Travel Tuesdays - The Sounds of Life

Welcome to “Travel Tuesdays,” a resource for those whose plans have been deferred and a distraction for people who enjoy armchair travel.  Each week we’ll suggest a virtual destination for you to visit.

All of these ideas are curated and brought to you by Lorraine Rubinacci!

To read Lorraine's archived posts, visit this page.


Travel Tuesdays, April 20, 2021 - "The Sounds of Life"

Colonel Freeleigh, an elderly man in Ray Bradbury’s novella, Dandelion Wine, phones his old friend in Mexico City just to hear the noises of the city’s streets.  These ordinary, but vibrant, sounds remind him of his youth and offer comfort that life, in all its exuberance, will continue.  I can relate.  Perhaps because my vision has been less than stellar since childhood, I rely upon my ears to navigate life, and I feel emotion in response to what I hear.  I recognize and relate to people by their voices, and my daydreams form in words.  I was delighted when tools for birding-by-ear became available to naturalists.  While I may be more alert to sound than the average person, the world’s soundscapes help most people define what’s familiar or safe, what feels like “home,” and what constitutes memory.  Just as weather, climate, vegetation, language, and customs give a place specificity, so does its soundscape.  This week we travel with our ears.

According to Oxford Music Online, soundscape is a “term generally referring to the entire mosaic of sounds heard in a specific area.”  It includes sounds from humans, animals, natural phenomena like wind, and the sounds of machinery.  The term is a relatively modern one, coming into widespread use during the 1960s and 70s when R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer and environmentalist, explored the concept with his team at Simon Fraser University.  For a history of their work, including publications and recordings, read this brief summary by Barry Truax, one of the World Soundscape Project’s members.  Since their pioneering work, the study of soundscapes has enriched the fields of ecology, urban planning, musical composition, and health.

Not surprisingly, the internet offers a wealth of auditory experiences.  One place to start is World Sounds.  “Field Recordist” Colin Hunter’s website offers a range of sounds, mostly recorded in Europe and Asia.  It’s possible to search by map view:


Or by the archives which includes 134 recordings, each with brief, but informative, photo essays that offer background.  Here you will find chanting monks, calling gibbons, bubbling mud pots, tolling church bells and much more -- a nice representation of human and non-human sounds in the geographic areas that the author has visited.

Here’s a recording of some impressive cicadas in Thailand.

Cicada 1, Khao Sok National Park

As an example of a distinctive human soundscape, World Sounds offers this recording of singing children at a Ugandan orphanage.  The kids are Batwa, hunter-gatherers who are now, unfortunately, displaced from their traditional forest homes.

Ruhija Community Orphanage, Ruhija Village, Uganda

My last example from World Sounds demonstrates the historical value of sound recordings.  In his description of “The Lost Sound of the Split Flap Departure Board, Paris, France,” the author describes  a sound that he recorded in 2012 “that no longer exists in this city.” The mechanical departure board, and its unique sound, had been ubiquitous in train stations and airports -- until electronic boards replaced them.  See the image below and listen to the clicking sound of the updating board at approximately one minute into the recording.

Solari board in Philadelphia 30th St. Station, November 2013

CTLiotta, CC0


This situation reminds me of evolving clock technology:  the chirp of my mother’s cuckoo clock and, later, the chime of her grandfather clock are now memories. The same is true of my own ticking alarm clocks and wrist watches.  The ability to tell time continued; part of the soundscape did not. 

For a local’s view of home, peruse Orbitz’s “soundscapes” site.  The travel aggregator asked people in 36 places to record their ambient sounds and to pair each of them with a single image.  The result is a charming international tour that can be completed in about 10 minutes.  Without leaving your chair, you can chill out with the surf at Cancun, feel convivial at an Egyptian cafe, or let the street music of Malaga, Spain brighten your day. 

While some of the recordings capture common human experiences, others focus on the distinctive qualities of a place.  The raucous call of the kookaburra screams Australia, while the crunchy snow of Lillehammer, Norway occurs only in very cold climes.

Lillehammer, Norway

Credit:  Orbitz


There is a quirky feature of the “soundscapes” website:  on an iPad or iPhone, each frame needs to be unmuted; on my MacBook, it was necessary to quickly switch to a different tab and back in order to have volume.  Maybe your settings will work better than mine.

Many nature-oriented websites offer sound recordings as well.  Cornell University’s “All About Birds”, for example,  provides recordings of “600+ North American species.”

Each species has its own habitat, and range maps can help you determine whether these sounds will be part of an area's soundscape.  Other recordings emphasize a place or a natural event such as a breeding season or migration.  These might be more useful in getting an overall sonic portrait of a place.  I would recommend The Music of Nature by Lang Elliot.  His excellent recordings are available for purchase or to sample on his SoundCloud, Vimeo, YouTube channels.  Some feature individual species such as porcupines, but others offer multiple sound clips of a place.  Examples include an Ecuadorian rainforest and a wilderness canyon in Arizona.  Here’s a beautiful sample from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.



Having “traveled” the world’s soundscapes, now it’s time to explore locally, to have new experiences by adopting a different approach.  Take a soundwalk!  Pay attention to the soundscape of your home and neighborhood.  Use your phone to record it at different times of day and see if the playback matches your impressions. Was there anything happening that you hadn’t noticed?  This article in the Toronto Star describes the impacts of COVID-19 on human and animal sounds and on our perception of sound.  Now is a good time to pay attention to local soundscapes, before human activity resumes full swing.  Challenge yourself to hear distant sounds and to get out of your own thoughts.

As preparation, watch “How to Find Silence in a Noisy World,” a 7-minute video filmed in the Hoh Rainforest of Washington’s Olympic National Forest.  Ecologist, Gordon Hempton shares his experiences recording sound and his insights into the profound impacts sound has on all creatures, including us.

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