Listening is a way of being in the moment and being with others. It is also a way of knowing the world, both the natural and human-built environment. Normally, we humans identify ourselves as thinking beings, looking out on and into the environs, separate from the objects that we see – but we are also feeling the vibrations of the world, and if we pay attention to them, a different province opens, which is a world of connection, rather than one of distance.
Upon listening, we realize that we are inside this world, part and parcel of it, instead of looking out at it. At moments of genuine connection through music, we feel a deep kinship with others. And it is based on this feeling of kinship that we can try to build more responsible institutions and a more just, caring and harmonious society.
The sound of nature is the purest form of art around us, for it enriches human beings at three vital levels. Nature’s music delights us at an aesthetic level – we are thrilled by a bird’s call, mesmerized by a gushing stream or soothed by a breezy, murmuring tree. Nature’s sounds make us aware of our environment. We feel the golden warmth of a summer’s day more vividly as bees hum around us while a winter’s cold, dark night comes wrapped in the sounds of an owl’s flapping feathers. It is not just the stunning views, refreshing scents and the physical exercise beyond the city limits, though, which are beneficial for us. In recent years, it has been found that one specific component of nature has a particularly profound effect on humans: her sound. Just think about how disturbing the noise from construction site around the corner or a colleague’s loud phone calls can be. Now, remember what we heard during our last trip to the countryside: we probably perceived those sounds as very pleasant. Whether it is humming of the bees or murmur of a stream, nature’s sounds have been proven to affect processes in the human brain.
It is not necessary to spend vacations around world’s exotic regions. Nor is it required to go hiking every weekend. Even if it is only a little time, one can spend it in the open air – just a few minutes of nature’s music make a difference! En route to office, for example, one could take a traffic-calmed side street or a favourite stamping ground, to possibly hear a squirrel cracking a nut. Instead of spending lunch break in a stuffy room, step outside, and enjoy the meal in the park. Pay attention, and it will be rewarded: even in the concrete jungle, the wind is dancing its way through trees and birds are singing their songs. A brawling river, chirping crickets, and a crackling fire – many people experience natural noises as soothing. Now a scientific study proves what some of us have always known to be true: Nature sounds have a direct therapeutic effect on living creatures as these are almost always associated with creating a soothing atmosphere, and with restoring a sense of peace and calm: the wash of the sea on the beach, for instance; the rustle of leaves, or the liquid sunshine of birdsong.
Sounds serve as medium for meaningful inter and intra species communication. As an example, there is cross-species communication among humans and domestic animals, whether Sami herders and their reindeer, Mongolian nomads and their sheep, trackers and their dogs or children and their pets. Such communication also exists between predators and prey – a noise from a human is often a danger warning to an animal, or an alarm call by an animal warns all other animals within hearing distance. The ‘sound commons’ prevailing among all living creatures is a natural characteristic that must be preserved by humans through environmental conservation, to enable all creatures (ourselves included) to communicate in our acoustic niches in the soundscape. A ‘commons’ is a resource that is shared but cannot be owned – it is like the air surrounding the land and the oceans. A sound commons is a sonic resource, an acoustic space that enables all living creatures and species to establish acoustic niches where they can communicate with least amount of interference. Anthropogenic noise, however, such as noise from ships and sonar or vehicular traffic, airplanes, construction equipment and so on, generate the most disturbance in this natural sound commons today.
A sound ecology is, literally, the study of beings and their sonic relations to one another and to their environment. These sonic relations are direct, physical connections. One being produces a sound vibration – the resulting sound travels in a longitudinal wave and vibrates other beings. By means of these sounds, these beings communicate with one another and with their environment. Importantly, those direct, physical connections also imply direct linkage among beings within a community. So, a sound economy is built on direct personal connections and exchanges, quite like the functioning of a local economy. This contrasts with the distant relations, the indirect exchanges, the legal relations, the contracts and competition we see in an unsound, global economy. Ecological connections expressed through music and sound are thus based on cooperation and sustainability.
It is very important to delve deeper into this way of experiencing the world. We should explore eco-musicology more and think about the study of sound, music, nature and culture, in a time of environmental crisis.
