by Danielle Venne, EVP, Executive Music Producer + Director of Innovation
Before we dive in, I invite you to pause for a minute. Listen to the sounds in your environment. Take note of the highest highs and deepest lows. Observe what sounds are in the foreground, background and midground. Notice what sounds are constant versus those that are sporadic. Are any of them NOT made by humans? Do any of these sounds give you pleasure? Calmness? Anxiety? Fear?
As we’re learning, you can measure the health of an environment – natural or constructed – by listening. Architects have been trying to crack sonic perfection for centuries, designing spaces for music to be heard in their most optimum state. William Burnet Tuthill, cellist and architect for Carnegie Hall in New York City, studied spaces across the globe to get his designs just right for concertgoers.
“Like most things, Mother Nature does it better than we can.”
Consider the finely tuned sonic environment of a traditional orchestral performance. Orchestras are a well-balanced collection of frequencies and colors. There are just enough highs (an occasional solo piccolo, and one triangle will suffice) and just enough lows (one bass drum, a few double basses do the trick). Piercing sounds are used judiciously (a loud cymbal crash), and a well-orchestrated piece of music ebbs and flows within these parameters. But, like most things, Mother Nature does it better than we can. We are just an imitation of true sonic equilibrium.
A healthy natural ecosystem is balanced in its frequencies. There are highs (insects) and lows (thunder) – but ideally all in balance. When an ecosystem degrades, so does its sounds. Let’s consider what can happen with deforestation. Riverbanks erode and what was once a low murmur of water becomes a deeper, more intense frequency than before. Gone are the slow-moving pools of water that attracted insects – which means gone too are a range of higher frequencies. Insect sounds at the highest range of our hearing, and the birds that would have eaten the insects are gone too and have taken their songs with them. Deforestation implies the presence of loud machinery as well. What was once healthy ecosystem with a blend of frequencies, has now been altered into something lacking range and dynamics. Just like we feel the lack of sunlight in the winter, humans can feel the lack of sonic balance in our environment.
The soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause classified these sounds under the category of “Anthrophony” (which basically means any sound created by humans). You can add traffic sounds, vacuum cleaners, and your text message alerts to that category.
There are two additional categories of sound that Krause was more interested in studying: “Geophony” and “Biophony”. Geophony is sounds made from the earth, and Biophony from the plants and animals. Both categories encompass every sound made in the natural world. Anthrophony is difficult to escape and at its worst, damaging to our health. We needn’t look further than current events to realize that many people around the globe have no agency in their environments – least of all how they sound. For those living in war zones, the sounds of war bring the immediate effects of terror and stress, and even long-lasting ones of trauma and anxiety.
As for the sonic environments that we have the privilege of controlling, it is in our best interest to bring, or at least strive toward, a “natural” balance.
The sounds of war are a wholly man-made phenomenon. And we have also slowly ridden the world of much of the Biophony and Geophony that once existed.
As for the sonic environments that we have the privilege of controlling — our offices, homes and public squares — it is in our best interest to bring, or at least strive toward, a “natural” balance. Thus, we turn to the urbanized, mechanical, and digital world that many of us live in. In urban environments, the sounds of traffic, jackhammers, and car stereos crowd our soundscapes. But if we’re lucky, there might be some trees nearby with a few birds in it. We might get to enjoy a sudden rainstorm on a summer day in the park. We already tend to associate the sounds of nature with relaxation, calmness and peace, so it doesn’t take a giant leap to see the advantages of designing spaces with nature’s elements in mind. Of course, it is an enormous privilege to be able to do so – to be able to recreate a sonic landscape in perfect harmony. One that blocks out the sonic trash and strives to imitate nature – if only for a little bit.
We can even revitalize the cement and car fumes of our cities to feel like they are full of living, breathing life. For AT&T Discovery District in Downtown Dallas, Made Music Studio sought to reimagine the public square as a place for visitors to explore and be inspired. So for The Plaza ambient soundscape, we incorporated the sounds of wind, running water and birds native to the Dallas area, transforming an urban center into place of calm and peace, and bringing nature-inspired balance to a corporate headquarters.
My hope is that as you go on with your day, you occasionally stop and listen to your environment. Think about what sounds you’d like to lose and what sounds you’d like to gain. Also consider those who have no agency in what sounds they are exposed to – and what a privilege we have in our ability to create and control the sound of our environments.