The Effectiveness of Vibroacoustic Sound Therapy in Medicine

The relationship between human and sound carries an internal connection that affects the development of a person both physically and psychologically. From the beginning of human existence, sound has been a crucial tool in the survival of man. As an admonition of nearby predators, sound’s primary use for people was a reminder to escape. However, as time progressed, humans acknowledge the depth of sound and incorporated it into their lives, transforming this phenomenon from a natural noise to a sophisticated interpretation of one’s surroundings. Sound’s representation of various aspects has been crucial in the progression of the human race. Its introduction to language and communication contributed significantly to the development of people and is argued to be the most advantageous quality for people during that time. Rising from the lowest part of the food chain to predators of the world, people gradually shifted from using sound as a method of survival to a recreational activity. From this transformation arose music and verbal expression, an asset that has become a major contributor to human’s identity. This level of development and sophistication has given people a form of acknowledgment that separates them from regular animals. Man’s manipulation of sound to create aesthetically pleasing noises is a prime example of this intelligence and continues to be integrated in society. Even though sound’s primary role morphed over time, its importance is engraved in the mind of all individuals. This ancient yet robust history between sound and people contributes to why noise carries such an importance. Used mostly as a form of expression and enjoyment in today’s culture, sound continues to reinforce the original form of communication. This bond is essential to man’s being and development.

The history of medicine has experienced rapid advancements and transformations throughout its existence. Its unique background sparked innovative approaches to medicine and allowed various techniques to be incorporated into the medical culture. A new treatment being investigated by doctors and researchers is the use of vibroacoustic therapy, seeking to improve physical conditions. Whether it is healing a wound or breathing, the living body continuously uses energy at the cellular level. The body is always moving, and the microvibrations produced from the cells essentially retrieve energy and are involved in immunologic reactions. These biological occurrences produce rapid vibration in the body that will gradually decrease in speed after injury, intense physical stress, long-term fatigue, and time. The aim of vibroacoustic therapy is to restore the cellular energy lost over time, thus improving the overall health of the patient. The main claim is that vibration of sound increases cellular movement, which will contribute to the improvement of the body. Researchers are unsure whether vibroacoustic devices have the capability to increase energy levels of microvibrations to an optimum state. This three-month project consisted of each person receiving treatment that varied over time. Some sessions played music, which was used as a placebo, to insure that the physical and mental results were coming from the vibroacoustic therapy and not some unknown variable. After the experiment, the researcher found that the subjects had a “greater degree of improvement in muscle tone with music plus vibroacoustic treatment than when music alone was given” (The Effects of Vibroacoustic Therapy page 2).

Throughout the years, many other cases found vibroacoustic therapy to be beneficial with clients giving positive remarks of the treatment. “In 1993, one of four girls with spasticity in a pilot project to evaluate the effect appeared to derive beneficial results” (The Effects of Vibroacoustic Therapy page 2). Dr. George Patrick, chief of recreation therapy in the Rehabilitiation Medicine Department Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted a program of relaxation for pain and symptom-reduction to see the effects vibroacoustic therapy had on patients with various medical conditions. The study consisted of 272 patients with myriad of diagnoses from “cancer, heart, lung, and blood disorders, infectious diseases, mood disorders, and miscellaneous conditions” (Vibroacoustic Sound Therapy Improves Pain Management and More page 4). He determined that a 22-minutes session resulted in a “cumulative reduction of pain and symptoms by 53%” (Vibroacoustic Sound Therapy Improves Pain Management and More page 4). In addition, other side effects such as tension, fatigue, pain, headache, and nausea were reduced after the therapy. A later study, led by Boyd-Brewer, emulated Dr. Patrick experiment with a smaller sample group of 41 patients partaking in chemotherapy at Florida’s Jupiter Medical Center in Palm Beach County. Boyd-Brewer reached a similar conclusion to Dr. Patrick in that vibroacoustic therapy reduced pain and symptoms.

One study investigated the effectiveness in symptom reduction by tending to patients with gonarthrosis, a degenerative disease on the articular cartilage. Its aim “was to prove the effectiveness of vibroacoustic therapy as a monotherapy applied in patients with gonarthrosis” (Vibroacoustics Therapy on Gonarthrosis page 3). The results of the experiment proved to be significant, thus posing the potential use of vibroacoustic therapy. The experiment randomly selected a group of 44 subjects suffering from degenerative knee joint disease, excluding those with recent swelling of the knee joint. “Patients with cancerous conditions, inflammation of the veins, pregnancy or kidney calculus are excluded from the use of vibroacoustics. The study conducted ten 15-minute sessions of vibroacoustic therapy which involved attaching applicators directly to the skin surrounding the knee joints” (Virbroacoustic Therapy on Gonarthrosis Page 3). The researchers carried out measurements before and after the therapy to assess its effectiveness. Results showed that patients felt less pain after the therapy sessions which also “connected with a reduction in the circumference of the sore knee joints in 91% of patients” (Vibroacoustic Therapy on Gonarthrosis page 3). Because of the positive effects of vibroacoustic therapy on patients with this chronic disorder, it may become a future approach for treatment and recovery for individuals with gonarthrosis.

Overall, Vibroacoustic Therapy has proven to be essential in the improvement of certain diseases and illness; however, it relatively new discovery has prevent and lack of validated results have prevent this treatment to be used widely.

