Prof. Jeffers Engelhardt
Pioneer Valley Soundscapes
21 September 2009
The Functions of the Soundscape in Defining Humans and their Environments
It is obvious to anyone who cares to observe our sonic environment--what author and professor R. Murray Schafer dubs “the soundscape”--that the sounds we hear on a daily basis define the world around us just as much as they are defined by that world. For example, a large crowd in a small restaurant produces a loud, constant sort of rumbling. It is that same ambient rumble that allows individuals in the restaurant to comfortably conduct conversations without fear of being overheard, thus encouraging more people to come to the restaurant, thus perpetuating the large crowd and it’s inherent din, ultimately providing a defining element of the establishment’s atmosphere. While interplays like this between the sonic and the non-sonic world take place every day, most people never stop to wonder what, exactly, “is the relationship between man and the sounds of his environment and what happens when those sounds change?” (Schafer 3) This question is at the heart of what Schafer calls “soundscape studies,” a discipline that seeks to unify research being conducted in many independent areas of sonic studies, such as acoustics, aural pattern perception, and the structural analysis of language and music (3-4). It is the purpose of this essay to demonstrate how soundscape studies give us a greater understanding of not only our sonic environment, but the entire world. This point will be achieved by illustrating such phenomena as sound’s ability to create a sense of place independent of physical surroundings, and by marking the impact of various changes in the soundscape, including those occurring right now.
Schafer provides many examples of the ways in which sound and music-making create a sense of place in his book, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Some of his examples are quite general. For instance, Schafer distinguishes between “hi-fi” and “lo-fi” soundscapes, the former being one that possesses a favorable signal-to-noise ratio, and the latter being one that does not (43). Thus, a rural community where there is little traffic, industry, or other powerful background noises would be a “hi-fi” soundscape, one that allows distinction between individual sound events. (For example, a rooster’s crow, a bell’s chime, and a rifle’s crack can all be heard clearly without interference from other sounds in a hi-fi rural soundscape.) A city, on the other hand, generates so many loud, droning sounds (traffic, air conditioners, airplanes, etc.) that many individual sound events get lost in a sea of noise. The importance of this distinction becomes clear when we imagine a world where hi-fi and lo-fi soundscapes were switched. Is a city still a city if it is as quiet as a mouse? Is a forest still a forest if it is overrun with car horns and rumbling engines? The answer is no--both forests and cities stop being themselves when their defining sonic elements are removed. .
A more concrete example of how sound creates a sense of place can be found in Schafer’s analysis of music. He cites numerous examples of works that are inspired by natural events, such as Haydn’s The Seasons and Handel’s L’Allegro ed il Penseroso, both of which seek to generate in the mind of the listener a place that is not physically present in the concert hall (104). Two pages later, he describes a musical period in which “the hunting horn explodes the walls of the concert hall to reintroduce the countryside” (106). Perhaps most indicative of music’s ability to create a sense of place is the pipe organ, an instrument which has become synonymous with religion, faith, and a higher power. The organ produces a “sacred noise,“ that is, a “prodigious sound (noise) which is exempt from social proscription” (273).
Of course, much of the music mentioned in the previous paragraph does not influence modern listeners in the same way it influenced audiences two or three centuries ago. The pipe organ is no longer the loudest musical sound that anyone might hear in their lifetime. This change in the soundscape parallels changes in the West’s societal power structure.
the vibratory effects of high-intensity, low-frequency noise, which have the power to “touch” listeners, had first been experienced in thunder, then in the church, where… the organ made the pews wobble under the Christians, and finally had been transferred to the cacophonies of the eighteenth-century factory (115).
In a similar vein, not only does modern music follow conventions drastically different from those observed by Haydn and Handel, it is now possible to create sounds anywhere within the range of human audibility--and even beyond (115). Today’s musicians have within their reach tools that musicians two or three centuries ago could never have imagined--and we’ve only begun to explore their possible uses. It is in the analysis of changes like these that soundscape studies offers some of its largest revelations regarding people, communities, and the environment. The changes in orchestral music over the past two centuries parallel the changes in the soundscape. As ambient noise levels grew with the population and the boom in industry of the late nineteenth century, so the orchestra expanded to greater and greater numbers (110). As the soft sounds of agrarian life become overridden by the sharp mechanical sounds of the factory, so, too, did the ever-expanding orchestra of the early twentieth century come to include more “percussion instruments… that is, non-pitched noisemakers capable of sharp attack and rhythmic vitality” (110).
Changes in the soundscape are indicative not only of environmental transitions--such as the transition from rural to metropolitan life that defined the industrial revolution--but of cultural ones, as well. An analysis of the western musical soundscape over the past two centuries indicates a shift from detached, concentrated listening to immersed, intimate listening (118). Contemporary popular music has a much higher abundance of low-frequency sounds when compared to the music of the seventeenth and eighteenth century (116).
This is interesting because the longer wavelengths of low-frequency sounds have more carrying power (as the foghorn demonstrates), and as they are less influenced by diffraction, they are able to proceed around obstacles and fill space more completely… Instead of facing the sound source the listener seems immersed in it (116).
This immersion is completed by the use of head-phones, which have the effect of making it seem as if sounds are coming “from points of the cranium itself, as if the archetypes of the unconscious were conversation” (119). And thus we arrive at the modern day, at a culture that celebrates the individual above all else. Soundscape studies both confirm this idea and elaborate on it, demonstrating the extent to which human beings are sonic creatures experiencing a constant give-and-take with the world soundscape. These studies also give us a glimpse of the future. If current trends persist, the soundscape of the twenty-first century will reach deafening amplitudes. We must recognize and act upon our constantly evolving soundscape if we are to have any hope of protecting the sounds we hold dear. That is the true value of soundscape studies: to provide the resources to protect our defining sonic elements. If we do not guard those sounds, human beings and the places they inhabit will cease being what they are, and become lost--perhaps forever.
Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester: Destiny Books, 1994.