20 April 2012

Soundscape - What Are We Missing?

Image by Ovstercatcher on Flickr  http://bit.ly/IWfNDH

Recently I took a test to find out what kind of learner I am: auditory, visual, or kinaesthetic. Being in my 5th decade I already knew the answer. If a piece of information is to have any chance of getting lodged in my brain it has be visually explained: a diagram, graph, picture, or just plain words.

There is no chance I will remember what he asks if my husband shouts, as he is going out of the door in the morning, “Can you pick up my dry cleaning?” After washing the breakfast things up and putting my face on for the day the dry cleaning will have been entirely forgotten. Information has to be written down so I can literally see it.

My ears are working fine, but as we all know, hearing is different from listening. There is some disconnect between the words that go into my brain and those that float up into my consciousness. It is as if there is a gatekeeper who decides most of what is heard is not important enough to communicate to me.

Likewise, music doesn’t spark my interest, and I’m sadly aware I am missing out on much of the cultural world.

By now you may be feeling smug in the knowledge that you know you are an auditory person. Quickly spoken instructions are understood, and you couldn’t live without music, from Beethoven to Bieber.

What Are We Missing?

But when it comes to the natural world are we humans just as ‘deaf’ as I am? We hear, but do we listen to the message? It could be tentatively said that our human culture of spoken word and mechanical sounds deafens us to the true complexity of communication that goes on in the ‘other’ world of animals and plants.

Bernie Krause

A former musician, Bernie Krause, has spent years recording the natural soundscape, and has recently published a book, The Great Animal Orchestra. I haven’t read it – it’s on my wishlist – but two newspapers, The New York Times and The Independent, have published thought-provoking reviews.

Krause’s idea is that animals make their own unique calls within a symphony of other sounds, both animate and inanimate. He wants to make people aware there is another way of seeing nature other than the visually defined one of landscape, and this auditory dimension is vitally important to the health not only of the individual animal but to the entire ecosystem it operates within.

Physically unable to hear many of these sounds and with a consequent inability to imagine the consequences of their actions, humans remain ignorant of this richer element of life.

The New York Times review gives an example: Krause records ‘spadefoot toads, chorusing together to confuse predators as to any individual location...’

“when a jet flies overhead, the toads get out of sync. The temporary lack of ensemble proves deadly: soon hawks swoop down on individual choristers. In other words, the toads’ music is a communal shelter. Music is expression, communication — but also protection.”


If we are the kind of gardener who thinks in terms of attracting wildlife, and not one who merely desires colourful display, we do our best to consider the complete environment of plant and animal. Birds need insects; insects need plants; plants need soil, sun and water. Fine, but should we also be considering the sounds of this isolated micro habitat we are attempting to create?

My perspective in this blog is one of urban gardening on a small, crowded scale. If I put the right plants in my ground I expect the butterflies and bees to turn up. And sometimes they do. No consideration, however, is given to the surrounding manmade noises that I am acclimatised to (and probably don’t hear anyway, as mentioned above) and yet may be extremely disruptive to those creatures I care about. Planes from Manchester airport whine overhead, my neighbour’s dog barks, and local students play loud music, even my footfalls through grass are noises that may be important, but I give no thought to them in terms of the fauna I want to attract.

Gardeners on the whole do not perceive their gardens in terms of soundscape. We welcome birdsong, and smile when we hear bees, but never consider the entire symphony of sound the animals are living in.

Blackbird Singing

One of my more boring posts was a recording of a blackbird as a plane flew overhead (here). At the time my justification for posting it was that it could be seen as ‘sound art’, an interesting combination of natural and manmade sounds – two creatures of the sky (see? I’m not as dim as you think). But now re-listening to it from the perspective of Krause’s work I wonder if it records the behaviour of an animal being disrupted by humankind. What do you think? Do you think the bird’s regular 4 or 5 beat call gets muddled as the plane flies over?

Everything is declining ... bees, butterflies, birds ...it’s awful. Experts say it is due to habitat loss and pesticides. Perhaps the din WE make is also a contributory factor.

I am planning on writing another proper post on research done into how urban noise changes the quality of birdsong. It’s all coming together ...

Here is a film of Bernie Krause talking about his work.

The New York Times review
The Independent review    
         I suggest you read these as they explain Krause's work far better than me.