Visual Culture

Sound Symbols: How to See Sounds

Humans are naturally created to have senses that are used to have experience with phenomena that exist in the world. These senses are known as the five senses, which are physically a function of several organs in the human body. The fifth of these organs are eyes to see, ears to hear, the tongue to taste, the nose to smell, and skin to touch. With these five senses, humans can then appreciate and give an impression of their experience of a phenomenon.

One phenomenon that gives the experience is sound. Sound is a phenomenon that is captured by the ear, so that a human has a listening or audio experience. The human ear has the ability to hear sound at vibrational frequencies between 20Hz and 20,000 Hz. Sounds used by humans to communicate, for example, by language, or interpreted with a condition.

Sound is a phenomenon that cannot be captured by the eye and cannot be touched by the skin, because the eye captures visual and skin phenomena to capture phenomena by touch. The process of capturing the visual phenomena on an object carried by the eye that is affected by the intensity of light exposed to the object. And usually objects that can be seen can be touched physically.

Technological advances produce a variety of media capable of presenting audio visual phenomena simultaneously, one of which is television. But still, the sound can’t be captured visually. Sometimes the skin can capture vibrations from the sound, for example when we are close to the speaker tube during a music concert. Different sound vibrations are sometimes sound colors as a medium to convey a certain emotional condition. For example, loud sounds when angry, a heavy voice when it is short of breath, or the sound of a chalk board that is very disturbing our hearing.

Humans can recognize emotions from someone by seeing how gesture, mimic, and also the color of the sound produced. Is someone is angry, sad, happy, or something else. In addition humans can also recognize the source where the sound is produced, for example the sound of animals, winds that blow, heavy rain, water that echoes, or friction between objects. Through arrests of the capture of sound phenomena then humans try to visualize with their respective expressions and connotations.

Phonogram is a term commonly used in the study of comics which means visualized sound. Readers are taken as if they are hearing a conversation or hearing a sound effect on something that happens, but actually they are reading it. If you look a little at the evolutionary history of the writing that previously a symbol will represent a word (for example in a hieroglyphic letter or starch) to develop into only a symbol in the form of one letter character representing a particular sound. Phonograms transform invisible sounds with certain interpretations so that comic readers can see sound as a form of expression. It is very helpful for readers to capture the messages contained in the comics, of course.

Besides dialogue, phonogram in comics also visualizes sound effects, of course this is merely mimetic. Onomatopoeia is the formation of a series of letters with certain voices that mimic a certain sound, such as the boom of a cannon, the creak of a chalkboard, the roar of a lion, or a torn cloth. With the presence of onomatopoeia in comics can bring an atmosphere to life. Onomatopoeia provides comics a way of expressing unarticulated sounds from the surrounding world in writing and extending the range of expression tools in comics. The related term is ‘sound symbolism’, where certain sounds in the phonetic system of a language symbolize and show certain sounds and actions of the natural world (Kokko, 2013: 33).

The visual form of onomatopoeia is not all universal, this is because there are differences in interpretation of a symbol or because of cultural influences that exist in a particular society or nation. For example guk-guk, woof, gaw-gaw for the sound of barking dogs from various countries. In the use of onomatopoeia as well as languages that are different from each country, there are some that are universally understood and used.

Sample of kind word balloon in comic (Eisner, 1985:27)

Besides phonogram, comic media also uses other ways to see the color of sound, which is using word balloons. Word balloons are made in such a way as one of the sound symbols that indicate the direction of sound and how the sound is sounded. The word balloon always has a tip that indicates which direction the sound originates. In addition, various word balloon forms indicate, for example, that the sound indicates someone is whispering or shouting.

So, actually the sound remains invisible, which is seen as a phonogram in the form of “sound symbol” as a visual form of interpretation of sound. The ability to interpret it results from how much experience with visual and audio phenomena.


Kokko Vilma, 2013. KPOW, CHINK, SPLAT: Translations of Sound Effects in Seven Comics. Findland

Scott McCloud, 2006. Making Comic: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. New York: Harper Will Eisner, 1985. Comics And Sequential Art. Florida: Poorhouse Press

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