The application of sound for mental healing has been a treatment used in different cultures throughout history. In fact, the idea came into practice centuries before the European’s exploration of the West. Popular in the eastern side of the world, the purpose of this technique was to create sounds with low vibrations, usually produced by an instrument or human vocals, to improve physical and mental health. The first known people to use this method were the Aborigines, a tribal group from Australia known for their unique markings and strange customs. Using a yidaki, also known as a didgeridoo, a traditional man-made instrument in which one blows air in to produce low vibrations, Aboriginal healers would create sounds to tend to ill tribal members. Not only did these sounds repair broken bones and muscle tears, the sounds also stabilized individuals who were mentally ill, soothing their minds and internal flow. Many modern sound healing equipment emulate the style and vibrations of the yidaki in attempt to assist sick patients. While not advance in technology, the purpose of the devices are similar to that of the yidaki which is to use sound to place patients in a calm state to initiate recovery.

In ancient Egypt, it was believed that vowels were significantly powerful and sacred. For this reason, they were usually chanted by priests for prayer and healing. During that period of time, Egyptian priestesses would use a sistra, a type of musical rattle with metal discs. While performing healing rituals, this instrument would be accompanied by the harp, another therapeutic instrument, and played in reverberant chapels or burial chambers to amplify the sounds. Not only did this rattle produce pleasing jangling sounds, but it also generated sufficient amounts of ultrasound, a product that currently benefits modern hospitals and clinics as a potent healing modality. With this evidence, it is safe to assume that Egyptian priest did not use sistra simply to produce a calming soundscape, but to tend to the ill as an effective healing treatment. During the Greco-Roman period, sounds and music were used therapeutically to sooth the psyche and reduce anger and aggression. Many of the healing temples functioned as incubations, a process in which patients underwent dream sleep during their stay. The reverberant spaces and calm setting allowed vibrations to have a maximum effect on the body. These are few examples of traditional vibroacoustic therapy throughout history, and in each culture sound and music was understood to be a curative treatment for illnesses. Because of its positive results, many studies have been investigating the effects sound therapy on humans as well as its potential in replacing pharmaceutical prescriptions. In recent experiments, researchers have been exploring the use of sound therapy with mentally dysfunctional patients, specifically those with autism or aggressive impulses. The claim is that the procedure would reduce certain symptoms from the patient and improve social behaviors. Although sound therapy is a fairly new approach, the results of current studies align with those of past experiments and culture practices, suggesting potential in therapeutic treatment.

Researchers from the Center for Rehabilitation Research and the Center for Adult Habilitation conducted an experiment on the effectiveness of vibroacoustic music therapy as a method of treatment for patients with developmental disorders and challenging behaviors. It is universally agreed that music sparks an internal feelings in listeners. The connection between the individual and music is a strong appreciation that refers back to the beginning of humanity, an enjoyment that can potentially effect the health of the listener. Since the start of vibroacoustic experimentation, which originated in Scandinavia regions during the 1970s, there have been cases that suggest this therapy reduces muscle tones, spasms, pain, and anxiety. People with developmental disorders and challenging behaviors are known to be self-injurious, stereotypical and aggressively destructive. Also, these people are known to have anxiety levels higher than the general population. Using information from previous tests, the team of researchers believe that this therapy might be beneficial to patients with these aggressive behaviors, claiming the relaxing quality of music would reduce these chaotic behaviors in the patients. Using low frequency sound vibrations, most sound therapy sessions consist of the patient lying on a bed or chair with built-in speakers, allowing the individual to listen and physically feel the sounds from the device. Researchers from the Center for Rehabilitation Research plan to construct an experiment that systematically investigate the proposed effects of vibroacoustic therapy on patients with developmental disorders and challenging behaviors. Selecting 20 subjects with autism spectrum disorders and developmental disabilities, conditions known to be behaviorally aggressive, the experimenter randomized the individuals into two groups. For five weeks, the first group received daily music treatment that consisted of ten through twenty minute vibroacoustic therapy sessions. Then the second group underwent a similar procedure for the next five weeks. The observers recorded each participant’s progress using the Behavior Problems Inventory before the treatment, after the treatment, and once again after a period of time. Using videotapes as a form of qualitative data, the researchers used tapes to analyze the effects of the sessions minute by minute, focusing mainly on the specific behavior problems and their frequency during the experiment. The results of the study concluded that “vibroacoustic music reduced challenging behavior in individuals with ASD and developmental disability” (The Effects of Vibroacoustic Music on Challenging Behaviors in Patients with Autism and Developmental Disabilities). Evaluations from BPI ratings, behavior observation analyses, and assistants’ ratings all showed that common traits of the disorder decreases after the subjects partook in the therapy. This findings of this study are consistent with the claim that music combined with vibrations has a relaxing effect that relieves anxiety and discomfort. Although the reason to effects of vibroacoustic music to patients with challenging behavior is unknown, researchers from the Center for Rehabilitation Research and the Center for Adult Habilitation agree that the process is an effective procedure in reducing disruptive and negative actions. This study did carry lurking variables which limited the reliability of the results. The main issue revolved around the subjects participating in the study. The groups consisted of patients with various challenging behaviors, thus creating uncertainty in the relationship between vibroacoustic therapy and the frequency of the aggressive behaviors. Observers suggested that homogenous group, such as patients diagnosed with only autism or a specific kind of disruptive behavior, would have provided data with less unknown variables. Also, the variety of behaviors from the subjects makes generalization very difficult because the experiment focus one individuals with challenging behaviors and mental disorders. Regardless of the limitations, the results of the study proved to have significant evidence that vibroacoustic music is an effect treatment for individuals with challenging behaviors. With further studies, scientists will be able to determine if this therapy is a potential replacement for psychopharmacologic drugs, a current treatment that is known to carry unavoidable mental side-effects to some patients, and reduce the need for this medical treatment.

