The Soundtrack of Life

The Soundtrack of Life

Without soft furnishings or partition walls to create a sonic buffer, the trendy Gastown café where I meet Tyler Kinnear, a PhD student in Musicology at UBC, has the resonant effect of a blender. The clatter from the kitchen is competing with the cappuccino machine, which in turn is at war with the coffee grinder and rising conversation. Outside, sirens and tires screech.

I had hoped to meet Kinnear in the Bell Tower of the Holy Rosary Cathedral, where he used to be a bell ringer, and could not get the romantic idea of the cathedral’s hushed foyer and harmonious church bells out of my mind’s ear. As a student of music, Kinnear is a practiced listener. He is fascinated by the acoustic environment – in particular, the musical compositions created from natural sounds such as water or pine bark beetles – and I’m meeting him to talk about a recent study he’s done to assess the current acoustic reach of the 1906 Holy Rosary bells in their 21st century skyscraper-dominated environment. The people seated around us may have found the noisy atmosphere of the café socially stimulating; I found it chaotic and discordant. But Kinnear probably found it informative.

When listening attentively, what we hear gives insight into the cultural, social and technological aspects of place and time – think about what you would hear in the cathedral versus the café – yet until the fairly recent emergence of the field of acoustic ecology, sound’s capacity to reveal information has largely been ignored as a means to understand the world.

There are reports of urban birds singing differently than their country counterparts because of the interference of downtown buildings.

Acoustic ecology, or soundscape studies, dates back to the 70s, when a rising concern for ecological balance gave birth to environmentalism.  Murray Schafer, a musician, composer and educator, wanted to analyse the changing historical and cultural configuration of soundscapes. He suggested an ecological framework to examine the growing problems of noise and the way we should design our environment. Acoustic ecology examines how living things create or affect their aural environment and how, in turn, that environment is having an effect on living things. Originally dominated by artists and academics in the humanities, the field of study has become of interest to a variety of disciplines.

Sound-based studies are being done in many fields, including anthropology, engineering, psychology and geography. And for good reason.  Noise-induced hearing loss is the leading occupational hazard worldwide and one in eight American children, about five million, has some noise-induced hearing loss. Modernization and development are affecting our urban soundscapes in many unanticipated ways – for example, there are reports of urban birds singing differently than their country counterparts because of the interference of downtown buildings – and sound affects us all in more ways than we think.

In the café, had I been able to shut my ear-lids (one of many sound-related neologisms created by Schafer during the nascent stage of sound-based studies) my experience might have been informed by the aroma of fresh-baked bread and newly ground coffee, or perhaps my eye would have been drawn to the open-concept kitchen and well-dressed hipsters strewn about on stools. Yet my consciousness was held hostage almost entirely by what I could hear. I had to yell over the jumble of sound and found it difficult to concentrate on our conversation.

City streets
Modernization and development are affecting our urban soundscapes.

There is a dynamic, yet rarely recognized, interaction between listeners, their physical environment and the social situation where listening takes place. This relationship was explored through a UBC interdisciplinary acoustic ecology project conducted a few years ago, which demonstrated that the acoustic environment clearly affects communication strategies.

One study focused on a restaurant and an elementary school classroom, drawing attention to noise interference from interior sources like fluorescent lighting as well as ventilation and heating systems. External noises included traffic and planes. The researchers discovered that continuous average noise levels in the classroom ranged from 68 to 74 decibels. As a result, students needed to speak louder so they could be heard. This caused sound levels to peak as high as 119 decibels, which is nine decibels louder than a chainsaw.

The study found that resulting conversation strategies – used in both the noisy classroom and restaurant settings – were “similar to those used by people who are hard-of-hearing.” The strategies include but are not limited to: avoidance of talk, requests for clarification, repetition, less discussion on a shared topic, more topic shifts, and interruption as a device to take control of the conversation. These changes in communication strategies were measurable effects of the sound environment, not personal preference.

While many consequences of modern-day soundscapes are unanticipated, sometimes sound has been purposely used to calculated effect. Take the gym, where loud, pumping music is played to get your adrenaline going. Now imagine yourself inside a Starbucks, where the sonic store experience is a carefully-crafted cone of brand identity. The visual parallel is that of painting a room blue, instead of red, so that everyone will stay calm.

“If we dare to take off our headphones and just live in the world without listening to our own chosen soundtrack,” Westerkamp asks, “what do we hear?”

Should you choose to paint the acoustic room red, so to speak, you may want to try blasting its occupants with the Barney theme song, the most popular sonic weapon in the “US torture toolkit,” according to George Foy’s recent book Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence. Foy says pop music, like “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees and “Shoot to Thrill” by AC/DC, has been played at ear-crushing volume by American forces against Noriega in Panama, prisoners at Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq, and Guantanamo.

