Soundscapes are everywhere around us, ready to be discovered by our listening ears. The term 'soundscape' was coined by R. Murray Schafer in his pioneering book about our sonic environment, The Tuning of the World, in 1977. At that time, Schafer called for a revolution to merge many disciplines in order to study sounds in relationship to life and society. The new scientific field of soundscape ecology is answering this call by studying sounds within a landscape generated by organisms (biophony), the physical environment (geophony), or humans (anthrophony).
This summer I had a soundscape experience while on vacation. Our party of seven was canoeing on the Saint Lawrence River in Canada with two local guides. The soundscape was striking in its beauty and contrasts. Traveling in a large Rabaska canoe, we slipped quietly through the water to the rhythmic sound of our paddles dipping. We were able to hear a chorus of bird songs emerging from the marshes surrounding our channel. The contrast came when we entered the Saint Lawrence Seaway for the middle part of our journey. Our guides urged us to pick up our pace when a large shipping vessel came from behind to overtake us. We needed to reach shelter to avoid the waves that were sure to come. The industrial sound of the large ship soon overwhelmed nature's sounds. Our return route was peaceful, once again gliding smoothly in a channel through a marsh. Upon reflection, I noted that our soundscape was primarily sounds from organisms (birds) and the physical environment (water, waves). I wondered how the human-caused shipping noise affected the wildlife around us. It turns out that marine researchers have been asking the question "Are we making too much noise?" by studying the hearing and stress effects on sea mammals for over a decade. Perhaps we have much to share with these marine scientists.
As hearing conservationists, we can all participate by learning to listen to the soundscape and encouraging others to do so. Take a soundwalk by listening to all the sounds around you and analyzing the balance of the sonic environment. A listening culture will value our ears and hearing and be more likely to favor development of balanced, health-promoting environments.
Madeleine J. Kerr, PhD, RN