One study notice that elderly people living in nursing homes had a higher frequency of obtaining chronic depression than community-living elderly, the “rate was about three to five times more” (Effects of Vibroacoustic Therapy on Elderly Nursing Home Residents with Depression page 2). Statistics showed high correlation between depression and death for individuals living in nursing, thus raising concerns and demands for a solution to this issue. Researchers conducted an experiment to investigate whether vibroacoustic therapy would reduce the rate of chronic depression on elderly in nursing homes. Fifteen elderly residents with average of 86 were selected to participate in the study. Each subject showed psychological symptoms of depression. “For two consecutive weeks, the participants received 30-minutes vibroacoustic therapy sessions Monday to Friday” (Effects of Vibroacoustic Therapy on Elderly Nursing Home Residents with Depression page 2). Classical music accompanied with low vibrations were produce in mattress-like devices. For each patient, researchers recorded his or her psychological state before the and after the treatment. After the experiment, researchers saw a significant psychological improvement in the subjects. Each elderly had a reduction of depression and an increase in night time sleep efficiency. Results showed that the sessions reduced the heart rate of the nursing home residents, and that the therapy induced parasympathetic system effects, a bodily process that occurs during periods of relaxation. An estimated eighty percent of depressed individuals claim to have abnormal changes in sleep patterns. Two common sleep disorders for depression are insomnia and hypersomnia. During the study, researchers saw that the total sleep duration of the participants significantly decreased after the vibroacoustic session, but the nighttime sleep efficiency was unaffected. Consequently, subjects were more prone to having consistent wake times after the therapy. These results suggest that a reduction in depression increases the wake time in the daytime. The study concluded that vibroacoustic therapy reduced depression and increased relaxation in elderly living in nursing homes. If future experiments show similar results, it would be beneficial for nursing homes to integrate vibracoustic facilities in their community. This will allow patients suffering from psychological disorders to receive effective assistance and possibly reduce the rate of depression-related deaths in nursery homes.

Vibroacoustic sound therapy has proven to have significant results benefitting human health both physiologically and mentally. The low vibrations increase cellular movement, thus increasing energy and cellular regeneration in the body. Consequently, inflammation and pain are reduced because of this treatment. With the addition of music, patients are able to prone to have an increase in relaxation and decrease in psychological disturbances such as depression, anxiety, and nausea. Furthermore, individuals with behavioral impulses and autism are found have decrease in aggressive outburst and actions. If these results are consistent in future studies, vibroacoustic therapy can replace pharmaceuticals and eliminate the potential side-effects that arise from usage. Although there is potential in this treatment, there are backlashes that prevent this therapy to be an approach. Vibroacoustic therapy lacks the multitude of studies and experimental results to confirm it is an effective approach for individuals’ health. Also, the specific group sample makes it difficult to generalize the results to other patients or non-patients. Nevertheless, this is an innovative approach that combines vibration and music to tend to human health. Not only should this therapy be integrated in medicine, but it should be accessible to anyone experiencing physical or psychological distress.


Works Cited

Yoshihisa, Koike, Hoshitani Mitsuyo, Tabata Yukie, Seki Kazuhiko, Nishimura Reiko, and Kano Yoshio. 2012. “Effects of Vibroacoustic Therapy on Elderly Nursing Home Residents with Depression.” Journal Of Physical Therapy Science 24, no. 3: 291-294 4p. CINAHL Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 6, 2015).

Punkanen, Marko, and Esa Ala-Ruona. 2012. Contemporary Vibroacoustic Therapy: Perspectives on Clinical Practice, Research, and Training. Music & Medicine 4 (3): 128-35.

Reid, Annaliese, and John Staurt. “Ancient Sound Healing.” Token Rock. Accessed December 6, 2015.

Lundqvist, Lars-Olov, Gunilla Andersson, and Jane Viding. 2009. Effects of Vibroacoustic Music on Challenging Behaviors in Individuals with Autism and Developmental Disabilities. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders 3 (2): 390-400.

Boyd-Brewer, Chris, and Ruth McCaffrey. 2004. Vibroacoustic Sound Therapy Improves Pain Management and More. Holistic Nursing Practice 18 (3): 111-8.

Ellis, Phil. 2004. Improving Quality of Life and Well-Being for Children and the Elderly Through Vibroacoustic Sound Therapy. Lecture Notes in Computer Science (Including Subseries Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence and Lecture Notes in Bioinformatics) 3118 : 416-22.

Boyd-Brewer, Chris. 2003. Vibroacoustic Therapy: Sound Vibrations in Medicine. Alternative and Complementary Therapies 9 (5): 257-63.

Patrick, G. 1999. The Effects of Vibroacoustic Music on Symptom Reduction. IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine 18 (2): 97-100.

Kvam, Marit Hoem. 1997. The Effect of Vibroacoustic Therapy. Physiotherapy 83 (6): 290-5.

Ortiz, John M. The Tao of Music: Sound Psychology : Using Music to Change Your Life. York Beach, Me.: S. Weiser, 1997.

