Engaging with the Sounds of an Environment

ABSTRACT: I sought to determine the extent to which careful listening of the Davidson College campus and Main Street soundscapes in a transitional space could inform the cultural and social characteristics of said spaces. Upon initial observations, I looked to ascertain whether resistant behavior in the midst of a certain soundscape was significantly greater for one soundscape and if so, why such a trend would exist. In order to make such determinations, I performed careful listening in the aforementioned transitional space, listening to one soundscape first, before listening to the other while utilizing R. Murray Schafer’s theoretical writing on the types of sounds as well as Michael Chion’s “Three Modes of Listening” as context. After compiling my observations, I recorded the number of individuals in each space utilizing headphones to create what Michael Bull calls an “audio bubble”. My project demonstrates that careful listening to a soundscape can provide important cultural and social information about the space and the individuals it encompasses. Moreover, it also indicates that isolating oneself from a soundscape through headphones can allow for improved future engagement with the soundscape, challenging Bull’s theory.

In day to day life, the sounds of one’s environment are rarely given a second thought. The crunches of leaves under shoes or the rustling of tree branches by the wind are largely tuned out much like white noise. Such lack of attention to the soundscape particularly worries music educator and composer R. Murray Schafer who cites “noise pollution”, which he attributes to “man not listening carefully”, as a particularly pressing problem. Schafer describes our incognizance to the “soundmarks” of the sonic space by defining noise as “the sounds we have learned to ignore” (Schafer 95). According to Schafer, being conscious of the sounds of a soundscape allows us to then recognize those very sounds’ ability to convey the culture or “remote antiquity” of a location. In turn, I elected to study the soundscapes present in the transitional space between Main Street and the Davidson College campus in order to study the extent of cultural and social informational careful listening to soundscapes can yield in the context of Schafer and Michael Chion’s theoretical writing. Interestingly, I found that the soundscapes of each space are indicative of not only the culture of the spaces, but individuals’ responses, both in resistance and approval, to the respective cultures of the college campus and Main Street. More specifically, individuals in the campus soundscape used headphones to create what sound studies professor Michael Bull calls an “audio bubble”, which involves the tuning out of a soundscape. However, I learned that seeking isolation from a soundscape is not necessarily as detrimental as Bull presumes it to be.

On a Wednesday afternoon, the aforementioned transitional soundscape sees its peak of activity given the transitioning of classes on the Davidson campus and the relatively busy shops and roads of Main Street. As a result of the close proximity of the two spaces, I was able to discern two very distinct soundscapes. Davidson College possesses both a significantly smaller class size and smaller campus than most other institutions of higher learning. Of course, this creates a smaller more intimate environment for the college’s students and faculty. Although the smaller size of the campus encourages a certain closeness, it also results in a more compact arrangement of important campus buildings. The Watts dormitory is barely a minute’s walk from Chambers Building which is barely a minute’s walk from the library which is barely a minute’s walk from the Wall Academic Center. Suffice it to say, the Davidson campus soundscape is one that is very congested in its own right even without considering the nearby sonic space of Main Street. In turn, during the transition of classes, there are many sounds to be heard.

The mechanical sound of nearby dormitory doors almost rhythmically opening as students walk to and from classes can be heard. The springtime brings out the chirping of birds, a sound that also continues fairly consistently. The wind rustles the grass and tree branches, while the footsteps of groups of students moving to and from class as well as the voices of the same students are also constant. These sounds become “keynotes” of the Davidson campus soundscape, a term conceived by Schafer that denotes continuous sounds not consciously listened to that provide ambient noise (Schafer 100). What is perhaps most interesting about the keynote sounds is how audible the sounds are across campus. Students voices’ returning from Vail Commons can be heard well beyond the dormitories, while other students voices can be heard from students walking back from the Union. Such prevalence of the keynote sounds did, in fact, demonstrate the closeness and intimacy of the Davidson campus as the proximity of campus buildings allows for the meshing of an abnormally high number of keynote sounds. In turn, listening for the abundance of keynote sounds allows one to get a sense of the close-knit, community feeling on the Davidson campus elicited by the relatively small size of the campus.

As I continued to listen to the campus soundscape, I was met by the greeting of a classmate exiting Chambers Building. The college’s student population is so small and its campus so compact that one will likely encounter a friend or classmate, especially during a weekday. Moreover, this greeting is a “soundmark” of the Davidson campus, a sound that demonstrates a unique quality of a community and its people. My classmate was relatively far away from my location and in turn, was under no obligation to acknowledge me. The soundmark illustrates the intimate environment of the Davidson campus, one in which a student recognizes or knows most everyone on campus.  Similarly, the ringing of the church bell, signifying the ending of classes, also serves as a soundmark of the campus side of the traditional space’s soundscape. The bell’s chime is audible not only at the location in which I listen but throughout the campus. In turn, this soundmark expresses the very unified culture of academic excellence, special to Davidson. Unlike most universities and colleges, Davidson relies on the commitment of its student body to uphold the integrity of the academic experience. And the prevalence of the sound of the bell goes some way to remind students of their unique responsibility with regard to their academic experience.

