Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good

MONOGRAPH (university of Michigan press, 2016)



Just Vibrations bends our collective ears toward the vitality and precarity of optimism, dependence, and reparative agendas in academia and in daily life. Cheng calls for a radical embrace of interpersonal care as a core—as opposed to extracurricular—component of intellectual labor. In the event we break, who will rush to criticize and who will stop to offer aid? Should our voices crack, who may take pains to listen all the more closely? Traversing the resonant archives of reindeer games, personal impairment, scholarly strife, queer hope, and accessible soundscapes, this book advocates for care work as a barometer of better worlds.

Foreword by Susan McClary

Cover art by Jess Landau



Just Vibrations is an extremely interesting book written by an exceptionally talented musician. The reflections are far-reaching and a source of much illumination about the function and value of work, hope, determination, realism, and interpersonal care. It is hard to write such a book, but it is very rewarding to read. — AMARTYA SEN (Harvard University), Nobel Laureate in Economics and author of The Idea of Justice

Just Vibrations is about unrelenting illness and accommodation to it; about music, politics, and theory, and the thereness of the opportunity they offer to repair diverse kinds of pain. It's a book of queer struggle, attachment, thought, and love, its face bent toward the sun—and the question mark.LAUREN BERLANT (University of Chicago), author of Cruel Optimism

Just Vibrations is a passionate and personal plea for a reparative musicology, for a field that favors empathy, compassion, and care. Cheng made me think in deep and not always comfortable ways about my work and my life as a scholar. A beautiful and moving book.JOSEPH STRAUS (CUNY Graduate Center), author of Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music

Just Vibrations is without question a groundbreaking book, both accessible to a wide readership (including undergraduate students) and theoretically nuanced. Cheng elegantly balances clarity of explanation with scholarly depth and breadth. All this is accomplished through a writing style that is eminently readable, even poetic at times.ANDREW DELL'ANTONIO (University of Texas at Austin), author of Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy


Note on Open Access

Just Vibrations has been published in both print and Open Access. The goal of digital OA is to reach as many readers as possible, especially those who might otherwise be unable to afford or access this text. By harmonizing the book’s medium and message (of care, outreach, accessibility), OA offers an electronic file that accommodates convenient text searches, text-to-voice dictation, and transportability via e-readers. For readers with additional visual needs, Alt-Text is available in the digital version for all illustrations in this book. Print copies of the book can be purchased via University of Michigan Press, Amazon, and other sellers.





Sound Play delves into the aesthetic, ethical, and sociopolitical stakes of our modern engagements with video games and their resonant worlds. What's playful about music? And what's musical about play? With case studies spanning Fallout 3, Final Fantasy VI, Silent Hill, The Lord of the Rings Online, and Team Fortress 2, this book explores how we imaginatively test and tinker with music, noise, speech, and silence across our real and virtual lives.

Foreword by Richard Leppert

Cover image courtesy of Tommy Tallarico and Video Games Live


A major contribution from a bold and brilliant new voice with exceptional interdisciplinary range. Cheng is a serious player: his virtuosic flair is fully matched by his technical rigor and depth of interpretive insight. Sound Play confirms that the New Musicology is truly out of beta. KIRI MILLER (Brown University), author of Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance

As addictive and energetically conceived as its subject matter, Sound Play enables even non-gamers to navigate the sonic waves and kinetic pleasures of story worlds that challenge us to rethink the complexities of human agency, identity politics, and embodied performance. MARIA TATAR (Harvard University), author of Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood

Compelling from the first page, Sound Play is an engaging and sophisticated study of how audiowhether in the form of music, voices, noises, or effectscrucially shapes our experience of video games, and how gaming deeply informs our engagement with sound. But more than that, William Cheng's excellent new book demonstrates how the interrelation of sound and play in video games challenges us to think deeply about what it means to live in a world in which the virtual and the real are increasingly intertwined. MARK KATZ (UNC Chapel Hill), author of Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music