Evolution of Acoustic Spaces and Communication: Then and Now

When thoughts of the past arise, the general trend that follows is a world imagined in a pall of silence. However, as sound studies grew in volume, this notion has been successfully challenged. Earcons, sonic events whose symbolic meaning rests upon repeated exposure help people connect the present the past providing context to the sound which means little in of itself. As an example, the reverberation of sound unique to cathedrals, would be earcons to regular churchgoers (Blesser, 2012). Furthermore, entire civilizations from various time periods were found to have a relatively sophisticated understanding of sonic properties. The Great Ball Court of the Mayans has a temple located at the end that was used during ceremonial practices such as sacrificing losers of the games to the gods. It has been noted that a whisper at one end could be heard from the other end. Combine those acoustics with resonance and you have a place ideal for rituals since the leader’s voice would reverberate throughout the general area, further adding to his stature and perceived power (Blesser, 2012). Stone cathedrals with extremely high ceilings that were created during the renaissance era possessed an unearthly amount of resonance that helped drive home the idea that god and his ‘house’ were all powerful and ubiquitous. Despite Mayan ball courts in South America and cathedrals across Europe are found in two distinct geographic areas with their own mix of cultures, similar sonic properties are noted in their architecture. Knowing this, I propose a question: How did aural architecture evolve over time, and more importantly, why did these transformations occur? I want to approach the second question with a variety of lenses to provide a well-rounded, complete answer. Ultimately, the answer to these questions will reveal the nature of communication between humans and the world along with implications for the future.

Bird’s eye view of Mayan Ball Court
Temple at the end of Mayan Ball Court

A significant issue that I confronted with my research is the highly speculative nature of using a historical context regardless of what perspective I adopt, there is no way to ascertain the motives of a people during their construction and modification of acoustic architecture. Even with the availability of written records, caution must be taken before giving those sources absolute credibility. Only academic scholars in older cultures could write down their experience of the architecture while noting the sonic properties that stood out. The actual craftsmen who constructed the space were illiterate, thus an apparent inconsistency presents itself (Blesser, 2007). More importantly, virtually all written records documenting aural architecture focus on the Western hemisphere, namely Europe. As such, my research lacks much information on the African, Middle Eastern, and Asian cultural influence on the evolution of aural architecture.

Establishing a time period to examine acoustic structures was a challenge:  I would have a limited number of structures to look at since different groups of people existed at specific points in time. Arcy-sur-Cure, a prehistoric cave in Burgundy, France still stands the passage of time. The Neolithic people of the New Stone Age who inhabited the cave do not unfortunately. Only signs that point to their knowledge of acoustic properties remain. That being said, I simply looked at a variety of acoustic spaces on a case by case analysis, looking at their history and condensing that to highlight the impetus behind their evolution.

David Hendy and Iegor Renzikoff in Arcy-sur-Cure

Although the Neolithic people possessed no knowledge of the concept of aural architecture, the caves they lived in are the earliest form on the concept. Although caves are usually thought of a quiet place, if you add even a few people, the place can become quite loud almost as if the cave is speaking to you. Professor David Hendy from the University of Sussex and musicologist, Iegor Reznikoff, explored the interior of Arcy-sur-Cure, one the many prehistoric caves located in Burgundy, France. Their initial observations included the clarity of moans or grumbles produced by Reznikoff and how the echoes seemed to build up one after the other creating a wall of sound, a quality similar to the reverberation of grand churches, cathedrals, and basilicas. This brought forth an important observation: places in the cave where sounds became different were marked with a red paste along with drawings on the walls. This indicates that the Neolithic people were aware of the change in acoustics. Hendy noted that other musicologists like Reznikoff conducted experiments in caves with no light and used their voices as echolocation. As they reached the point where sounds were different, the musicologists lit their torches, revealing drawings of animals and several negative handprints.  The  rock paintings found in Hieroglyph canyon are another example: they are located in exactly the same place where echoes are the strongest and travel the fastest. What could this mean? Inhabitants of these caves could hear the sounds of an approaching animal and prepare for safety or hunting. Even better is that they found specific places in geologic structures that would allow them to transmit messages loudest and farthest if the occasion arose. Most places associated with tons of echo are regarded as sacred, so suggesting that Neolithic people participated in rituals may not be a farfetched idea. These aforementioned ideas form the cornerstone of communication across time and serve as the foundation of the evolution of aural architecture.

Churches. Cathedrals. Basilicas. It is no wonder that these structures were instrumental in the evolution of acoustics since religion and philosophy gave birth to them. As Rome converted to Christianity, basilicas throughout the land which were based upon Greek architecture became churches. Originally places of commerce and court proceedings,which reflect the ancient Greek belief that an infinity of ideas existed in one natural order, the early basilicas had open sides (Blesser,2012). During the renaissance era Europe, patrons began to display their amount of wealth by tasking their architects to modify religious structures connected to the church; outer walls now enclosed the space and supporting columns were moved inward. One would think the new churches were created for the sole purpose of augmented reverberation time. However, the resulting acoustic changes were unintended consequences of the need to visually close the interior off from the exterior and to express the wealth and political power of various families. Like cathedrals, basilicas were then able to produce great reverberation time essential to church services. This may had led to an increase in the number of converts (people switching to Christianity). Although the idea of creating places that reflected God’s heavenly attributes were deliberate, it appears that in some parts of Europe no consideration to acoustical design. In way, it seems as if these structures coincidentally amplified the sonic properties that made up the church’s persona.

