Saturday, May 11, 2013

Sound and Soundscape

Listening is one way to attune to nature's rhythms.
There's music in the sighing of a reed;
There's music in the gushing of a rill;
There's music in all things, if men had ears;
The earth is but the music of the spheres.

George Byron
Sound comes to us as sensory and perceptual events both sequential and ongoing. Distinguishing and appreciating sounds in nature is a matter of attention and practice.

Sound arrives to our ears as mechanical waves. Waves enter our ears to be translated by neural action. Air waves are transformed into perception. Psychoacoustics is a branch of science dedicated to understanding sound perception.

The brain works to locate sounds. The brain must also work to distinguish a particular sound from a sea of sounds. The range and origins of sounds in nature are varied and rich.


Soundscape is a term coined by composer R. Murray Schafer. It describes the elements and origins of the summation of perceived sound.

Soundscape ecology is a subfield of ecology that studies sounds in the landscape. A soundscape is considered as the sum of three contributing components:
  1. Biophony - sound generated by terrestrial and marine organisms;
  2. Geophony - sound generated by wind, rain, earth-movements, or other physical processes; and
  3. Anthrophony - sound generated by human activities.
Natural sounds have biological and non-biological origins. We imagine the vocalizations of birds, whales, or coyotes to be the summation of sounds in nature, but there are often under-appreciated, non-biological sources of sound such as:
  • lake ice cracking and popping as it expands and contracts;
  • aspen leaves fluttering in the wind; or
  • ocean waves breaking on the shore.

Sound Appreciation

John Muir wrote extensively in his journals about the sound he experienced in the Yosemite Valley:
July 8. "All the Merced streams are wonderful singers, and Yosemite is the centre where the main tributaries meet...Sing on, Brave Tamarack Creek, fresh from your snowy fountains, plash and swirl and dance to your fate in the sea; bathing, cheering every living thing along your way."

Nevada Fall, a 600 ft. slanting descent. Merced Canyon, Yosemite