Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Exploring the wilderness of sound

This morning I was listening to ravens singing in Sitka, Alaska, and then I zipped on over to the Maldives to listen to some raucous street music followed by the sound of rushing wind. That wind recording is labelled "Charming rush of wind" with the added tag "Make me happy," so apparently someone in the Maldives is really excited about the kind of wind that would send me rushing for cover. 

How am I listening to the sounds of daily life all over the world--and why? I was just following a rabbit trail.

My journey was inspired by an assignment for a faculty learning community that has been discussing how to promote integrative learning: follow a rabbit trail to learn about something you don't know anything about and see where you end up, and then report back to the group on what you learned and how you might apply that knowledge.

My rabbit trail started while I was reading an article in Ecotone by Kathryn Miles. "Mapping the Bottom of the World" discusses scientists' attempts to understand earthquakes by studying their sounds--not the sounds of bridges splitting and buildings falling but the sounds produced deep underground when tectonic plates strike and slip, sounds mostly undetectable by the human ear. The article includes a quote from geophysicist JT Bullitt:
The physical world is talking to us all the time, but most of the sounds are largely inaudible to our ears. There's this huge wilderness of sound inside the Earth and on the surface of the Earth, and we're just not paying attention to it. How can we possibly know what's really going on?
Great question! I decided to explore this "huge wilderness of sound," but first I had to learn some terms: biophony, sounds produced by living things; anthrophony, sounds produced by people and man-made things (from music to machines); geophony, sounds produced by the earth itself (wind, rain, earthquakes). Noodling around online to find out more led me to Purdue University's Center for Global Soundscapes, which runs the Record the Earth project (find it here).

Record the Earth offers a smartphone app allowing people all over the world to upload snippets of sound, but lacking a smartphone, I went straight to the "map" tab and found a world map dotted with numbers, each linked to recordings of soundscapes in a specific place and time. The recordings can be sorted in various ways and most are tagged to connect the sounds with moods, so that I can learn that a recording of frogs, birds, and insects twittering in Costa Rica made someone feel both curious and stressful, or that traffic and crashing surf made someone very happy in Wellington, New Zealand.

I don't know why I find this site so fascinating, but I do. Every time someone complains about how hard it is to sleep in the countryside because the birds are so loud in the morning, I am reminded of how much trouble I have sleeping in cities because of the sounds of sirens wailing all night or the garbage trucks banging through alleys in the morning. I don't need to watch The Birds to know that the birdsongs that delight me fill others with dread, which suggests that human responses to sounds are complex and unpredictable.

What can I do with this knowledge? Listening to soundscapes from all over the world might make me more attentive to the sounds that surround me, and scientists suggest that studying soundscapes can lead to important insights about the health of an ecosystem. (I learned that by following my rabbit trail.) Maybe I could use the Record the Earth project in a class--the nature writing course or the Concepts of Nature literature class, where students could be encouraged to listen to sounds from all over the world and draw conclusions about relationships between sound and the sense of connection to place. Or maybe I could ask them to map their personal soundscapes or ask their grandparents about the sounds they recall from their youth that they don't hear anymore, and then write about what that wilderness of sound is saying to us.

Or maybe I'll just sit here clicking on dots: Library sounds! Bird songs! Rain! It's a whole world of sound waiting to be explored. Who's listening?

No comments: