An Introduction to Acoustic Ecology


An Introduction to Acoustic Ecology by Kendall Wrightson I try to listen to the still, small voice within but I can’t hear it above the din from Little Audrey’s Story by Eliza Ward


s a reader of this journal it is possible that you attach a certain significance to sound. Maybe you are a musician, an audio engineer, an architect, a foley artist, a marine biologist, or a composer of sonic art. Maybe you have studied sound in built environments, used sound in performance, in film or video, or researched sound under water and among animals. You may have noticed how important sound can be in communicating mood, meaning and context. Perhaps when listening to a “soundscape”—sound heard in a real or “virtual” environment—you have been transported to another time, another place. Conversely, maybe you have experienced the-hereand-now even more acutely as a result of listening intently. Your awareness of sound—specifically your level of awareness of the acoustic environment at any given time—is an issue central to the interdiscipline of Acoustic Ecology (also known as ecoacoustics). The philosophy underpinning Acoustic Ecology is simple yet profound: its author—R. Murray Schafer, a musician, composer and former Professor of Communication Studies at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Burnaby, BC, Canada—suggests that we try to hear the acoustic environment as a musical composition and further, that we own responsibility for its composition (Schafer 1977a, 205). Like many issues emerging from the explosion of ideologies in the late 1960s, the profundity of Schafer’s message is now hidden behind a single, soundbite-friendly issue: noise pollution. This is unfortunate since Schafer has far more to offer. However, some 22 years after his ideas were first fully articulated in print, they remain unknown to the general public and mostly unknown to environmental acousticians. Where Schafer is well known—within the contemporary music community—it is mostly for his large-scale, often sitespecific, musical/theatrical work rather than his acoustic ecology. Composer John Cage was aware of both; when asked if he knew of any great music teachers, he replied “Murray Schafer of Canada” (Truax 1978, sleeve note). So what did Schafer say and what is its relevance at the beginning of a century? Eye Culture Schafer’s starting point was to note the incredible dominance of the visual modality in society—“eye culture,” as it has been termed elsewhere1 —and to reveal that children’s ability to listen was, in his experience, deteriorating. So concerned was Schafer about this problem that he argued passionately for listening skills to become an integral part of the national curriculum. Schafer both demonstrated 10

and addressed the issue—which he termed “sonological competence”—through the practical exercises he developed in working with music students, such as: list any five environmental sounds (not music) that you remember hearing today; and list five sounds (not music) you like and five you do not. As a lecturer in Music Technology, I often begin a lecture series with these exercises and I can confirm Schafer’s experience: many students do not recall “consciously” having heard any sounds during the day, and many do not complete the sound list even after fifteen minutes. Schafer’s response to the problem was to develop a range of “ear cleaning” exercises including “soundwalks,” a walking meditation where the object is to maintain a high level of sonic awareness (see Schafer 1967 and 1969). By the early 1970s, Schafer had enrolled his colleagues at SFU into his work and the World Soundscape Project (WSP) was created, its first major project being a field study of the Vancouver Soundscape. The study involved level measurements (producing isobel maps), soundscape recordings and the description of a range of sonic features. The study resulted in both a book2 and a collection of recordings.3 Further WSP field studies in Europe led to the publication of Five Village Soundscapes (Schafer, 1978b) and European Sound Diary (Schafer, 1977b). Schafer’s The Tuning of the World (1977a),4 remains the best known and the most comprehensive text on Acoustic Ecology. Soundscape Features A fascinating book that changed my understanding of—and relationship with—sound, The Tuning of the World formalised the soundscape terminology Schafer had devised during his field studies with the WSP: background sounds he defined as “keynotes” (in analogy to music where a keynote identifies the fundamental tonality of a composition around which the music modulates); foreground sounds (intended to attract attention) are termed “sound signals.” Sounds that are particularly regarded by a community and its visitors are called “soundmarks”—in analogy to landmarks. Natural examples of the latter include geysers, waterfalls and wind traps while cultural examples include distinctive bells and the sounds of traditional activities. (Schafer 1977a: 9, 55-56, 173-175, 272-275; Truax 1978: 68, 119, 127; 1984: 22, 58-60). Schafer’s terminology helps to express the idea that the sound of a particular locality (its keynotes, sound signals and soundmarks) can—like local architecture, customs and dress—express a community’s identity to the extent that settlements can be recognised and characterised by their soundscapes. Unfortunately, since the industrial revolution, an ever increasing number of unique soundscapes have disappeared completely or submerged into the cloud of homogenised, anonymous noise that is the contemporary city soundscape, with its ubiquitous keynote—traffic. The contrast between pre-industrial and post-industrial acoustic environments is well expressed in Schafer’s use of the terms “hi-

fi” (high fidelity) to characterise the former and “lo-fi” (low fidel- “acoustic colouration” caused by echoes and reverberations that ocity) to describe the latter (1977a, 272). He defines a hi-fi sound- cur as sound is absorbed and reflected from surfaces within the enscape as an environment where “sounds overlap less frequently; there vironment, and due to the effects of weather related factors such as is more perspective—foreground and background” (1977a, 43). In temperature, wind and humidity. The resulting colouration offers transcribing recordings of hi-fi environments, Schafer’s team noted significant information for the listener, providing cues relating to that the level of natural environmental sounds—such as weather the physical nature of the environment and expressing its size in and animals—varied in repeating cycles. The team created a rudi- relation to the listener. This fosters a sense of place for individuals as mentary level versus time diagram charting the more prominent they move around the community. SFU colleague Barry Truax consonic features of the soundscape over a twelve month period (re- veys this concept well when he states “… the sound arriving at the produced below as Figure 1). ear is the analogue of the current state of the physical environment, Schafer concluded that the vocal “give and take” between species because as the wave travels, it is charged by each interaction with (evident in Figure 1) is probably a characteristic feature of natural the environment” (Truax 1984, 15). soundscapes. In addition to the rhythmic balance in sound level Another characteristic of the pre-industrial revolution, hi-fi Schafer identified in natural habitats, Krause (1993) suggested an soundscape, is that the “acoustic horizon” may extend for many miles. equilibrium is also apparent across the audio spectrum. The possi- Thus sounds emanating from a listener’s own community may be bility of a natural spectral heard at a considerbalance occurred to able distance, reinKrause during long soforcing a sense of journs in the wilderness space and position as he attempted to record and maintaining a the vocalisations of sperelationship with cific creatures. Listening home. This sense is intently to the soundfurther strengthened scape to capture specific when it is possible to sounds (often waiting for hear sounds emanatup to thirty hours in one ing from adjacent setsitting), Krause noticed tlements, establishing and maintaining relathat “When a bird sang or tionships between loa mammal or amphibian cal communities. vocalised, the voices apIn the lo-fi soundpeared to fit in relation to scape, meaningful all the natural sounds in sounds (and any asterms of frequency and sociated acoustic colprosody (rhythm)” (1993, ouration), can be 159). masked to such an exAcoustical spectro- Figure 1: The cycles of the natural soundscape of the west coast of British tent that an individugraphic maps transcribed Columbia showing the relative level of sounds (from Truax 1984: 142). al’s “aural space” is refrom 2,500 hours of recordings confirmed his suspicions: animal and insect vocalisations duced. Where the effect is so pronounced that an individual can no tended to occupy small bands of frequencies leaving “spectral niches” longer hear the reflected sounds of his/her own movement or speech, (bands of little or no energy) into which the vocalisations (funda- aural space has effectively shrunk to enclose the individual, isolatmental and formants) of other animals, birds or insects can fit. As ing the listener from the environment. If the masking of reflected urban areas spread Krause suggested, the accompanying noise might and direct sounds is so severe that an individual cannot hear his/her “block” or “mask” spectral niches and, if mating calls go unheard, a own footsteps—which is common on the streets of many cities— species might die out (1993, 158). While there has been little cor- “… one’s aural space is reduced to less than that of human proporroborative research into Krause’s “Niche Hypothesis,” (or into tions” (Truax 1984, 20). Under such extreme conditions, sound is Schafer’s suggestion that give and take occurs in terms of sound either smothered (in the sense that particular sounds are not heard) level), a recent Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) study or, sounds merge and sonic information mutates into anti-inforsuggested that birds living near roads “… cannot hear one another mation: “noise.” While the hi-fi soundscape is—Acoustic Ecologists suggest—balwhich leads to difficulty in learning songs and communicating with anced in terms of level, spectra and rhythm, the lo-fi soundscape potential mates” (Barot 1999). In acoustics, the word “mask” has a very specific meaning.5 The features an almost constant level. This creates a “Sound Wall” (Schafer relevance of this effect for the soundscape is that since quieter sounds 1977a, 93), isolating the listener from the environment. Spectrally, do not generally mask each other (unless their frequencies are close the contemporary lo-fi soundscape is biased towards the low fretogether), a hi-fi soundscape can be characterised by its lack of quency range (thanks to the internal combustion engine and sounds masking from noise and other sounds, with the result that all related to electric power). Due to the twenty-four hour society, the sounds—of all frequencies—“can be heard distinctly” (Schafer, 43). rhythms of daily routine are, in some localities, significantly eroded. As SFU colleague Hildegard Westerkamp puts it, there is “no anonymous sound.” The lack of masking facilitates the propagation of 11

