How Might sounds affect our lives, “The Soundscape”

“The Soundscape” questions the sounds around us, how these compositions came to be, and why it is important to think of the composition of musicalities as both an art form and a highly applicable industrial technology with unforeseen benefits.

In the article, author Schafer R. Murray gives an outline of the book that follows this title to introduce the reader to the concept of the consideration of music more broadly than just an art form, especially with the rather fluid definition of music we’ve come to use today, which can be boiled down to collection of sounds. Originally, music came from a field of origin based in either the Apollonian idea of reason and harmony, or the Dionysian concept of eudaemonia, which resulted in more arrhythmic or chaotic pieces. these restrictions on sound became too limiting for composers, so many of them began to find the musicality of the natural world, i.e. the sounds of nature, and birds, and cities.

While it is great that composers are taking a step to expanding the artistic expression of sound, “The Soundscape” brings out the idea of sound design. Just as there may be architects and stylists there can be creators of soundscapes. Murray talks about how, as an assumption, the sounds that surround people are often indicative of the state of the society that those sounds dominate. Where western culture has held aesthetics in terms of sight far above sound, many other cultures consider sound much more important. A study of the effects of sound on societies, insofar as a comprehensive human condition is concerned, is more than necessary. It may be the case that the creation of design relating to the sounds that exist around us may be a key insight to develop the understanding of human psychology and potentially the negative effects that otherwise unsung problems may have upon us and how to change them.

As far as life today is concerned, our auditory perception is highly saturated. It is not unreasonable to assume that this excess noise, or noise pollution, is impacting our health in one way or another. Furthermore, any effects on ourselves may be extendable to the animal kingdom around us. What can be inferred is that the understanding of the impacts of sound within modern society are barely impressionable, if not for the reasons stated in the article by Murray, then purely to better our understanding of the world around us we must study the effects of sound on humans.

The impacts of hearing liminal space

In this week’s discussion we had the choice of looking at 2 different readings. I chose “Sonic Liminality: Soundscapes, Semiotics, and Ecologies of Meaning” by Jonathan Beever. In this reading, Beever discussed how digital technology-driven soundscape ecology can give semioticians access to informational ecosystems. Now once I began reading this article, I did not know what soundscape ecology was, of semioticians. However, after further research I discovered that soundscape ecology was the study of how living organisms such as humans, animals and their environment are related though “acoustic relationships. Furthermore, Semioticians are people who are experts in the study of signs and symbols. 

First things first, I was not aware that soundscape ecology was possible. I never thought that living organisms could show relationships based on sound. The reading also used the term “liminal spaces” which was another term I was not familiar with. From my understanding, liminal spaces are “transition spaces” or according to the reading, they are “intersections and aggregations of human and nonhuman-animal umwelten”. With that said, I learned that these spaces can be evaluated using biosemetic analysis. What intrigued me the most about this reading was how we can see an example of these studies in our daily lives, in particular, the zoo.

One of the final sections of sonic liminality at the zoo showed how we can see how contemporary zoos are examples of liminal spaces. Using recording devices, they were able to evaluate how each animal reacts to different sound frequencies. From this data, they were able to conclude that “all experiences are liminal, and all spaces are liminal spaces”. They even went so far as to make interpretations on how certain sounds such as “train railing” will affect how an animal reacts. I am very interested to find out how humans react certain ways to certain wounds. Since “all spaces are liminal spaces”, do we interpret our human space any differently?

Mutanda est sonus

Years ago there used to be a farm across from my house. The sounds that came from there were only from the animals that lived there. The pigs, sheep, cows and constant chirping from the passing birds during the day and at night the constant droning from the crickets. Now only 10 years later it is all gone. No more birds or insects- just the noise of cars and busses driving all day and into the night. 

I agree that the sounds of the world have changed and in some places very rapidly. We talk about climate change and that the world we see is what is changing. We can see the glaciers melt, the sea levels rise, coral reefs die, but we don’t often talk about what we hear. Seeing is believing but a sound can do just as much as an image if not more. 

People react differently to the same sound. Some may cry or laugh at the same noise. It really depends on our perspective. Two people could hear the sound of a glacier falling into the ocean but one would imagine a larger piece of ice fall than the other. The fact that sound can come from a source but have multiple interpretations is what makes it valuable and important to conserve.

