Acoustic Ecology
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Curriculum Introductions

Simple Exercises in Acoustic Ecology

A soundwalk is as simple as it seems. An individual or group goes into the field (which could be in nature, a town, or building), and pays close attention to all sounds heard along the way. Participants may take notes, or pause to collect their memories at the end of the walk. It is interesting to compare notes, and see how different people often have quite individual experiences of the sound mix of a given place.

Ear Opening
This one is best done in a single location. A series of questions is posed, either beforehand, or during the listening session. Examples: What is the quietest sound you can hear? What is the most distant sound you can hear? The closest? What sounds of your own body can you hear? What is the mix of natural and human sounds in this place? Pay attention to, as you might watch, a sound that travels through your listening space. Try to notice a sound just as it becomes audible, and follow it until it is barely perceptible.

Explorations in Listening
Here's a fun one; the underlying idea is that listening is an active process—that we are, in a sense, performers and audience for our own environmental sound concert. The quest here is to find places in the given location where there are especially interesting mixes of sounds, or perhaps places where common sounds are somehow transformed (muffled, distorted, pushed to background or foreground in unique ways). It is a sort of sonic walkabout: both the changing mix as you move, and the delights of specific locations are the rewards.

Acoustic Ecology in the Classroom and field

Acoustic Ecology is a relatively new field of study, emerging largely from the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. The writings of R. Murray Schafer, most notably The Tuning of the World (reissued as The Soundscape) and A Sound Education, have provided a foundation from which several distinct yet related threads have grown.

Among the key themes being explored in acoustic ecology today are:

--The effect of our soundscapes on humans: in cities, nature, and buildings, including study of urban and architectural design that takes sound into account.

--Ways to become more aware of the sounds we are making, and choosing them more consciously.

--Reflection on the soundscapes we encounter day to day.

In related fields of bioacoustics (the scientific discipline that studies the sounds of life) and environmental activism, other themes worthy of study are being pursued:

--Acoustic niches: It seems that animals in a particular habitat vocalize in specific and individual sonic niches (as defined by frequency and time). The health of a habitat may be observed by listening for changes in the overall bio-spectrum of a given place.

--Effects of human sound on wildlife: In wilderness areas and national parks, a heated debate is underway about the presence of airplane overflights, jet skis, and snowmobiles. Modern military monitoring systems relying on high-intensity underwater sounds, designed to travel thousands of miles through the oceans, have been questioned by environmentalists, with some changes in design resulting.

Using Soundscape Recordings in the Classroom

Soundscape CDs can be a good starting point for adding an acoustic dimension to studies in biology, ecology, social studies, or geography. Here are a few general suggestions. For information on specific CD titles, visit our Classroom CD page.

Biology and ecology: The sounds of particular animals or habitats can enliven book study. Ask students to try to pick out as many individual voices as they can; or, conversely, to release all attention to identification and begin to sense the overall "voice" of a particular habitat.

Social Studies: Many soundscape producers are exploring the sounds of humanity. Urban soundscapes can be especially useful learning tools for rural dwellers; explore what in these selections seems scary, overwhelming, or chaotic, and also what is interesting, beautiful, or even musical, in city sounds. Several soundscape producers have incorporated tribal soundmaking, which can add a fascinating element to cross cultural studies, often highlighting a sonic sophistication that western culture has forgotten.

Geography: The sounds of specific locations can bring maps to life. Antarctica, Africa, the oceans, and the deserts of the world are examples of places with remarkable sonic expressions.

Art, Creative Writing: Using soundscapes as a stimulus for art or writing offers a wealth of possibilities. Students might respond directly to the soundscapes, by drawing or writing a story that they hear in the sounds; or, they might use the soundscapes as an ambience, and aim for their work to evoke more of the mood of the piece, rather than any specifics.

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