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Eric Leonardson is the director of the World Listening Project and founder of the Midwest Society for Acoustical Ecology. In this feature he talks about the sound of the everyday world as a “living museum” and something that everyone, including museums, should be paying attention to.  
May 12, 2014
On Sound, Listening and Public Engagement
By Eric Leonardson

In 2008 a Chicago-based non-profit art organization called  the World Listening Project began by inviting people interested in field recording[i] and acoustic ecology to create an online map of sounds from around the world. Two years later the WLP and Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology[ii] provided official support to lead the annual World Listening Day, an international event initiated by Dan Godston. This day is an annual observation and celebration of listening and the acoustic environment occurring every July 18th, the date of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s birthday. Shafer was the founder of the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University, in the early-70s. The WSP conducted pioneering researching into the role of the acoustic environment and it’s effect on the quality of life for its inhabitants. Coining the term “soundscape,” among others, helped give names to what heretofore was beyond the reach of most everyone’s consciousness, and thus begins to help us grasp what often is ignored about this pervasive and fundamentally important of aspect of everyday life.

Hum Map, World Soundscape Project

Held every July 18th, World Listening Day has been very successful at inspiring dozens of organizations and several hundred people to participate on six continents[i]. Many people observe WLD privately by listening to their soundscapes, taking personal soundwalks, or by other methods and practices. Some held ambitious public events at museums, national parks, and arts centers during the week surrounding that day.

Social media and online Internet connectivity play an essential role in facilitating a global network around any concern. So we have learned with World Listening Day, using available technologies at very low-cost, we are engaging people with their interest in sounds and listening on many levels; engaging broad interest amongst professionals and amateurs, in ways both formal and informal.

The renowned bio-acoustician and author Bernie Krause was among the first to sign on to idea of creating the WLP. He is an advocate of natural environments as much as he is a technically adept scientist. Krause’s book, Wild Soundscapes: Discovering the Voice of the Natural World[ii] is a guidebook and invitation to explore “creature sounds and voices.” He speaks to the world as passionate preservation of nature through what we can learn by listening to it. His 2012 book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music In the World’s Wild Places is part biography and part exposition on his revelatory experiences with non-human species through their use of sound. Building on Schafer’s idea of listening to the soundscape as if it were musically orchestrated, Krause formulated his “Niche Hypothesis” [iii] to show how each species of sound-making animal in a richly populated and bio diverse environment of have evolved to avoid a cacophony, to modulate and occupy different species-specific frequency bands, enabling each to communicate without interfering with the audible communications of other species in that environment.

Soundscape Diagram of West Coast BC, by Barry Truax

Being There

The formation of the WLP and MSAE are one local manifestation of a global explosion of interest in sound underway for at least the past ten years. Sparked, in part from increasingly accessible technologies for sound production and recording, that parallel earlier advances visual technologies that revolutionized the arts may in part be what has shown the sciences that the “background,” the “empty space,” and “silence” are the legitimate subjects of attention and interest. In music, the works and ideas of American composer John Cage (1912 - 1992), the Italian painter Luigi Russolo (1883 - 1947), and the French composer, researcher, acoustician, and radio engineer, Pierre Schaeffer (1910 - 1995), changed the way we think about music. Their interest in the sounds of the world combined with new technologies for reproducing and transmitting sounds led to new ways of composing and listening. This is the historical foundation for the current activity and diverging ideas about the role of sound in the arts, sciences, and everyday life.

Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology - "Soundwalk", 2013

For the museum, engaging the public in soundscape awareness can catalyze its role in everyday life as well as in the arts and sciences. The study of sound can bridge experiences and has spawned an interdisciplinary field that we call acoustic ecology. Schafer wrote, “[T]he general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much more about the trending and evolution of that society.” [i] As sounds in the environment are dynamically changing combinations over time, across different time scales, eventually some commonplace sounds disappear or become “extinct.” Schafer asked, “Why are there no museums for sound?”

