Acoustic Ecology

Could the way you listen to the world be wrong?

Of course not. There is no one way to hear the world around you. But according to a little known discipline referred to as acoustic ecology, the relationship between people and their planet is deeply connected to their perception and interaction with sound.

There could be ways of listening you’ve never even considered.

In a sense, acoustic ecology can be understood as helping to define a certain way of life, a method to ethically engage with what R. Murray Schafer refers to as soundscapes. “Our senses are clogged with too much,” Schafer says. “If we become too dominant and too unobservant about the other sounds in the environments…then we’re ruining the richness of our whole lives.”

Selective listening — is that what he’s getting at?

Kind of. Schafer talks often of noise pollution, argues how it can actively lower the quality of one’s life (he refers to the industrial revolution as a worldwide harbinger of constant, “droning” sound). But he also puts the responsibility to hear squarely on the individual’s shoulders. People, in a sense, have to re-learn how to listen.

A soundscape is an “acoustic environment as perceived by humans.” It can be passive, active, natural, or man-made. People can manipulate soundscapes through what they choose to hear or block out, and social systems can impose soundscapes on a population, often without thought. It is a complex back-and-forth between us and what’s around us.

What does that mean?

In the late 1960’s, Schafer created the World Soundscape Project as a way to organize, categorize, present, and preserve the sounds of select sound environments. Its ultimate goal was to “find solutions for an ecologically balanced soundscape,” and search for a symmetry between humans, their communities, and their “sonic environments.”

Balance is an important word to Schafer and acoustic ecologists. Acoustic ecology is all about finding harmony.

What can we do?

Schafer’s influence extends to today. In Chicago, the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology holds events promoting field recordings and “soundwalks” (“focused listening” through a “soundscape with complete attention to sound”). Certain musicians** believe that music can help heal our “relationship with the natural world.” Environmentalists around the world, too, believe that paying attention to sound can help preserve certain ecological habitats.

Though interaction with sound, noise, and soundscapes is not limited to one side, it is essentially up to us to choose how to listen. As Eric Leonardson puts it: “when people stop listening, noise pollution occurs.

**It’s not hard to see why many AE practitioners are also composers. Music can be a way to combine the disparate sounds of the world into something easily perceived, enjoyed, and contemplated.