The Soundscape ground and suffers as as information and Society much as its inhabitIn describing the soundants. Schafer estiscape’s capacity to conmated that the battle as physical variables vey information, Truax between sonic exco (1984) describes sound pression and control lo di ur r as a mediator between was helping to inat ec it io t/r CONTROL n em e / listener and the environcrease environmenfle en ct il st ment. This relationship tal sound levels by ed is illustrated in Figure 2. around 0.5 to 1 deciAs the soundscape bel per year—a “noise deteriorates, so awaregenerator” as illusinner reality - inner sounds; thoughts, geography, climate, water, wind, people, ness of the subtleties of trated in Figure 3. feelings, memory. animals, insects, etc. environmental sound has withered in proporInner Noise Figure 2: The mediating relationship of an individual to the environment through tion. As a result, the If community and sound (modified from Truax 1984, 11). meanings sound holds environmental noise for the listener in contemporary soundscapes tend to be polarised is the enemy without, the noise of unwanted thoughts and feelings into extremes—“loud” and “quiet”; noticed or unnoticed; good (I represents the enemy within. The use of sound as an “audioanalgesic” like) or bad (I don’t like). Compare this level of sonic awareness (Schafer 1977a, 96)—a soundwall to block the unceasing (and of(and the results of the listening tests mentioned earlier) with the ten critical) inner dialogue and the uncomfortable emotions the Kaluli men of Papua New Guinea who, according to Feld (1994) dialogue evinces—provides the illusion of mastery over emotion. A can “… imitate the sound of at least 100 birds, but few can provide basic tenet of psychotherapy is the notion that unexpressed thoughts visual descriptive information on nearly that many.” In other words, and feelings can result in inappropriate actions ranging from a burst environmental sounds for the Kaluli tribe comprise a continuum of anger over an insignificant event, to the kind of horrific incidents offering a limitless range of subtleties. that seem increasingly, to make the front pages of newspapers the In the developed world, sound has less significance and the op- world over. Despite an increased awareness of psychotherapeutic portunity to experience “natural” sounds decreases with each gen- principles, the belief that emotion is somehow controlled through eration due to the destruction of natural habitats. Sound becomes distraction prevails. something that the individual tries to block, rather than to hear; the The physical and psychological cost of unexpressed emotion is lo-fi, low information soundscape has nothing to offer. As a result, an epidemic of stress related illnesses that reflects a struggle to adapt many individuals try to shut it out through the use of double glaz- to a new way of living—the speed, busy-ness and sustained arousal ing or with acoustic perfume—music. Music—the virtual sound- of city life. Such is the contrast between the character of life in towns scape—is, in this context, used as a means to control the sonic envi- and cities compared to that in rural and tranquil areas, that Newman ronment rather than as a natural expression of it. Broadcast speech & Lonsdale (1995) refer to city dwellers as homo urbanus. Appreciaand music provide the same opportunity for control, turning the tive descriptions of the “buzz” of the city frequently refer to its noise, sonic environment into a commodity. Networks, transmitters and as well as its speed and activity (Newman & Lonsdale 1995, 34). As satellites extend the acoustic commuthe city represents excitement, so the nity across the entire planet, a fact that countryside, the plains and wilderness arhas been utilised for fair deeds and foul. eas have come, for many, to represent Schafer refers to the latter use of sound boredom and incredibly, a disconnection as “sound imperialism” (1977a, 77). from life, since “life” has become associA 1993 survey of public attitudes to ated with continuous noise and activity. soundscape increase sound "noise" level level noise in the United Kingdom lists The corollary to this is that “quiet” and The Noise to be heard & to increases “neighbours”—and specifically sources highly differentiated environments— Generator 0.5 dB to 1 dB block "noisy" of broadcast or recorded sound (which characteristics of hi-fi soundscapes—are soundscape per annum Schafer calls “schizophonic” sound)— equated with boredom, conformity, lasas the premier source of irritation, topsitude, lack of choice “… and most impling traffic from the number one spot portantly, the fear of being out of touch.” it had occupied for many years (Newman & Lonsdale 1995, 10). The lat(Grimwood, 1993). As Slapper (1996) ter expression is a masterly example of reports: “Nationally, councils now re- Figure 3: The Noise Generator (source: the author) sophistry since while being “in touch” ceive 300 complaints a day about unwith the noise of opinion and technolacceptable noise from neighbours” and more disturbingly “Over the ogy (objectivity), the quiet reality of how “I” feel now (subjectivpast four years, 18 people have been killed” [due to disputes over ity)—is devalued or ignored. noisy neighbours]. In my view, the hi-fi environment represents a deep psychologiThe psychological significance of sound used as a controlling cal fear for anyone whose purpose (consciously or unconsciously) force—as an (offensive) weapon or as a (defensive) barrier against is to avoid their feelings. In a wide variety of psychotherapeutic expethe soundscape—is that the environment and the community be- riences, I have witnessed many times—in myself and others—how come the enemy. As with any war, the environment becomes a battle- being quiet tends to bring emotions to the surface. As psychologist m


