The Wonder of Natural Soundscape

Natural soundscapes are the voices of whole ecological systems. Every site on Earth has its own acoustic signature; as does every living organism (even viruses). Sea anemones grunt; baby vultures have a scream like you’d hear in a horror film soundtrack. Giraffes are quiet; they have a low whisper.

The first time I heard ants sing, I was speechless for hours. Ants sing by stridulating – rubbing their legs across their abdomens.

While we were working on a project in the American south-west desert, my team was filmed by National Geographic as we recorded fire ants attempting to remove a pair of small lavalier microphones placed over the entrance to their nest.

The ants’ actions – the command signals to worker ants the impediment from the entrance – were communicated entirely by sound.

Secrets in the soundscapes

THE GREAT ANIMAL ORCHESTRA Bernie Krause

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The natural world holds many secrets that can inform our music. To harness nature as a source of musical inspiration, as restoration from the stress of the modern world, we must hike back to the wild places.

Once I’ve located a noise-free place, I listen, with my eyes closed, to the ways the blend of creatures’ voices define the space. I notice the seasonal dynamics of sound: rich and intricate in spring, delicate and sporadic in winter.

When I’m in the field observing animals up close, I try to imagine what they hear, and how the shapes of their ears collect sound and how they might perceive acoustic information. Try this: cup your ears and slowly turn around. You’ll hear more because your ears just got bigger. The sounds gathered by the ear extensions make the sound appear louder and more focused.

I give the same advice to everyone: turn down the music for a moment. Try to put it out of your mind, and listen to the aural contexts in which the creature world vocalises. As with any musical composition, engage with all the sounds that make up the great animal orchestra.

Listen to the bass, the croaks and groans at the bottom. Be mindful of the subtle differences in the ambient flow of thunder and rainfall, the wind in the pine trees, the waves at the shore.

Where the green ants sing

Sound recording commissions took me to the still, ancient soundscapes of central Australia. The Pitjantjatjara live in the deserts and move through what appears to be a flat, undifferentiated terrain. The sound of the biophony is an acoustic guide or map.

‘Travel along this route as long as you hear the green ants sing, then, when their song ends, head towards another voice, until you get to the place where you want to go.’

The Jivaro or Shuar, live in the Amazon basin, where their biome is one of the most acoustically rich environments on the planet. On an evening hunt, they find their way through the dense vegetation to follow unseen animals, directed by the slightest variation of insect and frog articulation.

In their sacred songs and dances with a couple of flutes and a rainstick, their music bore a strong relationship to the sounds around them and the emotion of the music seemed to echo the mood of the environment.

Deep sea chorus

Coral reefs pulsate with sound. Anemones, damselfish, clown fish; parrot fish, butterfly fish, sharks, shrimp, and black drum fish – each leave a distinct acoustic impression that, combined with the others, forms part of a chorus set in the subtle acoustic background ambience generated by the waves at the surface.

Out in the open ocean, the songs of humpback, blue and right whales are so loud that if unimpeded by land masses their voices could circle the Earth in just under seven hours.

With ocean and atmospheric conditions warming, tides rising and magnetic poles shifting, biophonies are adapting. Some habitats contain whole new vocal mixes of organisms while others have fallen silent.

Logging gaps in the acoustic fabric

Twenty years ago I asked a biologist working for a lumber company for permission to record at a forest management area. It was a lovely resonant place. At local meetings the biologist assured the community that selective logging methods – cutting a few trees here and there and leaving the majority of healthy old sequoias standing – would have no adverse impact on the habitat.

I set up my system in the meadow and recorded an exquisite dawn soundscape of sapsuckers, mountain quail, sparrows, ruby-crowned kinglets and numerous insects.

A year later, after the logging operation was complete, little seemed to have changed. However, when I pressed the recording button, it was obvious that the once sonorous meadow had vanished. Gone was the thriving diversity of birds. The only prominent sound was the hammering of a woodpecker.

When habitat alteration occurs, vocal creatures have to readjust. Some disappear, leaving gaps in the acoustic fabric. Those that remain modify their voices to accommodate the changes in the acoustic properties of the landscape, which has been altered by logging, fire, or floods. All of these mean the natural communication evolved within a soundscape, breaks down and becomes chaotic until each creature’s voice once again finds a place in the chorus.

Secrets of our origins

Natural soundscapes are one of the most fertile unexplored open sources of information. They contain secrets of our origins, our past, our cultural present, along with significant insights into our future – the increasing presence of human noise, changes based on shifting climate or evolution. Biophonies contain the acoustic compass we need to guide us in a challenged planet.

Bioacoustics was focused on the notion of the voices of single species – until recently it would never have occurred to biologists to evaluate the health of a biome by listening and studying the total acoustic community. But there are multiple layers of consequence in that collective voice.

Within soundscapes are narratives, encoded stories that expose long held secrets, what Samuel Coleridge once referred to as the mighty alphabet of the universe.

One with the music

When the Ba’Aka people of the rainforest are psychically and physically diminished by stress from contact with modernity, the soundscapes of their deep-forest homes restores them.

We shut out noise. Yet when we hear the soundscape in familiar organised patterns, it has a positive effect.

In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks refers to patients with infirmities from Parkinson’s to brain tumours, who when they detect a familiar rhythmic pulse or tune, seem to transform themselves, shaking off their states of inactivity and becoming one with the music. Only the organisation of sound, that ancient link to a world long past, could do it.

From The Great Animal Orchestra, © 2012 by Bernie Krause, published by Profile Books.