Really listening to soundscapes

What is a soundscape?

A soundscape is more than a bundle of locational sounds: it is also an overtone series that describes a rich array of relationships. The sounds of the first set are easier to hear than the second set. Soundscape, the word, comes from the composer and acoustician R. Murray Schafer* (1977, instigator of the World Soundscape Project). For Schafer, soundscape is rooted in a concept of acoustic environment of any particular place and is thus closely linked to ecological alterations effected by architecture and landscape change. Schafer’s acoustic ecology is less about ‘fixed’ sounds in a landscape (e.g. a frog by the river) than the relationship between sounds, living beings and places: thus, a typically Schaferian question to ask upon reaching a river would be, “Where’s the frog?” In other words, what relationships (technological/ecological change, human, agricultural, pollution, etc) are at play when one considers the presence (or absence) of the frog? Is this relationship changing and, if so, how could one trace the rate and causes of the change? Inevitably Schafer’s approach to soundscape has been hugely influential for composers, biologists and acousticians whose works abut ecology in some way.

Talking about soundscapes has, since Schafer, acquired a certain ubiquity, with the word used – outside of sound arts and sound theory – simply to describe the sonic character of a place. For historians approaching the analysis of material culture through the sensory – touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing – the use of the soundscape as simply a collection of localised sounds is a way to produce a contemporary imagining of what the past might have sounded like. Analyses that flow from this approach are useful, but limited: could a farmer hear the church bell from field x? What did a tavern sound like (songs, tankards, etc)? What did rough music signify? Could a person at location x have heard the blasphemies uttered by their neighbour in location y – were they a reliable auditory witness, a credible ear-witness?

This literal approach to sound is useful but it is also limited. Historical sensory studies can gain by opening up their methodologies to others – phenomenological, psychoanalytical, political, feminist (inter alia) – that involve sonic inquiry. It’s these additional lines of thinking that enable the resonances of a soundscape to be heard more fully. To be sure, sound’s abstraction fights does not make this easy. The sound theorist and artist Salomé Voegelin writes: “Sound’s ephemeral invisibility obstructs critical engagement, while the apparent stability of the image invites criticism.” (Voegelin 2010; xi) If the friability of sound obscures critical engagement in the here and now, then this problem is accentuated when thinking about historical sound, where the inherent problem – that of technical reproduction arises. Does the same church bell sound the same as it did 500 years ago? From a sound studies perspective, it doesn’t.

Sound is about relationality

The linguistic philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (2007) considers sound as a network of referrals (renvoi) that travel backwards: that is, the sonorous has a precise, phenomenological, resonance in each listener. For Nancy, these referrals are where a sonic meaning is to be found. (Comparisons might be made to psychoanalytic transference.) Thus, because each listener inhabits a unique context, the bell will never sound the same to anyone ever.

Sound theorist Brandon LaBelle (2016: xii) emphasises the social aspects of the referral, embedding it within social, as opposed to linguistic, structures:

[S]ound occurs among bodies; that is, clapping my hands occurs in the presence of others, either as actual people in the room, directly in front of me, or in the other room and beyond, as eavesdroppers, intentional or not. Sound is produced and inflected not only by the materiality of space but also by the presence of others, by a body there, another there, and another over there. Thus, the acoustical event is also a social one: in multiplying and expanding space, sound necessarily generates listeners and a multiplicity of acoustical “viewpoints”, adding to the acoustical event the operations of sociality.

Hearing and listening are different

It is useful to start with the composer and Deep Listening founder Pauline Oliveros’s constant assertion: that hearing and listening are different processes. The first is the product of physiology; hearing is a reflex action; the second is consequence of choice and acculturation. Listening is mediated by many dynamics – politics, gender, race amongst them and is thus a complex activity that brings into play attentiveness, but also the pertinent idea of who and what is worthy of listening to. (This latter point has been taken up, recently and with considerable political force by Judith Butler in Precarious Life.) Issues around who and what is worth listening to leads us to definitions of noise. If one theorises noise, pace anthropologist Mary Douglas’s (1966) writings on dirt, as sound out of place, then we are given a lens through which to view cultural values, mores, etc.