ni ng





James Swan quoted in Gallagher (1993, 203) offers: “Just sitting quietly in that atmosphere [a quiet place] allows most people to process a lot of emotions and issues they haven’t been dealing with.” It is no coincidence that in much art and literature, nature is used to symbolise emotion: both are wild and uncontrollable and the history of humanity could be described in terms of a need to dominate both. This domination has taken the form of ephemeral realities built upon life-as-it-is. In the case of nature, the construction refers to electrically powered communities whose ephemerality is a function of their power source. Contemporary society cannot operate without electricity—if the plug is pulled by nature, terrorists or the depletion of natural resources, society will collapse. As for emotion, the ephemeral constructions are the “schizophonic” sounds, television pictures and eventually, the “data suits” and other “cybersense” technologies that are creating a “virtual” reality. Built on top of the electric society, cyber-reality is twice as ephemeral, doubly fragile. Acoustic Ecology Today Schafer suggests that there are two ways to improve the soundscape. The first is to increase sonological competence through an education programme that attempts to imbue new generations with an appreciation of environmental sound. This he believes, will foster a new approach to design—the second way—that will incorporate an appreciation of sound and thus reduce the wasted energy that noise represents. Schafer’s ideas are laudable and I endorse them. However it is vital that Acoustic Ecologists do not underestimate what Schafer is asking; in order to listen we need to stop or at least slow down— physically and psychologically, becoming a human being instead of a “human doing.” “Be here now” is one of the main messages to emerge during the 1960s, and a major tenet of the multitude of Eastern philosophies that have been imported into the west ever since. For homo urbanus, stopping and listening is a tough call, though many try and keep trying. For others, being here now, listening to the soundscape, valuing the soundscape, is anathema. Porteous (1990) confirms this in his critique of the original WSP surveys noting that “experts” always bring with them their own agenda. In this case, he says, the agenda is that people should value the soundscape, specifically a balanced one; surveys of public opinion, he notes, indicate that the people—the “inperts”—do not. Today, interest in Acoustic Ecology is growing thanks to the activities of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE), which was founded during The First International Conference on Acoustic Ecology in Banff, Alberta, Canada, in August of 1993. Through newsletters, this new journal, regular conferences (since 1993) and more recently a listserver and web site available to anyone with access to the Internet, knowledge of acoustic ecology and the activities of the WFAE is beginning to spread to a wider audience; Westerkamp (1995) reports that the WFAE has enrolled steering committee representatives in Europe, Asia-Pacific, South/Central America and the USA and has had a well-functioning international board since 1998. In summary then, it is my view that the values espoused by Acoustic Ecology—the value of listening, the quality of the soundscape— are values worth evangelising. However, it is vital that we do not underestimate the enormity of what we are asking at the end of the busiest, loudest century in recorded history. Kendall Wrightson is a lecturer in music technology at London Guildhall University, England, and a freelance writer. The relationship between the

