Where's the gap?

The sounds of the natural world have been studied from various perspectives in recent years, so what will we be doing that’s new?

Soundscapes have been extensively studied in the field of acoustics over the last 50 years, with engineers and academics developing techniques to measure and control sound. This approach has been most notable in the field of noise pollution, where a large body of evidence has established unwanted sound—ubiquitously termed ‘noise’—as a significant environmental and public health issue.

Noise has been shown to contribute to a number of negative psychological and physiological health effects including stress, annoyance, sleep disturbance and heart disease (see here for more). It’s not surprising therefore that much of the sound and health research has focused on how to prevent the issues of noise pollution from transport, industry and construction.

However, this emphasis on reducing ‘bad’ sounds has occurred to the detriment of a second, complementary, approach; the promotion of ‘good’ ones.

We know that, on a broad scale, the soundscape of the natural world is almost always preferred to that of the urban world, with bird song and the sounds of water often scoring highest.

But much of the research in this area has lacked a systematic approach to understanding how specific sound sources (and their context) contribute to whether a listener likes them, and whether they can deliver therapeutic outcomes.

Some experiments have attempted to separate sounds into broad categories according to their origin, such as natural or mechanical sources. And the field of Acoustic Ecology has recognised the importance of various types of sound, distinguishing between man-made, biological and geophysical sources.

But as yet, no one has assessed how these different sources might combine and contribute to a listener’s wellbeing.

We’re building our Forest 404 experiment to fill this gap in knowledge, aiming to assess the restorative potential, ratings and characteristics of carefully constructed soundscapes.

Alex Smalley