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What is soundscape? Definition and examples - glossary -

What is soundscape? Definition and examples

what soundscape means: the sonic environment of any particular environment, made up of the array of noises audible there. Soundscapes may comprise noises coming from any direction at ground level, and vertically from sources overhead. 

What is soundscape?

The term, soundscape, is generally attributed to R. Murray Schafer, the Canadian composer, educator, and naturalist whose groundbreaking work on the subject has made his name synonymous with it. However, in a 2013 interview, Schafer himself stated that the term had instead been originated by Michael Southworth, a city planner based in Boston, USA, in a 1969 paper titled ‘The Sonic Environment of Cities’, which addressed how city sounds enhanced residents’ perception of urban space and activities. In fact, the subject had already been the subject of study, in the 1930s, by Finnish geographer and explorer Johannes Gabriel Granö. (That the term has a secondary meaning – “a work of art or performance that combines sounds in order to create a particular effect” – only increases this ambiguity around the term’s origins.)

Nevertheless, in 1977, Schafer formalized a more ecology-centered version of the concept in his Tuning of the World, in which the Earth is treated “as a macrocosmic musical composition” (Schafer, 1977), and “the acoustical characteristics of an area … reflect natural processes” (Pijanowski, 2011). Jumping off from what Schafer theorized, musician and soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause was able to conceive of biophony, geophony, and anthropophony – the three subsets of sound which blend, in different combinations, to form soundscapes themselves. Categorizing the soundscape like this reveals how the animal, geological, and human worlds affect one another – for example, in the way that birds and whales both alter their songs according to urban noise or the sounds of boats.

In the decades since the publication of The Tuning of the World, Schafer’s work has continued to be expanded, with the concept of the soundscape developing into “a point of convergence and discussion between different disciplines (musicology, acoustics, psychology, sociology, geography, architecture, etc.)” (Geisler, 2014). 

Since prehistory, the soundscapes experienced by humanity have become ever more complex, “from the creaking wheel, the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer, and the distant chugging of steam trains to the ‘sound imperialism’ of airports, city streets, and factories”. Schafer suggests that, now, we are so inundated by “acoustic information” that we are no longer able to comprehend it. It is therefore necessary to relearn how to listen with discrimination, allowing individual elements of any given soundscape to be categorised according to their desirability, on a basis of attractiveness or unpleasantness.

By increasing people’s consciousness of the sonic world, part of Schafer’s intent was to awaken them to its degradation by the sound pollution deriving from urbanization and industrialization – in the same ways that the seas and rivers are contaminated by physical pollution. 

In terms of ecology, the study of soundscapes is important for the ways that they can speak to changes in the health of specific biomes, since they can reveal not only “the presence of vocal organisms … but define the acoustic details of floral and geographical features—think of the effects of wind in the trees or grasses, or water flowing in streams and by the lake or seashore” (Krause, 2015). As such, when human behavior (or natural causes) impact upon these spaces, soundscapes act as an aural directory of these changes. “Animal vocalizations masked by human-generated noise may alter population or community dynamics such as predator-prey relationships” (Pijanowski, 2011); it is through examples of this kind that Schafer’s ideas reveal their most concrete usefulness for ecological study and environmentalism. We just have to listen.

References: is a completely free streaming service of 800+ nature sounds from around the world, offering natural soundscapes and guided meditations for people who wish to listen to nature, relax, and become more connected.

Check out our recordings of nature ambience from sound recordists and artists spanning the globe, our thematic playlists of immersive soundscapes and our Wind Is the Original Radio podcast.

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