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Vincent Meelberg: Music and sound: 'a topic that literally resonates with society'

In the wide-open research field of music and sound, we find Vincent Meelberg (1970). As a senior lecturer by day and jazz bassist by night, Meelberg found his own musical improvisations to be an adequate research object early on. It fits nicely with his continuing interest in the ways that sound and music interact with listeners/receivers. As he says: “It’s a topic that literally resonates with society.” That may be even more the case with Meelberg’s latest project.

Meelberg, senior lecturer of Music and Sound, recently finished an exploratory research project on the use of sounds in hospitals for the Princess Máxima center for pediatric oncology. “I wanted to see and hear how sound works in such an environment and how it could be improved. We know that shielding children from unpleasant sounds is not a favorable option, as children with cancer already feel isolated. Still, there needed to be some kind of acoustic curtain. My first idea was to use music. The problem with that, however, is that it’s very subjective. Giving them a headset with Spotify will not improve the sonic environment.”

Vincent Meelberg

The project required a combination of different approaches. To get a sense of how visitors and staff members experienced in the hospital in terms of sound, Meelberg conducted interviews with the people involved. “From those interviews, I concluded that people like to hear three kinds of sounds: natural sounds from outside – such as birds – soothing sounds, and sounds from home.” This inspired Meelberg to create a soundscape mimicking the sonic environment of the hospital and subsequently superimpose three distinct tracks in each of the three categories on that. “Only the track for the latter category didn’t really work out.”

Already envisioning the practical application of his project’s results, Meelberg tackles one caveat. “In order to prevent repetition within such a soundscape, you would have to program a degree of randomness in the software. There could even be possibilities for interactivity, with both staff members and patients providing input.” Meelberg even muses on the application of his idea for retail stores. “In a lot of stores nowadays, loud music is the default acoustical wallpaper. That doesn’t have to be the case. The criteria for retail stores may be different from a children’s hospital, but the general idea is the same.”

While the results of his research are being reviewed by the Princess Máxima Center, Meelberg is already finding inspiration for future projects. The subject of narrativity in music is a recurring element in a lot of his research and he intends to continue along that path. “I’m currently interested to see the interplay between sound and forms of storytelling, such as games, radio plays, and movies, though I’m still in the early stages of that project.” Time will tell whether or not that project will help blur the boundaries between practice-based research and the purely theoretical approach that Meelberg observes.

CV: Vincent Meelberg is a senior lecturer at Radboud University. With a background in music studies and philosophy, his research has predominantly focused on narrativity in music. Aside from teaching, researching and making music, Meelberg edits the Journal of Sonic Studies, which he helped found.