individual, technology, sound and music is a current passion. Kendall is a founder member of SoundscapeUK, the Internet discussion list of the UKI Soundscape Community. E-mail: [email protected] This article was previously published in the Journal of Electroacoustic Music, Volume 12, March 1999. main_index.html

Discography Westerkamp, H. Transformations Empreintes Digitales IMED 9631, 1996. The Vancouver Soundscape 1973/Soundscape Vancouver 1996, Cambridge Records CSR-2CD 9701, 1996.

References Backus, J. 1977. The Acoustical Foundation of Music [2nd Edition], New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Barot, T. 1999. “Songbirds forget their tunes in cacophony of road noise,” The Sunday Times, January 10th. Berendt, J. 1988 The Third Ear, trans. T. Nevill. New York: Henry Holt. Feld, S. 1994. “From ethnomusicology to echo-muse-ecology,” The Soundscape Newsletter No. 8, WFAE, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C., Canada. Gallagher, W. 1993. The Power of Place, New York: Harper Perennial. Grimwood, C. J. 1993. “Effects of environmental noise on people at home,” Building Research Establishment, Information Paper No. IP22/93, December 1993. Krause, B. L. 1993. “The Niche Hypothesis: A hidden symphony of animal sounds, the origins of musical expression and the health of habitats,” The Explorers Journal, Winter 1993, pp. 156-160. Newman, P. S., and S. Lonsdale 1996. The Human Jungle, London: Ebury Press. Porteous, J .D. 1990. Landscapes of the Mind, Toronto: U of T Press, pp. 49-65. Schafer, R. M. 1967. Ear Cleaning. BMI Canada. ——. 1969. The New Soundscape: A Handbook for the Modern Music Teacher, BMI Canada. ——. 1977a. The Tuning of the World, New York: Knopf, republished in 1994 as The Soundscape, Destiny Books, Rochester, Vermont. Schafer, R. M., ed. 1977b. European Sound Diary, ARC Publications. ——. ed. 1978a The Vancouver Soundscape, ARC Publications. ——. ed. 1978b Five Village Soundscapes, ARC Publications. Slapper, G. 1996. “Let’s try to keep the peace” in The Times, April 9th, 1996. Truax, Barry, ed. 1978. [Series editor R. M. Schafer,] Handbook for Acoustic Ecology, Burnaby, B.C. Canada: ARC Publications. Truax, Barry,1984. Acoustic Communication, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing. Westerkamp, H. ed. 1995. The Soundscape Newsletter, No. 10, February 1995. Burnaby, B.C., Canada: WFAE, Simon Fraser University. Notes 1. The dominance of eye culture at the expense of the aural modality is explored in Berendt, J. E. [trans. Nevil, T.] The Third Ear, Henry Holt, New York, 1988. 2. Schafer, R. M. [Ed].The Vancouver Soundscape, ARC Publications, 1978a. 3. Now available as a double CD set including a 1996 comparative study: The Vancouver Soundscape 1973/Soundscape Vancouver 1996, Cambridge, 1996. Records CSR-2CD 9701. 4. Schafer, R. M. The Tuning of the World, Knopf, New York, 1977. [republished in 1994 as The Soundscape—Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Destiny Books, Rochester, Vermont]. 5. Over a relatively narrow frequency range, quiet sounds will be inaudible (i.e. “masked”) in the presence of loud sounds of a lower frequency. If the frequencies of two sounds are within a few hertz, a beating effect is heard which makes it easier to detect the masked tone (Backus, 1977, pp. 101-103).



An Introduction to Acoustic Ecology

An Introduction to Acoustic Ecology by Kendall Wrightson I try to listen to the still, small voice within but I can’t hear it above the din from Littl...

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