S0089337 Basilica dedicated to Hera, 540-530 BC. Image licenced to Sue Edelen IMAGE QUEST by Sue Edelen Usage : - 4600 X 4600 pixels (A3) © Vanni / Art Resource

Basilica dedicated to Hera, 540-530 BC.
© Vanni / Art Resource

“The body is a temple.” This is metaphor that many will come across in their lifetime. Since the divine is usually though of omnipotent and omnipresent, our own bodies are in essence, sacred houses for the divine. Origins of this ancient concept trace back to India where temples represent the body of God the human body on macrocosmic and microcosmic planes respectively (Wolfe, 2002). Structurally, our bodies have undergone tremendous evolution; however, the question of how we use our bodies acoustically remains. One prominent way is through meditation. By allowing silence to pervade our mind, we can enter a state of deep relaxation undeterred by all outside influence, especially that of desire. Only through meditation does one achieve pure awareness unlimited in its pursuit of understanding the divine; it is in this state that a person faces inner reflection likable to internal dialogue. Enlightenment then occurs a result. Enclosed sacred spaces came from a need to block the distractions so people could engage in spiritual worship, and the ornate decorations served as visual cues to the numerous parables found in the scripture(s). The respect for silence preserves the idea of sanctity and the strategic placement of light sources reinforces the idea of the power of light in providing knowledge and wisdom (Wolfe, 2002). After adopting a perspective centered on mysticism, I can see that the possibilities within our own bodies to become one with the divine far outstrip the limited number of representations found in enclosed sacred spaces. In this sense, the outer spaces of churches, basilicas, etc. pale in comparison to inner space that is our bodies. Although communication is usually thought of an ongoing conversation between humans, animals, and nature, it can include internal dialogue where the most profound beliefs are discovered.

The human body as a typical south Indian Hindu Temple.
The human body as a typical south Indian Hindu Temple

One would think communication through nonverbal sounds would prove to be difficult. However, in Ghana, the people have found a tool that works in a tandem with their natural environment, the talking drum. The talking drum is a hollowed out tree trunk shaped like an hourglass structure. Messages are carried via a combination of high and low tones. The rhythms are transmitted into the air within a radius of 7 miles; it is possible for the messages to travel even farther if the villages relay the message to each other. In West Africa, the geography is primarily the rainforest. Visibility is an issue so communication is best done through sound. Unlike a telegraph signal, the talking drum tones mixed together form a language that allows for optimal communication among the people who live in the region. Slave traders and missionaries interpreted the talking drum to be calls for brawls and paganism; this supports the aforementioned notion that the talking drums conveyed a language that had to be learned. This clearly shows how the people of Ghana took the forest, a natural acoustic space and created a tool of communication that worked in tandem with the general space, providing communication which all members of the community could understand despite the complete lack of words.

Communication between living and nonliving organisms has been drastically affected by the transformation of acoustic spaces whether those changes were positive or negative. The few examples I have provided show how humans adapted to natural, societal and spiritual developments. I believe my research provides a solid foundation for future sound studies; instead of looking at the evolution of acoustic architecture, different kinds of communication and under what circumstances they come about could be investigated. Sound and its application in the arts besides music is another area of potential research. With my topic, future research on eastern culture and acoustic architecture associated with it would help clear the western bias and provide a well rounded narrative.


Mayan Ball Court Acoustics

Talking Drum Ensemble

Cathedrals: An Audio Archive Project by Pietro Riparbelli

Works Cited

Blesser, Barry, and Linda-Ruth Salter. 2007; 2006. Spaces Speak, Are you Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture. Illustration ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Blesser, Barry, Linda-Ruth Salter. 2012. “Ancient Acoustic Spaces.” In The Sound Studies Reader, edited by Jonathan Sterne 187- 196. 1st ed. Vol. 1. New York, Oxon: Routledge.

Hendy, David, dir. “Echoes In The Dark.” In Noise: A Human History. BBC. October 20, 2015.

Hendy, David, dir. “The Beat Of Drums.” In Noise: A Human History. BBC. October 21, 2015.

Wolfe, George. 2002. “Inner Space as Sacred Space: The Temple as Metaphor for the Mystical Experience.” Cross Currents, Fall, 400-411.

Duke's Freshman Laundry Rooms: Improving Sonic Aesthetics

The laundry rooms of Duke University’s East Campus dorms are, you might agree, a curious kind of space.

We have agreed as a culture that the sounds of washing and drying machines are unwelcome additions to our residential soundscapes. Even after a century of industrial engineering, the automation of soaking, spinning, and drying clothes still generates a good deal of noise. Yet we insist on keeping clothes-cleaning technology inside of living spaces in the name of convenience. Our solution has been to quarantine these appliances, awarding them their own class of room: the laundry room[1]. Its sole sonic function is to capture and contain the sounds of washers and dryers.

Laundry rooms exist not just because the sounds of washers and dryers are considered unpleasant, but because they generally impede communication. In our world, rooms are most often built to facilitate verbal contact between occupants. Lecture halls carry an instructor’s voice clearly to the back row; dining areas allow for conversation across tables and sometimes to the kitchen; and so on. Laundry rooms are one of the few indoor areas not explicitly designed to house person-to-person interaction, since the aggressive cycling of its machines complicate such efforts.