The world is changing but we need to realize that more than just what we can see is changing. The sounds we hear everyday are changing as well. We might not realize it but if we open our ears and listen we might just hear the difference.

-Russell Fitch

Soundscapes over time

As technology advances and there are more and more people in the world, their sounds begin to reach further into less touched areas of the planet. Schafer’s comments about the acoustic presence of humans in the global soundscape reminds me of animals that are negatively affected by the additional sounds created by humans in the Anthropocene. The first type of animal that comes to mind is a whale, a staple part of the oceanic soundscape, as their calls can communicate over many miles. The addition of things like cargo ships negatively affect the whale communication and may be harmful for them to be able to find both food and mates in order to reproduce. The second animal that comes to mind that is impacted by noisier soundscapes are owls who use their hearing as a large part of their hunting system to locate prey.

I also found that the association between soundscapes and history are largely overlooked. A soundscape or recording of an are could tell a historian about where that place is and how it functions. For example, a soundscape recorded in Deli, India, would be distinctly different from on filmed in St. Petersburg. Those two soundscapes would be distinctly different, allowing a historian to deconstruct the lives of people in different areas, giving better perceptions of how individuals live.

On page 10, Schafer comments that “In the West the ear gave way to the eye as the most important gatherer of information about the time of the Renaissance, with the development of the printing press and perspective painting.” That mostly speaks to the transition in the way the world consumed media, prior to that, literacy rates were much lower, meaning that people would have to hear things like news by ear. The change in soundscape between pre-renaissance and post-industrial revolution is therefore drastic in urban centers, not only because of advancement in manufacturing ability but the change of human habit. The transition between the time periods would be very clear if the two different soundscapes could have been recorded.

Dawn of the audiocene

This week I read the introduction to “The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment And The Tuning of The World” by Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer. Since it is an introduction, it flowed between different topics to be covered in the book, telling a lot of ideas in a small footprint. I also tried to read “Sonic Liminality: Soundscapes, Semiotics, and Ecologies of Meaning,” by Jonathon Beever, but after looking up the word “liminal” for the 6th time I realized I should move on.

One interesting idea presented was that the state of a society impacts the type/structure of music written. One example given was that the “egalitarian and enlightened reign of Maria Teresa” coincided with the “grace and balance of Mozart’s music” – perhaps the fact that society was flourishing had something to do with how Mozart’s music turned out, perhaps these two facts are no coincidence. This reminds me of something we learned in world history in high school. The Mesopotamians and the Egyptians didn’t just have different gods – they had different expectations of the gods. Since the Mesopotamians lived in a less stable environment, they interpreted floods as actions of wrathful gods. The Egyptians, on the other hand, had a more stable environment, and so they didn’t see wrathful gods. If geography can have such an impact on the spirit of religions, then certainly the state of society can have a huge impact on the music produced.

The introduction also notes that those who study soundscapes are “disadvantaged in the pursuit of a historical perspective,” since “sounds may alter or disappear with scarcely a comment from the most sensitive of historians.” Perhaps we are finally coming out of a ‘prehistory of soundscapes,’ with modern technology making microphones for recording sound as ubiquitous as cameras for recording scenes.

Preserving Sounds

This week, one of the readings we were presented with was the Introduction of The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World by R. Murray Shafer. The text opens by describing our changing world and how certain sounds and soundscapes are disappearing over time. Shafer also addresses the phenomenon of “noise pollution” with a tone of urgency. It sounds like a discussion about the global environment, does it not? Shafter then goes on to describe the various concepts of human’s most creative production of sound, music. He explores the subjectivity of the nature of music and how that can influence or be the product of the welfare of a society.

The part that engaged my attention the most was when Shafer begins describing soundscapes, and the role sound and hearing have played throughout human history. Soundscapes are essentially an auditory photograph. However, there are limitations to soundscapes in this aspect because they cannot record the precise detail of a moment from far away as a photo can. They are auditory records that, at times, require a trained ear to be usefully interpreted. As they have progressed through time, Western cultures have shifted to relying heavily on sight to intake most of the information about our world and our environment. For a large portion of human history, the only way knowledge was communicated and passed down through generations was auditorily. There are still numerous cultures that function in that way. 

