20 Jun 2016

Soundscape Conservation

Barro Colorado, foto por Pilar Berguido CC BY 2.0

Photo by Pilar Berguido CC BY 2.0

“Once we accept the idea that the soundscape is a valuable source of information — an extraordinary narrative we have yet to decipher — we open up whole new worlds to explore. And if we want to think about our impact on the natural world, then we’d better listen to what the nonhuman vocal organisms are saying in response”

Bernie Krause

As interviewed by Leath Tontino 

The Sun (September 2014)


This Full Moon is very special; it is both Full Moon and Summer Solstice (or Winter Solstice, in the South). There are still people in rural areas, indigenous people mostly, holding solstice rituals every year throughout the Americas. They hold these celebrations as a way of honoring and show how grateful they are to the Earth, the Sun, and to those they call their grandparents: their ancestors. Our thoughts are with those celebrating the solstice. After showing our respect to these individuals and groups, let’s begin with our main topic. 


Years ago, I was reading about a wildlife management category in Japan called Soundscape Conservation. Reading that, I thought “how advanced”! Protecting an area because it has natural sounds that are worth keeping for the community, both for the present and the future, is a clear sign of a higher civilization, isn’t it?

Just like it happens with good news (bad news too), the idea stayed in my mind, competing with the vast amount of information we are subject to these days.  More than once I shared this information with friends who were more than pleased to hear about this, and about learning something new and positive. Now we go back to the interview to Bernie Krause (Detroit, 1938). He is a musician and a bio-acoustician, with a Ph.D. in Creative (Sound) Arts, and a world-renowned authority in the emerging “soundscape ecology” field. The interview was conducted by Leath Tonino, and was published on No. 465 of The Sun magazine (thesunmagazine.org). As a child, Bernie suffered from attention deficit hyper­activity disorder [ADHD]. He remembers how the sounds of nature that came through the window to his bedroom calmed him down at nighttime. His parents, who were not that connected to nature, encouraged him to play the violin since he was 3 years old, and Bernie became a musician. 

Long before becoming a “nature lover and a scientist”, Bernie collaborated with musicians like George Harrison and Stevie Wonder. Since it is never too late, at 40 he decided to study the sounds of nature. He quit the Hollywood scene and started with the bio-acoustics career. Today, he understands soundscapes as few do, after having recorded the sounds of nature in several continents. He has already produced a series of recordings, including a symphony with the renowned director Richard Blackford, combining the music from the piano, violoncello, contrabass, and others with the sounds of jaguars, birds, wind, and even glaciers, recorded by Krause. He has also published four books (currently available in English). The following is a link to a TED talk by Krouse: 


Bernie Krause, en su conferencia en TED.


The first recording of the sounds of nature to be reported was made by Ludwig Koch around 1889 in Germany. It was of a bird singing. Since then, most recordings have been of birds. Krouse himself has recordings of over 15,000 species, including birds, but he insists that his objective has been that of recording the entire habitat, and not individual species: collective sounds of nonhuman organisms, he calls them ‘biophonies’. He used the term because he said to have found in them both rhythm and cadence. “I strive for a holistic approach. I’ve never been interested in species-specific recording, in which individual vocalizations are separated from their context”, he tells us. “That would be like trying to understand Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by extracting a single violin player out of the context of the orchestra.”  

The term “soundscape” was coined by Canadian composer and naturalist R. Murray Schafer, in 1977. “It encompasses all of the sounds in a given habitat, whether generated by living or nonliving components. Nonbiological sounds are wind in the trees, water in a stream, waves at the shore, and even the movement of the earth. These were some of the first sounds on the planet”, added Bernie Krouse.

This researcher and musician, together with his colleagues, tell us that wild places with no interference of human sounds are less common every day. Whether it is because of the alteration of the environment or the noise we generate. This noise sometimes has nothing to do with the requirements of communication, of “saying something”, as it does happen with the sounds of animals. “Nearly 50 percent of the habitats where I’ve made recordings over the past forty-plus years have been so severely damaged […by the exploitation of forest and mining resources, deforestation, etc.] that they’re now either biophonically silent or altered to the point of being unrecognizable .”

When Tonino asked if sound was a better way to judge the health of an environment than using our eyes, Krause answered: “I think it is. I think so. It’s easy to fool the eye. Frame a photograph just so in Central Park, and you’ll think the picture was taken in a pristine northeastern forest. But the ear will tell you otherwise” before adding “a picture may be worth a thousand words, but a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.”

Photo by Patrick Denker CC BY 2.0  

Beth King, Public Information Officer at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, reminds me of some research on bio-acoustics that have been conducted in Panama. Fifty years ago, the response of the soundscape to the presence or absence of human beings was studied in Barro Colorado Island; back then, the term had not been coined. The recordings and studies of mating calls of frogs in the island and in Gamboa, conducted by the remembered researcher A. Stanley Rand, are classic. More recent studies show that the communication of homopters, where female insects communicate with their offspring through percussion by rubbing their bodies with the stalks of the plants where they live. I have very good memories of the times when we served as guides to visitors in Barro Colorado. We had placed a couple of benches for the whole group to seat at some point during the walk. For many in the group, it was the first time on an interpretive trail in the forest; this was in the 80-90’s. Once there, we asked them to make themselves comfortable, close their eyes and try not to open them until they heard at least ten different natural sounds. Let me tell you something: their attitude towards the sounds of nature changed after this experience. And, of course, we live surrounded by too much noise that it is distracting. More than once, we were asked to repeat the experience along the trail, for the sole pleasure of it.

Photo by Patrick Denker CC BY 2.0  

I wonder whether we could someday create, and actually manage, a conservation category as they have in Japan: Sound Conservation. Who knows, maybe in the future: hope is the last thing you lose. We could start by controlling the volume of music and movies in public transportation serving our central provinces. This noise is completely unnecessary and it is almost an aggression to passengers.