The result is that little about the interior of a laundry room is acoustically designed. On East Campus, the sonic criteria appear to be minimal noise pollution in the adjoining hall, and none in dorm rooms. Outside of those constraints, practically no design effort seem to have been devoted to these spaces.

To demonstrate, let us look at Blackwell Residence Hall, among the newest of the East dorms. It features identical laundry rooms on either side of the ground floor, one of which is pictured below:



Looking into the Blackwell laundry room; Looking out; Behind the dryers.
Clockwise from top left: Looking into the Blackwell laundry room; Looking out; Behind the dryers.

A short T-shaped corridor leads from the main hallway into the laundry space, a painted white brick box in the style of most of the Blackwell rooms. There are certainly no carefully calculated geometries for redirecting or absorbing sound (unlike such Duke facilities as the Fitzpatrick Center’s Schiciano Auditorium). An ever-present pool of cloudy water surrounds the washing machine bases. Exposed HVAC equipment behind the dryers is clearly visible from the center of the room. In other words, the space has little cosmetic appeal. The laundry rooms of other East Campus dorms vary in their equipment orientations and dimensions, but share many of the same defining characteristics[2].

One can infer that the architects of this laundry room did not intend for individuals to occupy it for meaningful stretches of time. The interior decor speaks to this assumption even more than the lack of sonic design. The bare white walls and plainly visible single-dryer ventilation give the sense of an expressly utilitarian space, like the inside of a supply closet. A table is present for folding and tabletop storage, while a few chairs were brought in by students; in Blackwell, at least, seating was not present at the start of the academic year.

The added chairs help speak to the error on the part of the architect(s). Students actually occupy East Campus dorm laundry rooms for extended periods of time quite frequently. Though many residents choose to drop off their laundry and return for it later, some stay throughout the washing and/or drying cycles, typically socializing, doing schoolwork, or using their phones. The limited number of washers also means that people spend time there waiting for earlier loads to finish. All in all, the room gets quite crowded during Sunday night peak hours. Further traffic is generated by the vending machines, the only such ones in the building. It becomes clear upon reflection that the “standard” conception of a laundry room as a non-social space is not applicable to the dorms of East Campus.

As improvised social environments, then, Duke’s laundry rooms are deserving of more design consideration than they have been awarded. A gathering place should be both functional and pleasing for its occupants. In order to better suit the real manner in which these rooms are used, East Campus laundry rooms are due for an aesthetic upgrade.

One could apply a new coat of paint, cover up the HVAC guts, and claim mission accomplished. But dressing up a laundry room like any other common area is a generally poor resolution that offers no consideration to the space’s uniqueness. Far more integral to the identity of the laundry room than its appearance is its soundscape. If the room’s appeal is to be improved, introducing aesthetic value through sound seems fitting.

I speak here, in plain terms, of the creation of “laundry sound art.”

The idea of sound art can be odd to the unfamiliar. Sound is generally treated as having a functional rather than aesthetic role in everyday modern life, so non-musical sound is rarely considered a creative medium by the layperson. Yet ever since the advent of speaker systems, people have been electronically reintroducing audio to environments for artistic effect. The modern form of the movement is often cited as beginning at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, in which Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion (pictured) used a building-wide array of 450 loudspeakers to play Edgar Varèse’s “Poème électronique,” an experimental composition that weaved down the exhibition’s halls (Ouzounian 2008, 63).

Philips Pavilion, 1958 World’s Fair (Wikipedia)

Sound art has since become a global discipline of tremendous variety. Some installations use spatialization techniques similar to those of the Philips Pavilion, which allow for both a sound’s source and content to change dynamically. Others incorporate physical elements such as sonic sculpture or unconventional instruments to create novel soundscapes. Most sound art involves an element of spontaneity and participation. The idea that the final soundscape arises from unpredictable relationships between the installation and its environment (including human participants) helps differentiate sound art from related fields like experimental music composition[3].

Laundry rooms seem to be ideal spaces in which to install sound art. Since the interiors of the rooms have no sonic function by design, their acoustic modification is limited only by what can be realized in practice. It is important to note that in sound art, such a situation is very much the exception rather than the norm. An Australian sound artist, Jordan Lacey, writes that “a number of multi-speaker soundscape systems in Melbourne have been unsuccessful due to negative public reactions. The successful soundscape systems … are located in transitory spaces, particularly spaces with minimal social presence” (2014, 10). He explains that sound art installations are often considered disruptive to a place’s intended sonic function. In populous or public spaces, sound art can invite the ill will of listeners rather than their appreciation by interrupting or masking public programming (announcements, scheduled events, etc.). The venue of a communal laundry room stands apart from the public spaces in which sound art is often installed, offering prospective sound artists a unique opportunity to experiment without fear of backlash. 

The set-up of the Blackwell laundry room in particular lends itself well to sonic design. While these rooms must by design contain loud laundry equipment, their actual presence is far from overpowering. Even when two or three machines are running, conversation is possible at a slightly-above-average speaking volume. This can be attributed to sound reduction features of the Speed Queen equipment such as platform-elevated bases and warped concave washer portholes (clear front panels). The constant hum of the two drink machines quickly attunes occupants to a higher noise level, making the washers and dryers seem quieter in comparison. The space is not saturated with sound; there exists room to introduce new sonic characteristics without creating a low-fi space unfit for social gathering. 

