The Soundscape

Since the 1970’s, a movement organized by composers, musicians, and scientists has focused on the importance of acoustic communication: the relationship between a listener and the environment.  Sound studies were created partly in response to the increasing dominance of visual communication systems as well as the environmental alterations caused by industrialization. Studying the physics of sound or biology of auditory processing yields information about how acoustics work and how they are understood.  However, these sciences are often studied as isolated systems and do not address a more humanistic component: the interaction between the listener and the origin of sound.

R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer and sound studies researcher, formalized the concept of a soundscape, which refers to “all of the sound that reaches our ears in a given moment” (Krause, 26).  Every environment has a soundscape with unique acoustic signatures.  All sounds that populate a location collectively form that area’s soundscape. Schafer developed the term to bring awareness to sound and to encourage increased attention to the sonic nature of environments (Krause, 27).

Acoustic features of environments play an important role in the way organisms, including humans, populate locations and interact within them.  From a communications perspective, sound is vital in mediating a relationship between the listener and the environment.  Barry Truax, also a Canadian composer and sound studies researcher, extended the concept of the soundscape to include the listener (Truax, 12).  Thus, a soundscape is a system composed of the listener plus all individual sounds from that environment.

Soundscapes acquire their individuality from sounds produced by: 1) the composition of organisms within them – biophony; 2) earth derived features such as geography, wind, water, and rain – geophony; and 3) human generated sounds – anthrophony.  These factors influence each other at the micro level (their temporal sequencing) and the macro level (long-term fluctuations in a soundscape).

One reason soundscape research was instituted was to classify the sounds that preside in acoustic environments and understand how the natural and industrial worlds interact.  Natural soundscapes are the voice of ecological systems.  Their characteristics are derived from the populations of animals within them, geographic features, and more recently, anthropogenic sounds intruding into them.  Human generated sounds typically dominate biophony because they exert more energy and can mask diminutive natural sounds.  Unfortunately, anthrophony greatly threatens the original character of natural soundscapes, and they are rapidly disappearing or being engulfed by anthrophony. With increasing industrialization, urban growth, habitat loss, and noise pollution, the untainted sonic nature of natural soundscapes are threatened.

Bernie Krause, a leading expert on natural sound, has recorded over 4,500 hours of natural soundscapes.  He estimates that half of his recorded habitats have been compromised by human intervention and/or climate change (Krause, 203).  Thus, the biological, historical, and cultural value of these soundscapes has vanished.  If not for Krause’s audio library, these soundscapes would be lost forever.  Krause therefore emphasizes the necessity of exploring soundscapes to both define their character and preserve, through recordings and/or physical protection, their natural acoustic aura.