Earth Sounding
Musings on ecological sound and the composer
Derek Charke (2009)
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Sound of a wind turbine, Pubnico, Nova Scotia

Earth sounds surround us. Acoustic ecology pushes for us to become aware of these sounds. We have massive sounds; earthquakes, tsunamis, gigantic sheets of ice breaking free from Antarctica, tornadoes, hurricane force winds and ocean currents channelling through the Minas Basin in the Bay of Fundy. We have large sounds; waves, thunder, hail, rain and medium to small sounds; birds, crickets, dogs and a light wind on a summer day. And we have those miniscule sounds; falling snow, our heartbeat and the blood circulating in our bodies. John Luther Adams, a composer based in Fairbanks Alaska, said in a recent interview with Alex Ross “Listening is a deep mode of awareness. Let’s hear what we can see.” The earth is trying to speak to us and luckily there are those who try to listen. The study of environmental sound is called acoustic ecology and topics include the effect soundscapes have on humans and animals, ways to understand sounds we create and methods to lessen the environmental impact of sound on our environment. There is a push to preserve and to protect soundscapes that have become endangered. A remarkable blossoming of organizations devoted to the preservation of ecological sound has erupted in recent years. The latest trend is “sound mapping”, that is presenting “sound-marks” – a term coined by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer meaning recognizable moments of sound from specific locations – on an interactive map.

Turning our ears on and actively listening to sound – to the earth – is a remarkable thing. Earth sounds have been around far longer than any of us. Imagine listening to thunder a million years ago, or the sound of rain on the ground. It would have been the same back then as it is now. How remarkable is that?! Our world operates in cycles. The seasons are in rhythm with the changing colours of leaves, the first snowfall, the last snowfall and summer. Birds and animals come and go. We hear different sounds throughout the year. The winter is quietest of all, surprisingly quiet in the arctic, life just doesn’t stir. The spring is full of sound, ice melting, birds returning and the land coming alive. Summer arrives so full of sound we tend to tune it out again. The sound of insects at a summer barbeque. Wouldn’t it be great not to hear that mosquito hovering between your ears? But then the absence of sound is particularly disturbing. It signals the extinction of a species, an irrevocable loss. In urban environments these changing cycles of sound are less noticeable. We loose a sense of being with nature. When we do listen we accept sounds of the earth with awe. When thunder booms we stop, and we pay attention. It’s not an everyday sound, especially the more north you venture. When we hear howling wind it keeps us awake, an eery moan through the crack in a window and the creek of vinyl siding, tree branches rubbing against the house; an owl, a raven – a crow. Nearer the ocean seagulls squawk and in the heart of the city pigeons coo. Natural sound, voices of Mother Earth are all around us, if we pay attention. However, there are too many iPods and too many computers, telephones and televisions. It’s so easy to tune out the world.

In their work “The Social and Applied Psychology of Music” Adrian North and David Hargreaves discuss how subjective complexity and repetition play roles in our understanding of a sound and of a musical language. The more complex a soundscape and the denser the information the more difficult it becomes to understand. On a first hearing everything is new and too much information creates auditory overload. As a result our ability to comprehend small details becomes impossible. However, the more we hear a song or listen to a soundscape the better our awareness and understanding becomes. We, as a society, just don’t take the time to allow “deep listening” to paraphrase Pauline Oliveros. As a result there are a plethora of sounds we’ve learned to tune out. As an example our workplaces are filled with these sounds; idle chatter, the electric hum (50 or 60hz in North America), photocopiers, doors and key clicks of computer keyboards. I’m afraid we simply tune out the world, not because we necessarily want to but because it has become overloaded with sounds. We are coping with this extra noise.