The idea of striated versus rhythmic sound is useful when considering this soundscape. Striated sounds are steady-state, “emerg[ing] from the drones, buzzes and hums of artifacts such as climate-control outlets, fluorescent lighting and power boxes” (Lacey 2014, 8). Rhythmic sound, on the other hand, has patterned qualities relating to change and repetition. In East Campus laundry rooms, the rhythms created by washers and dryers play off one another while the cooling systems of the drink dispensers fill the room with a constant striated element. Unpredictable dynamics among the rhythmic appliances arise from the multi-phase cycles of the campus’s washers and dryers.

Understanding the laundry room space’s real use patterns, its context within the field of sound art, and the nature of its incidental soundscape all directly inform the creative process. The goal has been to create a more enjoyable experience for those using the facility through introducing novel sound objects that prompt consideration of the room’s unique soundscape. Even noticing the installation’s presence might inspire, at least temporarily, a greater attentiveness to one’s aural environment. In a world where we spend much of our time unconsciously “tuning out” polluted or lo-fi soundscapes, any such inspiration is welcome. Barring that, this work may simply add a new and interesting element to the otherwise dull chore of doing laundry.


My methodology behind creating sound art is grounded in the recording, modification, and reintroduction of the laundry room’s original sounds. This is a common technique used by many documented sound artists, among them Lacey and Klein, as it helps ensure that the recording will be compatible with the natural soundscape. Lacey takes this to the extreme and refuses to use any nonnative sounds whatsoever in his works. My own approach is less dogmatic, instead using modified indigenous sounds as a template for the recording, over which other audio can be mixed in.

In conceptualizing how native sounds could be adapted to improve the space, it was important to be aware of how listeners might evaluate the changes. It turns out that a sound object or soundscape’s emotional impact is driven by two main qualities: Calmness and Vibrancy. (See Cain & Jennings 233-4 for more on how these two descriptors are distilled from a range of semantic rating scales). This is a useful simplification when determining the general trend of the sound art design. As the busy machinery of laundry rooms already creates a vibrant atmosphere, introduced sound should then aim to increase the room’s perceived calmness[4]

Another researcher, Jochen Steffens, has specifically studied how we perceive the sounds of appliances such as washing machines and refrigerators. His research suggests that increasingly integrated sonic environments in the home (i.e. without undue focus on one element) are perceived as more pleasant by occupants (2013, 4). This makes sense when considering the Blackwell laundry room. The striated sound of the drink dispensers establishes a cohesive element that, in comparison, makes the laundry appliances sound far less abrasive than if they operated without background noise. The reintroduced sound should then also have a permanent striated component, though one with the potential to be more pleasant-sounding than the vending machines[5].


Sound samples from the Blackwell laundry room were obtained via audio gear courtesy of Professor David Font-Navarrete. A Zoom H4n Handy Recorder featuring unidirectional stereo microphones was used to capture sounds through the air. Contact mics by JrF, connected to the Zoom handset, allowed for a different kind of listening; when pressed against various points of the washers and dryers, the machines’ internal workings (of a very different character than their naturally audible emissions) were recorded. Most unique among the audio equipment used was JrF’s induction coil pick-up, which translates electrical signals into sound.

Placement of the contact mics on the washing machines, while in part trial-and-error, was informed by a study on the spatial breakdown of washing machine sound emission. A group of Italian mechanical engineers used high-fidelity audio mapping technology to generate figures (shown below) detailing the major locations on a washing machine that produce noise. The color scale identifies areas of particular interest as the soap drawer (upper left), the porthole rim, and the base.


Sound pressure level (SPL) maps showing the loudness of three major emitted frequencies across the front of a laundry machine (Chiariotti 2010, 1362).

Since the researchers decline to report the make and model of their test machine, these SPL maps were used only as a general reference for how East Campus machines might emit sound. Even so, the suggested locations — especially the porthole rim and soap drawer — offered the best recordings in terms of clarity[6]Over multiple days a range of sounds was collected by combining different microphone placements and cycle stages.

Only one loudspeaker, a 280-watt Alto TX8, was used to reintroduce sounds. Multi-speaker arrays, especially with omnidirectional speakers, would have generated a more fully immersive soundscape but posed a financial and technical challenge. The single-speaker model, however, was far from dissatisfactory. The TX8 was situated directly across the room from the vending machines to spatially balance the room’s sources of striated sound, in line with Steffens’ findings on establishing cohesive-feeling environments. 280 watts proved more than loud enough for the small space.

Audacity was used for audio editing. Non-native clips were sourced from media-sharing sites such as Freesound and YouTube. A full list of outside sources used in audio production can be found under Additional Design Materials


(headphones recommended)

The pre-recorded part of the installation is comprised of four tracks, each of which are about five minutes long. These are repeated in shuffled order and played back through the TX8 from alongside the lone upright dryer. The laundry room’s soundscape at any given time is a combination of a randomly selected track, the sounds of the machines operational at the time, and the actions of Blackwell residents.

Each track is built from the same basic template: an altered version of the drink dispensers’ striated hum, which is then superimposed with native and non-native sound objects. The original drone was modified to slowly oscillate between left and right output channels. Reverb, echo, and other such manipulations were also introduced. In the background is a Shepard tone, a popular audio illusion that seems to continuously ascend or descend in pitch. The striated template oscillates between ascending and descending tones at half the frequency that the drink dispenser sound spatially shifts. The final mix, upon listening, resembles the original mechanical hum with a somewhat surreal added element.


