Acoustic ecology is the study of the relationship between living beings and their sonic environment. While it is a relatively new area of study from the 1960s, it is shining light on powerful interconnection that has impacted human’s and the planet’s evolution for millions of years. It explains that the sound of a particular locality, including its keynotes, sound signals, and soundmarks (similar to landmarks), can express the community’s identity, similarly to local architecture, customs, and dress. For example, certain ecological regions and human settlements can be recognized by their soundscapes. We might think of collecting sound as taking a fingerprint of an area at a given time in its history. When we hear the soundscapes native to our home environments, it activates a sense of home deep within our minds and bodies.
Acoustic ecology also demonstrates the harmonious nature of these soundscapes themselves. The voices of native fauna and accompanying sounds appear to fit in relation with each other in terms of frequency and prosody (rhythm). These purposeful and pleasing soundscapes are in direct opposition to “noise,” a by-product of urbanization and development. The arrhythmic and unsettling nature of noise can alter the acoustic environment of surrounding habitats, and bird diversity has shown to decline because of increased noise levels. Unfortunately, since the Industrial Revolution, an ever-increasing number of unique and natural soundscapes have disappeared completely or have been submerged into a cloud of homogenization.
Our modern Western culture is dominated by our sense of vision—what Raymond Murray Schafer refers to as an “eye culture”— and children’s demonstrated ability to listen has been deteriorating. However, interpreting the information of sound is crucial to our survival. The act of listening has been refined by evolution with our environment to navigate and communicate with the world around us. Our brains don’t stop processing the input sensations from our ears, even when we enter deep sleep states. Compared to vision, human hearing can reach 360° and much greater distances. Unlike the eyes, the ears are always open, vulnerable and exposed to stimulation from the environment.
We invite you to ask yourself, what do the sounds that surround you tell you about your environment? How can we use listening as a tool for a deeper connection to and understanding of the world around us? How does the sonic environment of animals play a role in their survival? What happens when planes, roads, and cities become so loud and noise-polluted that animals can no longer use their sonic information reliably?
- Wrightson, Kendall. “An Introduction to Acoustic Ecology” Soundscape, vol. 1, no. 1, 2000, 10–13.
- Schafer, Raymond Murray. Ear Cleaning, BMI Canada, 1967.
- Schafer, Raymond Murray. The New Soundscape: A Handbook for the Modern Music Teacher, BMI Canada, 1969.