Beauty in the Ear of the Beholder

Voices of the Wild: Animal Songs, Human Din, and the Call to Save Natural Soundscapes
by Bernie Krause
Yale University Press, 2014, 166 pages

The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World
by Trevor Cox
WW Norton & Co, 2014, 331 pages

I don’t know what it is about the sound of the wind roaring through pine trees, but it always makes me smile and relax. It’s the sound of outdoor vacations, the memory of summer sun and swimming in lakes. I simply love it.

I’m not alone in having this love for the sounds of the natural world. Two recent books by sonic scientists explain that the “soundscape” is a crucial part of what makes an ecology tick.

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Bernie Krause helped pioneer the concept of recording the sounds of natural landscapes, and in the process helped create a whole new field of science. In the beginning years of outdoor recording – and still to a large extent today – acousticians in the wild focused on individual natural sounds, such as specific bird calls or whale songs. Krause wanted to understand the entire natural soundscape: All the different sounds coming from physical non-living sources (like streams flowing), the biological sounds from nonhuman organisms (birds, mammals), and the human noises that often intrude in natural soundscapes and can cause disruption and even ecological damage (cars , underwater sonar).

In his latest book, Voices of the Wild, Krause writes: “Outside of musical literature, few words in English exist to explain the vast range of attributes that sounds express.”

Beginning in 1968, Krause set out, with some trepidation, to record natural sounds with a bulky reel-to-reel tape recorder. Since then, increasingly sophisticated technology allows acousticians to record natural soundscapes with far more breadth and depth. The resulting recordings have helped shed new information on how ecosystems work. In one instance, Krause recorded the sounds of a forest before a logging company undertook selective cutting of individual trees. Afterwards, the landscape looked pretty much the same. But Krause’s “after” recordings lacked substantial portions of the original soundscape. Many birds had fled the area.

In this short book, Krause argues passionately for the protection of natural soundscapes. Too often, noise is not considered at all by land managers. “My fondest wish,” Krause writes, “would be to survive long enough to hear the wonders that will be discovered through the multihued prism of this fabulous medium and to have faith that wild soundscapes will still be heard by and inform others of our species, young and old, just as I have come to know and love them.”


Trevor Cox is also an acoustician, with a similar passion. In The Sound Book, Cox travels the world to visit places – both natural spaces and human-built structures – that have qualities of sound that are found nowhere else. He is looking for special sound monuments, or sonic parks, and he encourages us to similarly explore the soundscape around us.

Along the way, Cox explains much about how sound works. How many reverberations can we expect to hear in a large space, such as underground caverns or underground oil tanks (which, sans oil, provide an interesting sound chamber of immense size)? Where on Earth is the best site to receive echoes, and how long do those echoes last?

Cox’s tour of the Sonic Wonders of the World reveals some amazing phenomena. Under the ice in the high Arctic, bearded seals engage in otherworldly singing. In California’s Mojave Desert, sand dunes are said to “sing.” (Though Cox in his brief visit is unable to hear that particular symphony; singing sand dunes depend on many conditions coming together, like temperature, humidity, air movements.)

Should such soundscapes be protected? Cox believes so – they are a part of the human experience that should be available to future generations. Like an ancient cathedral, a marvelous echo is something to treasure and preserve.

If we lose such treasures, we will find ourselves both culturally and ecologically deaf.

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