The Main Street soundscape, making up the other half of the transitional space that I listened to, has its own characteristic sounds that speak to the culture of the space. Much like the Davidson campus, the voices of individuals walking through the street as they enter and exit stores make up keynote sounds. However, through “semantic listening”, or listening that “refers to a code or language to interpret a message” as French composer Michael Chion puts it, I was able to recognize differences in the tones of language utilized by certain individuals on the college campus and individuals on Main Street (Chion, 50). Where the voices of certain students on campus tended to connote an almost exasperated tone as a result of the happenings of class that day, the voices and language I heard from those walking Main Street were far more carefree and joyful. From utilizing Chion’s semantic listening, I was able to ascertain an intuitive, yet distinct difference in the cultures of the two spaces. One culture was heavily infused with the rigors of academic performance, while the other was more concerned with recreation. The culture of leisure in the space of Main Street is best indicated by the rows of restaurants, boutiques, and ice cream shops present for the enjoyment of visitors. Cars also whiz through the road of Main Street, producing an overwhelming sound distinctly heard even over the sound of the college campus. Such a phenomenon is an example of what Schafer calls “noise pollution”. Schafer argues that the ever-increasing implementation of technology in our lives pollutes the soundscape by obscuring more “sacred” sounds (Schafer, 95). These “sacred” sounds constitute the aforementioned sounds of voices and language not emitted from a polluting technological source.

Upon analyzing the soundscapes of the transitional space between the Davidson campus and Main Street, it became increasingly apparent that the sounds of the soundscape are indicative of key characteristics of said soundscape’s community and space, much like Schafer’s writing specified. Engaging in Chion’s semantic listening and identifying Schafer’s types of sounds allowed me to characterize the culture of the campus and Main Street space. However, while my study of the transitional place reaffirmed Schafer’s theories regarding soundscapes and noise pollution, my observance of individuals within each soundscape revealed certain nuances in individuals’ responses to their overarching soundscape. Though the soundmark of my classmate’s greeting and the keynote sounds brought about the feeling of a close-knit community, I noticed an interesting reactionary and almost resistant behavior of a significant minority of students. These students wore headphones plugged into their phone, presumably listening to music in a bid to create their own, isolated soundscape.

Given the warm community feeling indicated by the campus’ soundscape, I found it odd that such a significant portion of students, albeit a minority, attempted to escape the congested Davidson campus soundscape. In turn, I observed each of the two soundscapes on either side of the transitional space again. This time, though, I recorded the number of individuals utilizing headphones on campus as well as the number of individuals utilizing headphones on Main Street. I found that a significantly greater number of individuals on the college campus utilized headphones than those on Main Street. My findings directly challenged sound studies professor Michael Bull’s theoretical writing on the “audio bubble”. In “The Audio-Visual iPod”, Bull argues that creating an “audio bubble, immune to the sounds of others” inhibits the social connection within a community (Bull, 208). Yet, in the case of the Davidson campus soundscape, a space that fosters a tight-knit community, there are still individuals making use of an “audio bubble”. The prevalence of individuals utilizing an iPod like device to create an audio bubble on the college campus does not denote a lack of connection within the student body. Rather, it seems more reasonable that individuals living within a congested sonic space in which an abundance of keynote sounds and buildings are within close proximity of each other might naturally seek an isolated soundscape in order to rejuvenate themselves. Sure, as Bull says, listening and engaging with the voices of others is important to maintain communal cohesion. However, many other students and I may isolate ourselves from the Davidson soundscape through the use of a soundtrack in order to revitalize ourselves before re-entering the engaging soundscape of the campus.

My careful listening to the transitional space between two very different soundscapes allowed me to recognize the importance of soundscapes by contextualizing my observations with the theoretical writing of Schafer and Chion. My listening excursions reflected the warm, but focused community of the Davidson campus and the more carefree, delightful and recreational culture of Main Street. These observances are to be expected given the cultures of the two soundscapes. Perhaps more interestingly, my study led me to explore the prevalence of individuals escaping their soundscape through the use of an “audio bubble”. And in turn, I found that while engagement with surrounding sound is important for social cohesion as Bull theorizes, rejuvenating oneself through an audio bubble for a brief period of time can subsequently allow for more effective engagement with a soundscape.

Works Cited

Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape, Sound Studies Reader. Edited by Jonathan Sterne, Taylor and Francis, 2012.

Chion, Michael. The Three Listening Modes, Sound Studies Reader. Edited by Jonathan Sterne, Taylor and Francis, 2012.

Bull, Michael. The Audio-Visual iPod, Sound Studies Reader. Edited by Jonathan Sterne, Taylor and Francis, 2012.

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