One thing that this discussion of soundscapes reminded me of was the rather large role they play in the study of anthropology. There are ethnic groups worldwide whose culture is deteriorating at an alarming rate, and these deteriorations include losses of certain sounds linked exclusively to those cultures. Recording soundscapes is a means of preserving aspects of those cultures by keeping a record of their music, stories, and most fundamentally, their languages.

I believe that this practice of preservation can also be applied to the natural environment in some cases. With the destruction of natural habitats around the world, recording soundscapes may be useful in preserving records of non-visual information about how those natural spaces and the animals that inhabited them functioned. In addition, noise pollution is just one more form of invasive contamination of the natural environment that not only affects humans but hearing animals as well. Ultimately, it is important to remember that the world may be perceived by living beings in more ways than through sight and touch. This should be taken into consideration when discussing the future of this planet. 

The Sound of Today’s Music

This week’s reading was about humans and the soundscape we have created for ourselves. Instead of environmental pollution, this piece discussed noise pollution. Man has created a very new and different sound environment then the one before it. The author states that we have filled the soundscape with harsh noises that may eventually lead to universal deafness. All these new sounds are encompassed by what the author introduces as the modern definition of music. 

In one paragraph he gives us an interesting idea that Herman Hesse repeats in his own writing. It states that there is a solid relationship between music and the state. Such that “…the music of a well-ordered age is calm and cheerful, and so is its government. The music of a restive age is excited and fierce, and its government is perverted. The music of a decaying state is sentimental and sad, and its government is imperiled.” To say that this relationship exists seems kinda farfetched to me. I understand music can and does reflect the attitude of the artist and those around him but I don’t know if I can agree with this theory. 

I’ve definitely heard of the term noise pollution but I can’t say I understood the concept entirely. Part of the reason is that we rarely hear people talking about this issue. It raises the question of whether this is really a big issue we need to address right now. After reading this piece and also looking up some things on noise pollution currently, I would have to say that it is. It is responsible for numerous health concerns including high blood pressure, stress, and, maybe most obviously, hearing loss. There are more than just those though and still, the issue seems to have taken a back seat. We must pay attention to it and not mindlessly add to the “music” that currently surrounds us. 

what really is music?

Music has become integrated with modern day life. Although it’s used for a range of situations (to celebrate, mourn, and relax), they all share a common purpose — to evoke emotion. But what is music? How do you define it? The introduction to Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape attempts to provide an explanation. Schafer asserts music is simply a sound, and it can be as mundane as clicking a pen. He approaches this conclusion through various perspectives, but these all challenge what I— and many others— traditionally view as music. 

In the excerpt “Orchestration is a Musician’s Business,” he concludes anyone or anything making sound is a musician. Not only does this challenge the idea of music being simply sounds, but also raises the question as to what rappers, pianists, singers, and everyone devoted to music are called. Obviously, my clicking of a pen isn’t the same as the sounds a string quartet produces, but Schafer considers us all to be musicians. 

In the introduction, the idea that society teaches people how they behave and the arts teach how to evoke imagination and emotion is stated. This helps distinguish the previous statement of everyone being musicians. Everyone can produce music, but only some produce art FROM music. We’re all musicians, but not all of us are artists. Ultimately, Schafer hopes to “preserve, encourage, and multiply” positive sounds (but what’s a positive sound?). 

NOISE

I found “Sonic Liminality: Soundscapes, Semiotics, and Ecologies of Meaning” by Jonathan Beever to be quite an interesting read. I have visited zoos before, and often wondered how the animals dealt with the climate being so different from their natural environment, but I had never considered how the noise environment would impact them. I have heard of some zoos piping nature noises into enclosures, but I guess I always assumed this was for the guests to create an “authentic experience”, rather than for the wellbeing of the animals.

This summer, I interned with the forest service. I often found myself working in the middle of nowhere. I would go entire workdays without seeing or hearing any signs of another person. Typically, the only sounds I would hear were the wind, birds, and squirrels. In the vast expanse of nature, many wild animals can successfully avoid noise pollution the majority of the time. For animals in zoos, constantly dealing with buzz of crowds and humming of machines, must be a really alien experience.

