Sound Ecology p.2 – Hearing the Great Symphony
In the early 1970’s the Canadian composer and professor R. Murray Schafer intorduced the term “soundscape” reffering to all the sounds that a person can hear in a specific place and time.
There has been an ever increasing interest, as of then, in the concepts of “Acoustic Ecology” or “Soundscape Ecology”. This constantly growing field of research is studying the sonic environment and the dramatic and rapid changes it is undergoing since the industrial revolution.
The aim of people like Murray Schafer and Bernie Krause (one of the top experts in natural sounds) is to sensitise the public and institutions to the importance of conscientious listening as well as the recording and archiving of the pristine soundscapes that are vanishing from “civilised” areas of our planet.
In my own work I prefer to use the term “Sound Ecology” because it better conveys the scope of my personal journey and research in the mysterious territory of acoustic vibrations.
Trying to define sound beyond its physical properties and mechanics is not easy: there is an obvious “magic” to it that slips like sand through the fingers of rationality.
We know how sound propagates through a medium (for us humans most commonly air) by compressing molecules against each others. We know how the pressure of the air molecules activates the complex process of transduction that our ears are so incredibly well designed to accomplish.
But how to explain the intangible effects that music has on our souls? After all it is “just” a combination of sounds…
Coming from the field of music composition, production and performance, I have grown a deep interest in the healing qualities of music and sound and in their effects on our physiology and psychology.
Sound Ecology encompasses the awareness of how the sound of our natural environment is changing (too often deteriorating), with a special focus on how we actively and consciously (or unconsciously) participate in this process with our use of sound and music in day to day life.
It is no secret that the increasing level of noise that technology is inflicting on us is causing all sorts of health problems. But the consequences are not only physical: our ability to listen deeply is weakening constantly because we are raising an increasing resistance to the aural environment that would otherwise be intolerable. We literally have to listen less. As a result not only our human interactions suffer, but also the way we arrange the sound of our living and working spaces.
It has been studied that when we are exposed to a new source of noise at first we are completely aware of it, and our body displays a number of reactions like changes in heartbeat and respiratory rates, blood pressure, muscular tension, etc. After a while we “get used” to the noise and we don’t notice it anymore, but the way our bodies behave in its presence doesn’t change. So even though we may think in our minds that we have integrated the noise in some way, actually we have not and our bodies are constantly struggling with it.
Noise abatement laws and actions are one way of dealing with the problem of noise on a large scale. On a more individual scale we try to cope with it by isolating ourselves from the surroundings, very often subconsciously by raising the threshold of the natural filters in our brains.
These filters are present in us to help our brains to avoid overloading constantly our awareness with all the signals that our ears can detect. That’s why, for example, we can “ignore” habitual sounds like the distant traffic or noises in the house while we sleep. We know that those sounds do not constitute a problem, so we filter them out of our awareness. But if we would hear an unusual sound or the voice of a baby in the night, then we would wake up because the information would be passed on to an area of our awareness that would find it alerting.
This means that we always hear everything and that signals are organised in different categories by the mind. But this subconscious consistent activity demands energy, forcing the brain to hard work that contributes to physical and mental stress.
Another way of isolating ourselves is by actively creating a personalised sound environment and the most common way is to use an individual music player (CD, iPod, etc.) This way we are fulfilling the need for control over our environment by willingly choosing what we listen to. We cannot close our hearing sense the way we do with our eyes, and lack of control over what comes through our ears creates stress at a deep level.
However, this kind of solution is not addressing the problem, it is simply creating shields that need to become stronger and stronger every year.
The questionable contribution of music
In addition to all the noise that occurs as a byproduct of human activity and use of technology (transportation, construction, all sorts of fan systems, etc.) and of poorly thought architecture, we also need to consider all the uncontrolled and unaware omnipresent exposure to music, that in combination with a low level of attention creates a constant flow of incoming information that our subconscious cannot ignore. Too often music is used indiscriminately in working environments and public places as a sort of “sweetening” over noise. Alas, although the intention may be good, the result is too often similar to spraying deodorant on one’s armpits without washing them first… if you know what I mean.
There seem to be a widespread belief that music can be just turned on anywhere and it will automatically make things better or, as in the case of business strategies, it will influence customers in one way or another. The fact is that music often makes things better, and often influences customers, but there is also more than that. For some insights on the subtle qualities of music, you can read my article “Sound Ecology p.1: music for a special time”. A deeper look at this aspect would lead us a bit far from the topic of this article.
From the theories and medical applications of Alfred Tomatis (hearing as our primary sense) to the “Cymatics” experiments of Hans Jenny on the effects of sound on matter; from the commercial use of brainwaves entrainment and binaural beats in new age music to the use of sound as a weapon in military operations; from the importance of sound design in architecture and working environments to the bonding of mother and child… we learn that sound affects our lives so deeply and in so many ways!