Schafer called for a radically different kind of radio in the ‘70s. “Wilderness Radio” [ii] for urban listeners who could tune in to the sounds of life in the wilderness. With current technologies the soundscapes of the wilderness can be transmitted to distant listeners in the city. We also have an urban wilderness that should not be ignored. Now wilderness sounds can be transmitted from Wi-Fi networks. Projects such as the Locus Sonus Streaming Audio Map and Reveil a 24 hour Dawn Chorus project by Grant Smith, offer listening networks and communities that are open active engagement. These communities of “web-mikers” and “soundwalkers” enable listeners to be the “broadcasters” themselves, operating outside the narrow and limited formats of commercial and public radio, that Schafer addressed decades ago. Perhaps the Parks Canada plan to offer Wi-Fi access will enable citizen scientists to create the Wilderness Radio that Schafer and Bruce Davis envisioned.

As wildlife habitats are fragmented and destroyed, creatures in urban and non-urban areas are seriously endangered. Many are either extinct or on the verge of extinction. Humans are a part of this habitat and not unaffected by the loss of bio-diversity. In fact, many species are not even identified, only in part due their existence beyond the normal range of human sight and hearing.

The relevance for the museum is that new technologies can provide new ways for sound to enhance awareness and learning about the environment. Listening to the world enables the individual and the public to gain a deeper and broader understanding of their own role in preservation and restoration in relationship to the arts, sciences, and humanities.

When I was working to define the mission of the World Listening Project in 2009, Bernie Krause was supportive of our effort and I asked for ideas. He provided a text that plays on a tenet of acoustic ecology, the ocular-centrism of North American and European science and art, and the title of Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring[iii].

A few remaining societies in our vast world know how to listen. It is an inherent part of their existence – one in which the received soundscapes of the forests, high plains, deserts, mountains and coastal regions combine seamlessly with the visual, olfactory, and tactile senses. In some tropical regions, dependence on acoustic perception supersedes that of all the others. Natural soundscapes serve as the inspiration for their song and dance. It heals them physically and spiritually. Western society bases most of what it knows on the visual. We actually “hear” what we “see.” The World Listening Project aims to transform that perception in our otherwise urban centric and abstracted lives. At a time when we are facing not only a silent spring, but a silent summer, fall and winter, as well, it is clear that where a picture is worth a thousand words, a soundscape may soon be worth a thousand pictures.


Nearly 40 years after the publication of R. Murray Schafer’s The Tuning of the World, a widely read book in which he introduced the concept of the soundscape, and many other words to describe a fundamental and ever-present aspect of our everyday lives, a wave of interest has engaged many across professional disciplines and global borders in the arts and sciences of sound in the environment. Now, major art museums around the world are holding exhibitions of sound as art. Publications on sound, listening, and silence are proliferating. Many composers of new music have adopted the term “sound art” to describe their own work and practice. “Soundscape” is a commonly used phrase in everyday speech and writing. This wave of interest engages us at the grassroots level, too. The “citizen scientist” and other activities are engaging people at both the formal and informal level.

Listening to the sounds of the world in their context is important. Instead of listening to isolated and disconnected sounds, in other words, in their recorded form, divorces them from the rich complexity in which they are created. Listening in context—for sounds and voices in their time and space—helps understand their meaning and value. This is not to suggest that field recordings have a diminished value. Recording sounds of the world serves as a touchstone for the future while emphasizing that the world exists now, in the present, as a “living museum.” A museum of living sound can be constructed in different ways. I imagine that listeners from all sort of cultural approaches can contribute.  Of course, recognizing that all acoustic environments are in change will the spatio-temporal nature of these future museums.

The WLP realizes its mission through the informal arts to provide educational opportunities that actively engage public participation in listening. You can say that in effect we, the WLP and similar activists, are turning the world into a “museum of sound.” This listening also needs to happen in relationship with an awareness of our role as the makers of the soundscape. In this concept, it is important to understand that sound is caused in the environment, as it happens dynamically, not a fixed entity but always changing. We are both players and makers in the medium of sound. In this sphere of sounds-around we are observers and responders.[iv]

What We Do

To explore these challenges acoustic ecology uses field recording, soundwalks, interviews, archives, publishing, music, mapping, and workshops, among its research and teaching modalities. Among other things it sets the stage for actively engaging the public in sound, increasing awareness in listening to the world. The field attracts researchers from the arts and sciences. Thanks to the approach of Schafer and fellow World Soundscape Project member, composer, and co-founder of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology (WFAE), Hildegard Westerkamp, this engagement is not exclusive to the specialties of engineers, social scientists, musicologists, artists, and other professional disciplines. Children’s education and public engagement remain an important part of her activity to this day, at the age of 80. Westerkamp herself has played an instrumental role in raising awareness through publishing the WFAE’s annual journal[i]; with Schafer, she leads public soundwalk events, and participates in WFAE conferences. 

