Take a break and listen to the sounds around you. What do you notice? Is there anything surprising that you've been tuning out? How do the sounds change over time, and do they improve or degrade your well-being?
Courtesy David Benbennick
It's easy to think of sound as a side-effect of important behaviors like communication, transportation, building stuff, etc. But could sound be important all on its own, worthy of our attention? We all live within environments of sound, and so do animals. In fact, there's a emerging field called soundscape ecology, which aims to study sound and its relationship with ecosystem health.
Traditionally, studies focus on the sound of one animal to understand its communication. For example, one scientist recently decoded prairie dog-ese.
But soundscape ecologists don't look at individual animal sounds so much as the bigger picture--they want to know which animals are loud or quiet, which ones have higher or lower pitches, which animals follow the sounds of other animals, and then they try to put it all together to understand the soundscape as a system that shows how animals interact with each other through sound. They also want to understand how human sounds impact these soundscapes.
Researchers compared bird life around noisy equipment that compresses natural gas with similar — but quiet — habitat. In Alberta, they found that birds had fewer offspring at the noisy sites. Similar results came from the Southwestern U.S.
Species that use echolocation, such as bats and (potentially extinct) Yangtze river dolphins, have trouble locating prey and moving safely through their habitat when unexpected sounds disrupt their echos.
Musician David Teie has even shown that he can create music that impacts the moods of tamarins.
And then there are the impacts of human sound on humans. Garret Keizer writes in his book, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, that he "chose to write a book about noise because it is so easily dismissed as a small issue. And because in that dismissal I believe we can find a key for understanding many of the big issues."
Courtesy John PozniakKeizer distinguishes between sound and noise, which is unwanted sound. He discusses how soundscapes are divided up according to wealth and sociopolitical power--that there are people who make noise and people who listen. Airports or loud factories might be built near less affluent neighborhoods, for example. Keizer asks us to recognize that the sounds we make can have impacts beyond us:
A person who says “My noise is my right” basically means “Your ear is my hole.”
So sound can be an indicator of larger social issues or ecological disruptions. As you read this, do you notice anything about the sounds around you that make you think of a bigger issue or problem?