Sound as policing

Examples here are not only the limits of speech, especially with the relationship to blasphemy (self-policing/communal policy), but gossip, church bells (social and spiritual order), rough music, the sound of assembly. (This category is rich in contemporary soundscapes, from warfare right down to mosquito alarms in shopping centres.)

Sound is not a shared resource

Sound, in terms of the ability to be heard and to speak, is not a shared resource. Systemic silencing – through ideology, cultural norms, etc – still exists. Thus, in ‘listening’ to any soundscape, it is imperative that we identify those whose sounds are not made.

Sound is about the embodied self; sound as a cohesive, social tool

John Cage’s 4’ 33” is often used as an example of a performance to show that there is no such thing as silence. If one reads of his listening experiences in an anechoic chamber (specially constructed to mute sonic reflection) where he heard the unruly noises of his body, we realise that the listener carries with them their own, never-silent soundscape.

For Jean-Luc Nancy, sound is singularly heard, but it so also “contagious”. By this, he means that there is something in the nature of listening itself that allows for a communal experience of listening. If the apprehension of sound is experienced in the body/self of its listener, and it follows that that listener is available to a range of group behaviours (singing, rough, music, mobs etc). When groups form, posits Sigmund Freud (1991/1921), individual ego boundaries loosen, inhibitions are relaxed and strong group identifications are formed. (It’s an explanation of why it is so difficult to go against group ‘mind’.) Freud uses the church and the army as examples, but other groups – from contemporary football crowds to historic mobs – fit this scheme. Sound and music play an important part for the group – think of football chants, national anthems, sounds that signal and instigate certain behaviours (e.g. church bells). It is important to remember, as Freud points out, that the group is a hugely emotional entity – which is a source of both its attraction and potential danger. An understanding of these group dynamics allows us to think about how the action of sound informs the development of a group: e.g., a crowd has to be able to hear its leader/its orator. Without decent sound dynamics, group mobilisation would be impaired.

How might we link this to the AHRC Soundscapes project?

Because sound is time-based and leaves no visible trace, it is easy to forget that sound has a lingering presence which can be enhanced by anything that enhances its sonorous quality. (Architecture, especially that of cathedrals, is an obvious example and there are a number of musicological studies that have studied how harmonics hang and cluster in high-spaces to thrilling acoustic effect. Toine Horvers’ 2013 project/book, Chartres: One Hour of Sound in a Gothic Cathedral, revisits this idea of presence by listening – acutely – to all the sounds occurring within a finite length of time in the 12th-century cathedral of Chartres. This project comes from an art background, but it also accentuates the importance of sound in a place where sounds sound different and it is an important reminder of this otherness.) Historically-based sensory studies would be reinvigorated by theorising sound as a flow that is able to be interpreted in multiple ways. To take this kind of approach would stress sound as a relational tool, which carries meanings which contemporary methodologies are able to analyse. With the application of wider, and at times speculative methodologies, resonances of past events can be heard, even now.


Louise Marshall is Technē Innovation Research Fellow at Wellcome Trust/Creative Research into Sound Arts Practice, London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.


Feature image: “A young woman plays music as a man sings from a sheet, another woman listens and a child carries a glass on a tray.” Engraving by A.H. Payne after Caspar Netscher. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Creative Commons License


* Not to be confused with Pierre Schaeffer, the acoustician, composer and theorist associated with musique concrète.



Further Reading:
Butler, Judith, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London and New York: Verso, 2004).
Freud, Sigmund, ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921)’, in Civilization, Society and Religion: Group Psychology, Civilization And Its Discontents And Other Works, edited by Albert Dickson and translated by James Strachey, Vol. 12. The Penguin Freud Library (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991).
Horvers, Toine, Chartres: One Hour of Sound in a Gothic Cathedral (Eindhoven: Onomatopee en Toine Horvers, 2013).
LaBelle, Brandon, Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art. 2nd edn (New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016).
Nancy, Jean-Luc, Listening. Translated by Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007).
Oliveros, Pauline, The Roots of the Moment (New York: Drogue Press, 1998).
Schafer, R Murray, Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books, 1977).
Voegelin, Salomé, Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (New York and London: Continuum, 2010).

Posted in
Scroll to Top