When we start to listen to the sounds of nature, we sense the huge and wonderful mystery that is life, all around us. In music created by humans, we put together sounds, having patterns, informed with emotions and beauty. We do not always know what the message of an instrumental piece of music is though – what we do know is what such music does to us. Animal music is, perhaps, the same phenomena. Animals put sounds together, they perform pieces of music, these performances are full of emotion, structure and meaning, but it cannot be turned into a simple message. But once animal sounds are understood as music, they become far more comprehensible. Upon listening with care, one understands why certain emotions are felt on hearing birdsong or whales singing. We instinctively recognize there is something much closer to music than language in these sounds. Cicadas emerging after years underground to sing for a few days before they vanish again, bees humming as they gather nectar, common birds with the most melodious calls; we hear these species without often paying much attention. Yet on really listening to them, something amazing happens. It is literally like listening to music from another part of the world, in another language, where one is suddenly moved by what is heard. There is a quality deep within animal music that stirs us as human beings.
Revelling in creation of unusual and beautiful sounds, animals are presumably the mysteries and the answers of evolution. Be it the all-night concert of nightingale, or the mellifluence of white-rumped Shama or the innate musicality of humpback whales, it is not always survival of the fittest but the most beautifully sounding in nature. Birds warble improvised melodies to get a ‘high’, and not merely as one of those quotidian tasks. As in humans, random musical compositions are said to release feel-good chemicals in animal brains; probably these endogenous opioids make them busk first thing in the morning, to jazz up the rest of their day. In a world impacted by anthropause, meaning the dramatic reduction in human activity due to C-19, Barcelona’s famed Gran Teatre del Liceu recently celebrated their reopening by performing Puccini’s Crisantemi concerto to a full-house audience of plants from a local nursery. It is reported that the ‘planted’ audience was as conceived by Spanish artist Eugenio Ampudia who, like many around the world, was greatly inspired by and drawn to the healing powers of nature; “I heard many more birds singing. And the plants in my garden and outside growing faster, and, without a doubt, I thought that maybe I could now relate in a much intimate way with people and nature”, Ampudia enthused of his inspiration. Given that it is possible to listen to plants and trees making music thanks to bio-sonification – technology converting bio-rhythms into beats and waves -, the possibility of listening to an organized concert of ‘foliaged friends’ in the not-too-distant future may not be far-fetched. Research indicates that our ‘green friends’ enjoy listening to classical music and hence must have been silently rooting for the UceLi quartet. Each species has its own aesthetic universe – sometimes these universes meet. David Rothenberg refers to ‘inter-species music’, citing his unique experience of performing music with birds, cicadas and whales. The music, he adds, made by a human and a nightingale together, is somewhere in-between the world of people and birds, a magical space which is fleeting but also very powerful. Through years of such inter-species concerts, Rothenberg feels a close connect being forged with species in nature which, perhaps, is perceived by animals and birds as well. A nightingale sings across the night but, significantly, it leaves a space for someone else to perform, interspersed with its own singing. Birds and animals do not choose to be alone, singing in quiet places with no one around. They appreciate a whole world of sound just as humans do. Music from the natural world instills a keener understanding of the ecosystem with our place in it, other beings that share it, and the seasons that shape us all.
We hear climate change in the sounds of the intensifying wind and rain storms around us, in the breaking and falling of trees, the sounds of more frequent forest fires and the terrifying sounds of floods. We hear climate change in the changing soundscapes of where we travel and live, as some species vanish, taking their sounds with them. Climate change is ensuring that our world never sounds the same again.
But nature’s music also touches a deeper place within us. It gives us – as great art always does – both bewildering questions and comforting answers. When we hear a bird trill, a dolphin click its call, or crickets chirp in unison as dusk falls, we become keenly aware of a mystery around us. That mystery is life, which poses to us its own questions – who are we? Why are we here? What should our existence mean? Through millennia, humans faced these questions and found inspiring answers in nature’s music, which murmurs, amidst breeze, birds and rainfall, that you and I are not alone. Nature’s sounds emphasize we humans are part of its great plan, sharing the Earth with other forms of life, many of which communicate with us as well. This is why birds sing around us human beings – they know we share this Earth and this life, of mysteries and love, sorrows and calmness, with them. We are in this together, they seem to say, and this is one reason why nature’s sounds are perceived to be so reassuring.
Alas, nature’s music is changing now. With hundreds of bird species endangered, nearly half the insect species facing extinction and seasons themselves changing as the earth’s air and oceans heat, environmentalists stress in despair that climate change is altering the way our world sounds. This is a change we must put a stop to, to stave off the loneliness of the Anthropocene. Time to cherish nature’s sounds, for it is only when we humans hear nature’s music that we are in harmony, with life and ourselves.