The following Short Note on environmental aesthetics was guest-edited by Tom Baugh.
broadly defined, environmental aesthetics tends to focus on the aesthetic value
of human and human-influenced systems in addition to that of natural systems.
It places strong emphasis on physical manifestations, often analyzing the
design and function of structures. Sound, however, is rarely identified as a
critical component of an aesthetic analysis. This short note examines
soundscape ecology—an emerging discipline in ecology—and its strong ties and
potential contributions to environmental aesthetics.
ecology, as put forth by Pijanowski et al. in 2011, broadens the field of
bioacoustics to include not only the study of biophony (sounds created by
organisms), but also geophony (nonbiological, ambient sounds such as wind,
storms, rain, and rivers) and anthrophony (sounds caused by humans and
human-related activity)—collectively referred to as the “soundscape” of a given
landscape. Pijanowski suggests that “processes occurring within landscapes can
be tightly linked to and reflected in patterns of sounds in landscapes.” Thus,
the soundscape provides a wealth of information about a particular landscape.
In addition, its acoustic patterns over various spatial and temporal scales can
be used to evaluate its state or processes that transpire therein. For
instance, Bernie Krause used sound as a proxy to determine ecosystem health
through his underwater recordings of coral reef ecosystems in Fiji before and
after bleaching events. Sound recordings can also serve as a (rough) index of
biological diversity, in which a species’ presence is determined by its
interactions between the soundscape and the organisms that inhabit a landscape
can be quite complex and unexpected. For example, if a threat is perceived, an
individual organism may sound an alarm to alert its kin and mate. Such calls
can also be eavesdropped upon and shared by other species so they can take
appropriate action. In human influenced systems with “noisy” soundscapes,
anthrophony may mask such alarm calls and inhibit them from being communicated
to specific audiences. This, too, is the focus of soundscape ecology: how
anthropogenic sounds affect soundscape function and composition, how
soundscapes differ with land-use patterns, and how species coordinate
communication and vocalizations across different landscapes. The results of
this research complements other ecological information and helps to create more
effective and holistic approaches to conservation.
“natural” systems, sound is an important component of our day-to-day lives and
has an explicit aesthetic value. Moreover, sounds influence our perception of
our environment and direct—to some extent–our behavior. For example, relaxing
music in airports and hospitals induces feelings of calmness and comfort, yet
upbeat music can make consumers buy more products in a grocery store. On the
other hand, white noise pumped into office settings shields office workers from
unwanted distractions. Just as in more natural settings, the soundscape
provides us with much information about a certain location.
structures are specifically designed around sound. For instance, theaters and
concert halls are constructed in such a way that sound emanating from the stage
is amplified and reflected back to the audience. Other structures inhibit
sound, as seen (or heard) through sound walls along busy motorways that reduce
(unpleasant) noise. This then begs the question—what message should sound
the construction of transportation networks, office buildings, neighborhoods,
and more, we ought to evaluate these collective effects on the soundscape.
While this is done to a certain extent by federal and state agencies, sound is
considered only within basic and limited measures such as frequency (pitch) and
amplitude (loudness). For example, strict regulations by the Federal Aviation
Administration that ban all supersonic flight by aircraft over the United
States represent an intersection between soundscape ecology and environmental
aesthetics. After all, we may not want sonic booms going off overhead in our
neighborhoods. But this does make the question of sound’s aesthetic nature
salient—and what constitutes the difference between sound and noise (likely
non-aesthetic)? And why?
must think of sound as part of the structure or environment in question and
also as a product. Just as we analyze the visual aesthetic nature and value of
a structure and its function, we must consider sound as an equal factor. For
instance, we might ask what sounds (or noise) a structure will produce. Will
the sounds produced (before, during, and after construction) mask the
surrounding soundscape? Will we need to mitigate for potential negative
impacts? How will we do that?
so, soundscape ecology invites us to take sound into consideration and broaden
the field of environmental aesthetics. After all, our environment is one of
interaction and complexity. In turn, a greater awareness of soundscapes in
human systems may ultimately lead to more acoustically aesthetic and sound
designs of structures and environments.
University of Idaho
Published on May 24, 2016
B.C. Pijanowski, et al., "Soundscape Ecology: The Science of Sound in the Landscape,"
BioScience, 61(3), (2011), 203-216. DOI: 10.1525/bio.2011.61.3.6.