If aliens were to start abducting humans, and exhibit them in interplanetary zoos, what sounds should they pipe over loud speakers to try and create a better experience for us? Nature noises are peaceful and connect us to not too distant evolutionary past, while city noises are what most people today are accustomed to.

As one who plays the piano…

Well, in this week’s reading, The Soundscape by Murray Schafer, had me thinking, “I found my people!” I think I can pull out a dozen quotes from this reading that just had me nodding my head up and down like, “The eye points outward; the ear draws inward,” where I feel like I can point my annoying friends who always wonder why I close my eyes when I listen to music to this exact quote.

But as for the reading itself from an environmental and academic viewpoint, I actually found this spin on music in the world quite intriguing. In particular, towards the beginning of the reading, it brings up the idea of the changing definition of music and how “sound” is being accepted as a definition of music. I, of course, am familiar with John Cage’s “4:33” and never thought about how his piece literally revolves on the worldly noises to make up that “empty space” in his piece. Then that idea where the world is the music and we are all the musicians was in a way, a wake up call to me, to think about the sounds I was listening to; What my “special sense” was honing in on. What sounds am i producing in this world? What are others hearing? What kind of music are we all making together?

Although we never get to read past the introduction, I am curious as to see what the author means and how the author defines what sounds “matter”.

Sound as music

In the introduction to The Soundscape by R. Murray Schafer one key idea is missing. That being what makes a positive soundscape and what makes a negative soundscape. Schafer makes clear that we should take a positive approach toward encouraging and preserving the sounds we like. This provides a reason for eliminating noise instead of letting negativity be at the core. Schafer also states that a ‘soundmark deserves to be protected’. While these statements lack specificity, it is certainly possible more specificity will be provided later in the book. Using our own specific instances of sounds we enjoy and sounds we do not can give more context to the ideas introduced.

A particularly eye-catching header was “Dionysian Versus Apollonian Concepts of Music”. The Dionysian concept is that music is meant to evoke emotion. This is a very familiar and intuitive definition that may resonated with many of us. The Apollonian concept says music is really its own entity and the evocation of emotion is a byproduct. While the Dionysian concept that music is inherently tied to emotion feels more familiar, both concepts contain truth. When I put on music intentionally it is often with the intention of evoking feeling in myself or others.

Schafer urges us to extend our definition of music in this introduction. Simply, he says that music is sounds. Under this definition it is much easier to see how an Apollonian concept fits it. The sound of rustling leaves or rain falling does not exist to evoke emotion. These sounds are merely part of our environment, but they are often quite pleasant.

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We are able to categorize positive sounds with this framework, but what does this tell us about negative sounds? Certainly, not all music is positive. Despite this, it can be challenging to say what is bad about music. Music could be unpleasant if it is boring, abrasive, repetitive, or drowns out things that we want to hear. Boring or repetitive music generally fails to evoke emotion. By failing to evoke emotion the music becomes noise. Abrasiveness is not an issue unless if fails to evoke emotion.

Our definition of nature is wrong

Nature encompasses everything, yet nothing. In this week’s reading we read the “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature” by Shaviro. This reading discussed how we misinterpret our own relations with nature, as well as how we have lost touch with what nature really is. In each of the 22 theses, Nature was defined in a new way, or interpreted in a different perspective. The first 3 theses draw in the audience by addressing how our normal views of nature are actually incorrect. 

For example, in the second thesis the first sentence states, “We must think of nature without any residual anthropocentrism: that is to say, without exempting ourselves from it , and also without remaking it in our own image.” This quote alone already addresses how our values on nature are incorrect. Many of us, especially those who believe in global warming, already associate anthropocentrism with nature. We are quick to associate nature with our own values. And according to the 22 theses if we think this way we are already wrong. Nature itself is its own being, but it is also what we make of it. In Thesis 16, Shaviro discusses how important perception is in nature. 

Perception in and of its own is one topic. The way we perceive things is just as important as the way we act to things. In regards to nature, our perception is important when it comes to the definition of what is a living organism. This reading has helped me realize how perception can totally change your opinions on a topic. In regards to nature, The way we define a living organism determines how we treat nature. Shaviro even goes so far to compare nature to a thermostat. Which evidently proves that if we can associate nature with a thermostat, then is our perception of nature really correct?

An Honors Colloquium in Environmental Arts and Humanities