Defining the soundscape

As we begin to construct our investigation into the sounds of nature, we first need to be clear what we’re measuring—and why.

In its series of standards on acoustics, the International Organisation for Standardisation makes several definitions useful to our sound experiment:

  1. Sound sources: sounds generated by nature or human activity;

  2. Acoustic environment: sound at the receiver from all sound sources as modified by the environment (actual or simulated, outdoor or indoor, as experienced or in memory);

  3. Soundscape: acoustic environment as perceived or experienced and/or understood by a person or people, in context.

Whilst there are lots of other definitions for the term soundscape (and annoyance at its potential misuse), the key difference between an acoustic environment and a soundscape is the role of subjective interpretation in the latter (see here for more detail).

So whilst the acoustic environment might be composed of sounds from many sources, it only becomes a soundscape when we listen to it and try to make sense of it.

In their extensive report for Defra on the issue of sound, Sarah Payne and her co-authors elaborate on this further, defining a soundscape as:

The totality of all sounds within a location with an emphasis on the relationship between individual’s or society’s perception of, understanding of and interaction with the sonic environment.”

Since we’re interested in how people respond to the sounds of nature, and how their life experience influences this response, this definition of the soundscape fits perfectly with our study and is what we’ll be referring to when we use that term.

Alex Smalley