What's your soundscape?

“While a picture may be worth a thousand words, a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.” – Bernie Krause, composer

There is something deeply human about listening. Not just hearing, but actively listening. Internalising sounds, and finding meaning within them – it’s in our makeup. 

Nature is our default soundscape. We evolved alongside it, used it to grow and thrive. Honing in on sound as a signal and a tool, we used it to find resources, avoid harm, create cultures and to diversify. Across much of human evolution, we capitalised from nature’s rich and complex soundscape.

Today we are different beings. We’re different in the way we live our lives, the way we interact with each other and the planet, and the way we think. For Homo sapiens, the world is vastly changed, and with that our soundscapes.

For most of us, our soundscapes today are urban, manmade, non-organic. We still listen actively to parts of the world, but those parts are usually our creation. Nature is on the backseat while we seek sonic meaning elsewhere. As we continue down our hasty path of separation – us versus everything else – nature’s soundscapes seem to have become, for the most part, redundant.

This is partly due to our physical whereabouts, the fact that most of us live in cities or other urban environments. Reflecting on my day, as I write this, my soundscape has involved mostly artificial sounds - my alarm ringing, cars speeding along the bitumen highway, horns beeping, trucks engine-breaking, the coffee machine hissing, the radio hosts bantering, the air-conditioner humming, the train grinding along its tracks. These sounds are a product of the life I choose to live. They’re in my role description as a city-dweller. I can’t entirely exclude them.

I can, however, choose sounds to include in my life. Thanks to technology, this ability of choice has never been quicker, easier or more hyper-stimulating. The variety, the quantity and the accessibility is just so darn easy. You want it? You got it. Never before has a species had such power over its acoustic environment.

It’s telling, then, the kind of acoustic environment we choose to create. For most of us, that choice doesn’t involve nature. We plug into our smartphones before even noticing the acoustic world around us. The issue lies largely with our pervasive difficulty with being in apparent silence. What we call silence usually is where nature exists, even in cities. We just don’t notice it. We fill that ‘silent’ space with sounds of our choosing – music, films, podcasts, audio books, conversations. Often, we feel moments aren’t complete, or they’re less pleasant, if we’ve left them sonically empty.

But silence is an enabling opportunity, to quote physicist Ursula Franklin. It is a space for “unprogrammed, unplanned and unprogrammable happenings”. By constantly filling silence with manmade sounds, those opportunities are lost from us.

The actual world that we are a part of, nature included, is further lost from us.

Composer Hildegard Westerkamp speaks of this issue. Within each of us, she says, there is a desire to listen to something meaningful. These days that meaning is found often in music, usually in the form of background noise. Such behaviour encourages distracted listening, she argues, thereby silencing our own inner voices, and dislodging us from the physical present. It effectively extracts the real world, “potentially masking the real connection to and concern for the environment in which [we] live”.

More so, if we can learn to simply be in that ‘silent’ space without interference, simply listen to our environment, our views of the world can be clarified somewhat. We undoubtedly learn about things when we listen to them. It’s good for us too. Calming. Revealing. Conscious listening brings the world to us in ways no other medium can. Of this benefit, Westerkamp says:

“Listening has become a way of grounding ourselves in a very chaotic and puzzling world. To learn to be in the present, as a listener, has become an almost revolutionary act. I think we absolutely need it nowadays, to be grounded in that way”

Examining soundscapes

To dwellers in a wood, almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze, the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly that they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall; And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality” – Thomas Hardy, poet

The natural world is acoustically rich. Birds and whales singing, insects and frogs chorusing, mammals bellowing, fish grunting, plants ‘breathing’, to name but handful – these are fragments of nature’s soundscapes. Even whole ecosystems, like a rainforest or a coral reef, have a sound signature, a compilation of all their acoustic energies. These signatures, if you listen carefully, tell remarkable stories of the world.

Scientists in the field of acoustic ecology study the sounds of the world – animal, non-animal and, of course, human - as data. This is the focus of my PhD research, where I use the calls of black-cockatoos, and their environments, to answers questions relevant to their conservation. It may seem surprising to some, but examining species and ecosystems this way can be incredibly informative, often more informative than other methods. Many animals are far more often heard than seen.

In this field, scientists question, for example:

Can a bird still attract a mate or defend its territory when mounting human noise effectively masks his song?

Can whales maintain their long-distance communication amongst the seismic blasts used for offshore oil and gas exploration?

How acoustically diverse, and therefore biologically diverse, is a disturbed ecosystem relative to a pristine one?

Artists find their information in sound too. In fact, the acoustic ecology world has a robust presence of artists. For decades, musicians and composers have been recording and using environmental sounds – natural, manmade, and the shifts between those – in their art. Where the scientist takes sound to dissect, analyse, and convert to numbers, the artist takes sound for what it is: something we can listen to. As the scientist uses sound to better understand how the world works, the artist uses sound to bring the world to people.

Acoustic artists provide us a sonic connection to the world, an alternative frame with which to explore its stories. Because listening connects us; to ourselves, to each other, and to the planet. Done consciously, it forces us to pay attention.

On the environmental front, acoustic artists have brilliantly harnessed people’s consideration of matters like climate change, urbanisation, and water scarcity. Biosphere Soundscapes, for example, is an exciting new acoustic project that’s tracking the changing soundscapes of UNESCO World Biosphere Reserves. Its Biosphere Soundscapes Map allows the public to tune in to Biosphere reserves across the world, including in Australia, North America, South America and Europe. We, as global citizens, can literally listen to parts of the world – parts of immense value - that would otherwise be silent and inaccessible to most of us.

Pieces such as these provide striking and dramatic examples of changing environments. They provide us a pathway to learn of the ecological and cultural contexts by which environments’ acoustic signatures are formed and by which they are altered through time. They grant us a view of reality to which we are normally deaf. 

So, what’s your soundscape? What do you choose?

Will you join me in actively listening to nature’s soundscape, in whatever environment we find ourselves?