Captivating and inspired, probing and nimbly persuasive, playful yet bursting with profound insight, Sound Play is virtually and absolutely indispensable. CHARLES HIROSHI GARRETT (University of Michigan), author of Struggling to Define a Nation: American Music and the Twentieth Century



William Cheng tackles the wild west of game audio and conquers it with a combination of academic scrutiny, coupled by a gamer's unadulterated love of the art. Sound Play could very well be a turning point in the history of video game audio: the day when game audio came of age and inherited the mantle of serious art through the lens of scholarly analysis. With Sound Play, game audio finally has the academic credentials it needs to take its place among the other fine arts. CHRISTOPHER TIN, Grammy-winning composer

A book that keeps on giving—one whose branches of inquiry seem endless. This combined with Cheng’s penchant for vivid metaphors makes Sound Play an essential (and enjoyable) text for anyone interested in how sound influences not only how we play video games, but also how we view them with respect to the world at large. ANDREW SCHARTMANN, Journal of Popular Music Studies

Both playfully written and remarkably interdisciplinary, Sound Plays asks readers to reflect on how resonances between music and games can enrich our understanding of each art form. RYAN EBRIGHT, MAKE Literary Magazine

Cheng's text is extensively researched and intelligently conceived, addressingviolence, nostalgia, horror, authenticity, and gender politics. JESSICA GETMAN, MLA Notes

Cheng brings a deep knowledge of his subject as both a musicologist and a gamer, and the result is an exceedingly thoughtful and provocative book. Throughout Sound Play, Cheng demonstrates convincingly the importance of video game music and other sound as a locus of player experimentation and imagination, and the value of scholarly attention to this multimedia. ELIZABETH MEDINA-GRAY, College Music Symposium

With Sound Play, Cheng has set a precedent and a groundwork for future game music scholarship. HELEN ROWE, ECHO: A Music-Centered Journal

Many great efforts have been made to point out the relevance of game music for both ‘mainstream’ musicology and culture studies, but very few reach the breadth and refinement of William Cheng’s Sound Play. MICHIEL KAMP, The Soundtrack

Cheng writes with an intellectual flair, referencing Plato, Adorno, and numerous scholarly works yet uses a personable style that makes reading him a delight. Overall, the work is a superb collection of powerful ethnomusicological writings that will undoubtedly become a staple text on the game audio scholar’s library shelf. MATTHEW THOMPSON, American Journal of Play


MONOGRAPH (oxford University Press, forthcoming FALL 2019)



In progress. Please check back later!


Queering the Field: Sounding Out Ethnomusicology

Co-edited with Gregory BArz (Oxford University Press, Forthcoming 2019)



This collection of original essays (co-edited with Gregory Barz) deals with queering musical fieldwork and new horizons of ethnomusicological scholarship. The volume raises two significant issues: first, ethnomusicology’s normalized approaches to musical ethnography (fieldwork, methodology, analysis, transcription); and second, the sexual identities and modes of identification at play in the ethnmusicological field. Authors expand the critical, social, and behavioral rubrics of musicality to include categories of play, performance, masquerade, expression, subjectivity, interiority. Concepts of normativity and deviance intersect with new perspectives on institutionalization, discipline, canon, and everyday habits.




Touching Pitch: Dirt, Debt, Color is a resonant meditation on the embodied, emotional, and moral labors of connecting with other people in a globalized age of unprecedented network connectivities. Guided by the trifold rubrics of dirt (Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger), debt (Stefano Harney and Fred Moten: “We owe each other everything”—The Undercommons), and color (critical race theory, queer-of-color critique, crip-color critique), I explore practices of radical listening as potential modes of solidarity.

Touching Pitch, like Just Vibrations, will be available Open Access, pending funds. All royalties from Touching Pitch will officially go toward the American Musicological Society’s Eileen Southern Travel Fund.