Hearing the Great Symphony
We seem to have forgotten our place in the Great Symphony of nature. In the natural world every sound occurs in a coherent relationship with all the others. The research in the field of soundscape ecology suggests that every living creature has developed a way of communicating through sound that is designed to fit to the environment (natural sounds like wind and water plus the sounds of other creatures) in a way that resembles a sophisticated orchestration. In other words there is a tendency to listen to the environment in order to step into the sonic landscape in a way that is appropriate and intelligent.
Nature’s way is very practical rather than romantic, so one of the reasons why this happens is that every species tries to find its place in a way as to make sure that their signals will be heard. So they either sing when others are not or find a frequency range that is complementary to others. Nonetheless we must admit that this innate intelligence is also extremely beautiful. It has style. Like the stunning colours of certain animals’ furs or feathers, they are so impressive for practical reasons, but at the same time there is awe-inspiring art in it.
The way human beings contribute to the symphony has become the opposite of that. Although it seems very likely that we have developed music and language through mimicry of the animal world and natural soundscapes, as a species we seem to have lost the interest in listening to what happens around us. We are only interested in hearing ourselves.
Imagine a whole section of an orchestra that, during the performance of a symphony, progressively stray more and more from the score. The musicians of that section simply become focused on their sound and start exploring various possibilities of the instruments in the middle of the performance. They play constantly, without pauses; the play loudly because the rest of the orchestra is preventing them from hearing themselves; they start to modulate because they want to experiment other keys. They ignore the desperate gestures of the conductor trying to bring them back to order. Some of them start breaking their instruments into pieces to inspect the interior. They are so interested in themselves and what they are doing that they become completely oblivious of the rest of the music. They may even start pushing other sections away because they need more space… until everyone else can hardly bear the dissonance and eventually leaves the place. They can finally play their cahotic piece, undisturbed in an empty hall.
If there is a way out of this situation, which is but a metaphor for our current contribution to life on this planet, it will be by re-discovering the pleasure and importance of listening. Furthermore restoring the art of listening as a basic tool for decision making. Listening as an active choice of attunement to the environment.
When people sing and play instruments together it is crucial for each one to listen to their own sound in relationship with the others’, to make sure that everyone is contributing to harmony (from the Greek ἁρμονία – harmonía –meaning “joint, agreement, concord”; from the verb ἁρμόζω – harmozo– “to fit together, to join”). Likewise, our constant interaction with the natural environment should be based on the same principle. Whenever we listen first, our actions are more likely to be wise and appropriate to the context.
“When the rhythms of the soundscape become confused or erratic, society sinks to a slovenly and imperiled condition […] the soundscape is no accidental byproduct of society; rather is a deliberate construction by its creators, a composition which may be as much distinguished for its beauty or its ugliness.”
(R. Murray Schafer – “Our sonic environment and the tuning of the world”)
Precious vanishing sounds
Soundscapes recordists know very well the impact of man made noise on the natural environment. To obtain one hour of good nature sounds, like the ones that we can listen to on CDs, they often need ten times the amount of recording from which they will cut all the sections where some noise has occurred. Even in the most remote areas of the planet they still have to deal at least with the sound of airplanes.
Whenever an airplane flies over a certain area, the natural patterns and intersections of the sound ensemble of all the animals and insects is abruptly interrupted. It can take from a few minutes to a few hours or days for the normal rhythm to be re-established. With the increasing of noise levels it may also never go back to normal.
This has a huge impact on the lives of those creatures that have taken thousands of years to learn how to use sound in an organic and functional way, interacting with each other.
The Earth itself is a vast living organism and we may come to find at some point in the future that all the sounds that are produced on its surface in a natural, organic way, may have a function greater than the sole usefulness for the particular species that are producing them. Maybe the Earth itself needs those sounds and maybe it suffers when they are disrupted the same way we do.
We need to restore the capacity of our outer and inner ears to detect subtleties.
It is common to talk about an “inner vision”… well we probably have an even greater “inner hearing”, seeing as our physical hearing seems to be the first to start functioning when we are still in the mother’s womb. We start listening at a very early stage of our physical development and as a result we start collecting memories. So our first impression of the physical world is aural. Sight comes later, yet somehow it becomes the primary sense on which we rely to perceive the world .
The current imbalance towards the visual is often reflected in our speech, where we use the verb “to see” with different meanings, like in “I see what you mean” or “I don’t see why I should do this” or the very powerful incantation “seeing is believing”.
Maybe we could contribute to an overall recovery if instead of only “seeing the big picture” we would as well “hear the great symphony”.
R. Murray Schafer – The soundscape, our sonic environment and the tuning of the world
Bernie Krause – The great animal orchestra
Hans Jenny – Cymatics, a study of wave phenomena and vibration (book)
Hans Jenny – Cymatics, bringing matter to life with sound (video)
Alfred Tomatis – L’Oreille et la Vie
Marius Schneider – Primitive music
Paul Devereux – Stone age soundtracks – The acoustic archeology of ancient times
Daniel J. Levitin – This is your brain on music