Poster for "Invisible Places-Sounding Cities" - WFAE

Field recording and acoustic ecology are two activities that embrace the world[ii] as a site for learning and public engagement with art, science, and the humanities. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our soundscape forms our sense of place and belonging. In 2008 it was estimated that more than 50% of the world’s human population lives in cities. What impact urbanization has on their soundscapes and the role of critical citizenship is a topic of research and discussion among architects, ethnomusicologists, urban planners, acoustic ecologists, and others. 

Field recording may seem to serve a mere descriptive, documentary purpose similar to photography. When Bernie Krause said, “a soundscape may be worth a thousand pictures,” like Schafer, he emphasizes that not only is the audible environment loaded with information for study and collection, a fugitive and fragile resource easily ruined with mighty machines and manmade toxins, but this is also a living source of poetic and symbolic value that photos cannot begin to represent. With this, the diverse approaches and attractions to field recording practices, are first multiple reaching deeper than an indexical relation to the sounds, “all together richer, stranger, more varied and more complex.” [iii]

The role of sound is primary and essential to many diverse fields: filmmaking, architecture, urban planning, marketing, industrial and interior design, product design, education (not just music), museum and exhibition design, communications, biology, physics, tourism—the list goes on. On the other hand, listening is often taken for granted. While it may be difficult to speak about and identify the sounds we hear, to define listening itself is even more challenging. What is it? What are you doing when you listen? When we try to define it, beyond paying attention with our hearing, the process eludes us. In a conversation with American composer Pauline Oliveros[iv], her answer to this question was, “Listening is like consciousness, and we still don’t understand what that is.” We do it and have yet, from an objective or scientific perspective, only begun to grasp the processes of thought and sensory perception that are involved. As an artist, teacher, and acoustic ecologist learning and exploring questions like these is both challenging but enjoyable.


1Field recording” simply defined is sound recording made outside a recording studio. Often it is with the aim—in varying degrees ethnological in its intent—to record the activity of that environment without disturbing it. The bio-acoustician Bernie Krause has devoted 40 years to recording natural soundscapes around the world. His archives are considered the most extensive in the world. In not a few cases it includes recordings from animal habitats and natural soundscapes that are now extinct.

2 The WLP (founded 2008) and Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology (founded 2009) are two volunteer organizations co-founded and led by the author.

3 Only Antarctica had no World Listening Day events as far as we know.

4 Publ. Wilderness Press, 2002

5 Krause’s 1993 article, publ. in The Soundscape Newsletter, and many others can be found in the online library page of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology:

6 R. Murray Schafer, Tuning of the World, McClelland and Stewart (1977) p. 7.

7 “A few years ago Bruce Davis and I had an idea for what we called Wilderness Radio. The plan was to put microphones in remote locations uninhabited by humans and to broadcast whatever might be happening out there: the sounds of wind and rain, the cries of birds and animals - all the uneventful events of the natural soundscape transmitted without editing into the hearts of the cities.”—R. Murray Schafer, “Radical Radio,” EAR Magazine, Festival for a New Radio. New York, 1987

8 Publ. Ballantine Books, 1962.

9 Barry Truax in his Acoustic Communication, Second Edition, Ablex Publishing 2001, proposes the communicational model. This edition includes a CD-ROM version of the Handbook For Acoustic Ecology that he edited and published in 1978.

10 Westerkamp served as editor of Soundscape: The Journal for Acoustic Ecology from 2000 until 2011. Dr. Phylis Johnson at Southern Illinois University succeeds her as Editor-In-Chief.

11 From the Omnimuseum Project mission statement: The Omnimuseum Project is a non-profit, collaborative effort devoted to embracing the world as a site for informal learning. Our work involves the exploration and development of strategies and techniques for integrating enrichment opportunities into everyday experience. In so doing, we are finding ways for museums and other cultural and educational institutions to gain presence in places and among things that directly correspond to their missions.


12 In the Field: The Art of Field Recording, Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle, p. 10, Uniform Books, 2013. Note: A logical sequel to this book is On Listening, by the same authors, published by Uniform Books, 2013.

13 2012 podcast interview on the Sounding Out! Blog produced with Tom Haigh and Monica Ryan:

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