrates how listeners measure race through sound and locate racial subjectivities in vocal timbre—the color or tone of a voice. Eidsheim examines singers Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, and Jimmy Scott as well as the vocal synthesis technology Vocaloid to show how listeners carry a series of assumptions about the nature of the voice and to whom it belongs. Outlining how the voice is linked to ideas of racial essentialism and authenticity, Eidsheim untangles the relationship between race, gender, vocal technique, and timbre while addressing an undertheorized space of racial and ethnic performance. In so doing, she advances our knowledge of the cultural-historical formation of the timbral politics of difference and the ways that comprehending voice remains central to understanding human experience, all the while advocating for a form of listening that would allow us to hear singers in a self-reflexive, denaturalized way.


"Should be required reading in music education—and no doubt it will become required reading in many academic disciplines that touch on voice studies." — Marit MacArthur, Yale Review

"An important read within sound studies and race studies." — Jeff Donison, Journal of Radio & Audio Media

"The Race of Sound is brimming with insight and originality. Not every chapter contributes new knowledge (e.g., Eidsheim is not the first to note that black classical singers were constrained by listener expectations), but in tandem they constitute a groundbreaking argument that should inform all listeners and be part of all music courses. If enough readers take Eidsheim’s work to heart, we can begin to counter the effect of institutions that create and perpetuate the racialized voice." — Sandra Jean Graham, ARSC Journal

“Eidsheim demonstrates an impressive ability to weave together different critical modes and diverse topics without faltering in her project…. New and established scholars interested in the study of race, gender, voice, and/or African American musics will find much to engage with in Eidsheim’s push toward nonessentializing listening.”

— Alex C. Valin, Women and Music

“In her own magisterial voice, Nina Sun Eidsheim speaks outward from musicology to scholars in a host of cultural studies-oriented fields, doing indispensable work to make nuanced and collaborative discussions possible across borders many have considered impermeable. This brilliant book will be the benchmark for discussions of voice, sound, and race for many years to come.” — Gustavus Stadler, author of Troubling Minds: The Cultural Politics of Genius in the United States, 1840–1890

“Voice is ‘a thick event’ in Nina Sun Eidsheim's pathbreaking study of race and vocality. Her visionary work challenges us to rethink and ultimately disassemble the long-standing, putative metrics for reading identity and the body in sonic cultures. The Race of Sound takes readers on an epistemological journey that boldly challenges us to question what we know about the wondrous vocal instrument. This is the book that scholars in feminist sound studies and black performance studies have been waiting for.” — Daphne A. Brooks, author of Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910


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Price: $26.95
Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Nina Sun Eidsheim is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of Sensing Sound: Singing and Listening as Vibrational Practice, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction. The Acousmatic Question: Who Is This?  1
1. Formal and Informal Pedagogies: Believing in Race, Teaching Race, Hearing Race  39
2. Phantom Genealogy: Sonic Blackness and the American Operatic Timbre  61
3. Familiarity as Strangeness: Jimmy Scott and the Question of Black Timbral Masculinity  91
4. Race as Zeros and Ones: Vocaloid Refused, Reimagined, and Repurposed  115
5. Bifurcated Listening: The Inimitable, Imitated Billie Holiday  151
6. Widening Rings of Being: The Singer as Stylist and Technician  177
Appendix  201
Notes  205
Bibliography  243
Index  259
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Finalist, 2019 Big Other Book Award for Nonfiction

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6868-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-6856-4
Publicity material

Funding Information This title is freely available in an open access edition thanks to generous support from the UCLA Library.