Composers and sound artists can’t recreate nature but they can shine a spotlight on it. They can attempt to de-clutter our auditory landscape, as it were. Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe thought that by using the pitches G–A–G  he could characterize the earth in an ecological way and tap into Pythagorean doctrine. French composer Olivier Messiaen went into the countryside to transcribe, by hand, bird song which he later used in a majority of his compositions. Spectralist composers like Kaija Saariaho analyze formants of sound so they can recreate and alter the spectra resulting in lush orchestrations full of quarter-tones and unusual, but surprisingly natural sounding harmonies. Today’s composers regularly use ecological source material as an instrument. Using the analogy of working with clay the composer starts with a clump and eventual finds the inherent shape contained in the rough exterior of the sounds. Beginning with a broad perspective – pondering and overseeing the period of time that must be filled – the composer layers material; themes, gestures and rhythms. Bits and pieces are joined and placed in various strata; the foreground, the middle-ground and the background. Ecological sound contains rhythms, pitches, timbres (thick or thin) spurious harmonics and inharmonic tones and dynamics (loud or soft). As the soundscape is pieced together moments of rhythmic activity, harmony, pitch and texture from field recordings are interwoven with acoustic musical instruments creating a Hyper-Earth-Instrument. This uber instrument contains counterpoint, harmony and accompaniment figures of earthly and man-made sounds. The two worlds, the human and the ecological combine to create a union that reaches out as one entity. This is significant. We have reached this ability through technological advances and through a long history of breaking down codified western aesthetics. If only George Antheil or Edgard Varèse were alive today to witness their prophecies come to fruition! Soundscape artists and composers literally capture sound like a photographer captures images, framing it and presenting in their own way for posterity's sake.

Daniel J. Levitin discusses light waves as different frequencies of oscillation where the end product is an internal mental image we call colour. He describes how sound is different; the neurons in our auditory cortex fire at precise frequencies causing electrodes to create electrical activity at that pitch. What we hear becomes a physical reality. We can walk away from an image or avert our gaze, we can remove our finger if we touch something that’s hot, or spit out the broccoli. We can’t block out sound. It vibrates through us. John Cage put it eloquently “Where ever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” Sound is part of us, electrical energy pulsing through our heads. Sound as an intangible is therefore impossible. Sound must have a progenitor. Sound cannot happen without a conduit, without a fluid in which to carry those pulses that ultimately reach our ears. The complicated biology which happens to transform pulsations of high and low pressure into meaningful and beautiful music is staggering in its complexity. From earliest time humanity has relied on sound to guide and to inform, to communicate and to seek pleasure. Particular frequencies have psychological importance in warning of impending danger. Our physiology has evolved so that certain frequency bands are emphasized, signaling an alert mechanism. Oliver Sacks describes how nocturnal predators, such as owls, can construct veritable sound maps of the environment. Human beings also take auditory cues – not as detailed as the owl mind you – that help orient us to our surroundings.

So, here we are, right now at this very moment, hurling at incredible velocities through the solar-system – that is if the theory of the big bang and our expanding universe is correct – and every one of those resonations is occurring around us. As far back as Pythagorus humans have been searching for the connection between music, the earth and the universe. Pythagorean doctrine describes theories of “human harmony” between the body and the soul, “the music of the Spheres” whereby the speed of the planets and the sun are in the same ratios as the musical intervals. Modern scientists like Brian Greene describe how the very fabric of our existence may be based on one-dimensional vibrating filaments of energy, commonly known as string theory. Objects have a natural resonant frequency. Reducing this to the smallest scale it is conceivable that our entire universe, us, and everything around us could simply be vibrating pulses of energy, simple harmonic resonances. To speak of the Earth, Gaia, the Uber-Mother and the connection to the intangible, audible & ethereal is to speak of our intrinsic bond with sound. If everything we perceive is built from miniscule vibrations then, perhaps, we too are music.


Adams, John Luther. Winter Music. Middletown, Wesleyan University Press, 2004
Barbera, André. "Pythagoras." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 22 Oct. 2009
Cage, John. “The Future of Music: Credo.” Silence. Middletown, Wesleyan University Press, 1973
Covell, Roger. "Sculthorpe, Peter." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 22 Oct. 2009
Cummings, Jim. Acoustic Ecology.
Greene, Brian. The Fabric of The Cosmos. New York, Vintage Books, 2005
Griffiths, Paul. "Varèse, Edgard." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 22 Oct. 2009
Korhonen, Kimmo and Nieminen, Risto. "Saariaho, Kaija." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 22 Oct. 2009  
Levitin, Daniel J. This is your Brain on Music. London, Penguin Books Ltd., 2006
North, Adrian and Hargreaves, David. The Social and Applied Psychology of Music. New York, Oxford University Press, 2008
Ross, Alex. New Yorker "A Sonic Geography of the Arctic" John Luther Adams Interview. New York: The New Yorker, Sept. 02, 2009
Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2007
Weisman, Alan. The World Without Us. Toronto, Harper Perennial, 2008

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