A more subtle example of using sound to desired effect comes from The Muzak Corporation. Formed in 1934, they call  themselves “specialists in the physiological and psychological effects and applications of music.”  Initially, this muzak (or scientifically engineered sound) was played to industrial workers to increase productivity. After the war, the Muzak Corporation branched into providing music in stores. As the tagline went, they were creating “music not to be listened to.” In other words, the music was not provided as an active listening activity, like at a concert or in a cathedral, but for other purposes, such as encouraging more purchases by subliminally influencing the mood and mindset of customers.

Acoustic ecologist Hildegard Westerkamp, an alumna who has been involved in the field since its beginnings and worked with Schafer on some landmark studies, says the Muzak Corporation and others were so successful in creating such pervasive in-store soundscapes that they trained us all into expecting a soundtrack to be a part of our lives. By the 80s, when the Walkman arrived, we had already come to accept that music should always be a background accompaniment to our lives. But should it? “If we dare to take off our headphones and just live in the world without listening to our own chosen soundtrack,” Westerkamp asks, “what do we hear?”

Muzak (or scientifically engineered sound) has been played to industrial workers to increase productivity.

Westerkamp’s colleague, Barry Truax, another UBC alumnus who figures prominently in the development of acoustic ecology, points out that the “sound arriving at the ear is the analogue of the current state of the physical environment.” Be it physical, social, cultural, geographical or historical, information about the environment is encoded in the soundscape. In Vancouver, hearing the hand-rung bells of the Holy Rosary Cathedral, tells you that you are in a Christian community. In Mecca, you would hear the Muslim call to prayer. If you knew nothing else about where you were, these sounds would give you information.

Acoustic Profile
Courtesy of Cambridge Street Publishing, from the Handbook for Acoustic Ecology, CD-ROM, 1999.

The landscape is always evolving and so is the soundscape. Consider the bells at the Holy Rosary Cathedral, one of only eight remaining hand-rung sets in Canada. Their acoustic resonance has been part of Vancouver’s sonic landscape since 1906, when they were first hung. Back then, before the erection of tall buildings created an acoustic buffer, the sound of the bells would have reached much further into the surrounding downtown area than they do today. When you think of this, it is easy to imagine sound as a window into history. You can almost imagine an invisible acoustic thread connecting the sound of one flint striking another to the contemporary orchestra of jet planes, back-up beeps and electronic hisses and hums.

In July of 2011, Kinnear (who has spent the last year and a half learning the art of change ringing, a practice that emerged in England in the 17th century) recorded and mapped the acoustic range reached by the cathedral bells of the Holy Rosary Cathedral. This mapping exercise was first done in 1973 by both Westerkamp and Truax (as part of  a major international project to document the world’s soundscapes) and again in 1996. The reason was to both document and draw attention to the changing Vancouver soundscape.

Listen to This


Tyler Kinnear says soundwalks are a great entry point for people unfamiliar with soundscape studies or listening practices in general. This excerpt was from a soundwalk exploring underground parking lots — it features a shopping cart being played by mallets.

“We are often so distracted by other things,” says Kinnear over the din of the café, “to choose to give your ears priority is a conscious practice.” He recently gave up change ringing to become chair of the Vancouver Soundwalk Collective, originally started by Hildegard Westerkamp. A soundwalk is a silent group walk led along a pre-planned route that is designed to draw attention to “a location’s ambiance and underlying rhythms.” Participants are invited to actively listen to “the complex orchestration that the environment is composing at all times.”

Acoustic ecology asks us to acknowledge our role in the composition of the soundscape – because as that soundscape changes, so do we. The knowledge gained from sound-based studies might help us to design classrooms, offices and social spaces that minimize extraneous sound so that we can focus on consciously listening to what is salient. Although we may not be able to influence the course of modernization and development, or curb the increased mechanization and other new sounds to which we become exposed, we can at least remain aware and attentive to the nuances embedded in our soundscapes. With awareness comes the ability to act. This will be the next stage of acoustic ecology. Listen for it.

Vancouver Soundwalks

The Collective holds a monthly improvised soundwalk and several Vancouver New Music-sponsored soundwalks annually.  The best way to learn about these and other soundwalks is by joining their e-mail list (by contacting VNM).  There are two VNM-sponsored soundwalks in April that may be of interest:

“LEAVING FOOTPRINTS: Hearing the Sounds of Home”
Led by Jenni Schine & Cat Main
Sunday 15 April, 2012; 2:00pm-3:30pm
Meet at Commercial and 14th

“The Sounds of Sustainability”
Led by Tyler Kinnear
Sunday  22 April, 2012; 2:00pm-3:30pm
Meet at the main entrance to the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, located on the UBC campus.



  1. K Gordanier-Smith says:

    I would be interested to participate in a Vancouver Soundwalk.

    1. Elizabeth Powell says:

      Thanks for your interest! We’ve edited the article to include information about upcoming Vancouver Soundwalks organized by the Collective.

  2. Ryan Kalef says:

    This is a very interesting article. I have just recently defended my masters thesis which looked at how we perceive the acoustics of common space environments, building on the research of many of the studies you just mentioned.

    1. Teresa Goff says:

      Ryan, I would love to hear more about your master’s thesis. Please get in touch through TREK.

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