1.  “Blackwell Laundry: Organic”

Central to this track are the pulsating heartbeats that fade in and out, bending in pitch and tempo. The manipulations to these rhythms can seem surreal to attentive listeners, much like the Shepard tone. Two heartbeats taken from Freesound are synthetic, generated in part by bass drum synthesizers (though one also uses a Tupperware lid); another is a recording of a real human heartbeat. Less pronounced are the crickets and birds in the background. 

Despite the track’s underlying theme of organic processes and systems, it is still a primarily electronic, repetitive piece. In keeping with Steffens’ suggestions, this maintains continuity across the laundry room space by matching the mechanical character of appliance sounds. The low-frequency heartbeat invites attention and engagement from listeners without having a large sonic presence into the space. Many parts of this track, clearly audible through headphones, are easily missed when multiple appliances are running; it is best suited to a quieter room. Though the tracks are shuffled, the ordering symbolizes how “Organic” is an easy, inoffensive point at which unsuspecting listeners can first engage with the exhibit — perhaps without even realizing it.  

2. “Blackwell Laundry: Rhythmic”

This track explores rhythmic interplays between the room’s native sound objects and other markedly repetitive beats. Asynchronous tempos within the recording are emphasized, which then further contrast with the real-world appliances’ changing cycles. Shifting in the background are Freesound-sourced samples of simple world rhythms. One also hears a washer going through different cycle stages, artificially sped up and slowed down. (The clip used was taken with contact microphones on the washer’s soap drawer and center porthole.)

Each rhythm fades in and out such that the piece’s individual components, though asynchronous, do not overwhelm one another or the listener. This is not an especially “busy” composition, and fits well within the laundry room soundscape with one or two machines running in compliment. Though lower in Calmness by the Cain-Jennings ratings than may be preferable[4], its steady and varied rhythms compliment the native sounds of the cycling washers and dryers. In doing so, “Rhythmic” establishes cohesiveness throughout the soundscape while still introducing new elements to engage listeners.

3. “Blackwell Laundry: Meditative

I came across a recording of a flute being played under the dome of the Taj Mahal, which can sustain a note for up to 28 seconds as a result of its size and geometries. Jazz flutist Paul Horn’s on-site improv playing consists of short groupings of notes that reverberate and fade in a dramatic fashion. These were excerpted and included in “Meditative” with few added effects. Horn’s playing style served as general creative inspiration; other similarly sustained tones arising from bells and chimes are also used. Sounds of water and rain provide a backdrop for the higher-pitched interjections. The artful soft synthesizer work of Marconi Union in “Weightless,” designed to help one fall asleep, plays at low volume in the background at times to establish a “fuller” space.

As the title suggests, the nonnative sounds in this piece possess a meditative or etherial character. This theme rather clashes with the artificial/mechanical environment of the laundry room; the fact that no native sounds were reintroduced beyond the original template furthers this contrast. Of the four discussed here, this track draws the most immediate attention and interest from listeners. Mid-high-pitched sounds are particularly noticeable to the human ear; contrast this with “Organic,” where bass-heavy heartbeats can go entirely undetected in a busier soundscape.

4. “Blackwell Laundry: Electronic”

Recordings made using the induction coil pick-up are featured prominently in “Electronic.” More specifically, I included segments of three separate takes in which the coil slowly “explored” the mechanical equipment of the laundry room. Striated audio was picked up from within a few inches of current-carrying surfaces. There is also a shortened recording of an empty washing machine’s cold cycle via the Zoom handset, which was cut in Audacity to emphasize the points at which the cycles changed. Additional contact microphone recordings used were taken from the washing machine’s soap drawer, front panel (beeping sound), and top. 

This track closely fits with the Blackwell laundry room’s natural soundscape, having been built entirely from native sound objects (very much unlike “Meditative”). However, it features somewhat less emphasis on rhythmic contrast than the first two tracks. Distinctly rhythmic sound objects like the washing machine recordings tend not to conflict with one another, while the longer tones of the induction coil blend more with the background template than with rhythmic recordings. The unsteady wavering of the induction coil audio is at a markedly higher frequency than the template’s oscillations, which changes the character of the room’s striated element.

The end of “Electronic” consists of two minutes of the isolated background template. This introduces some additional space into the four-track loop in which the listener is not constantly having to identify new excerpted sound objects. I considered including this “gap” as a separate fifth track in order to offer it greater independence of arrangement, but eventually decided to include it with “Electronic” in keeping with the idea of themed tracks.

The installation took place over the course of three evenings in early December 2015. A sign posted on the wall notified laundry-goers that a collection of audio tracks was being played as part of a research project, but listeners were otherwise uninformed as to the nature of the exhibit. I was present for the full duration to observe reactions, answer questions, and troubleshoot hardware. The set of four shuffled tracks was played uninterrupted for between one and two hours on each occasion[7]

Audibility of the reintroduced audio was highly dependent on the laundry appliances in use. The loudspeaker’s volume was set such that a listener in the center of the room would experience the background “template” of the tracks as equal in volume to the striated tone of the drink dispenser. This meant that during the most intense periods of washing/drying cycles, especially when these phases aligned in multiple machines, few interesting features of the reintroduced tracks could be detected. Indeed, both the drink dispenser hum and audio installation could be entirely overpowered by simultaneous high-frequency appliance activity from two or more machines. However, it became clear that the Speed Queen appliances rarely maintain these fully excited states for over a minute at a time. This lead to an interesting dynamic within the room as the soundscape constantly shifted between a traditional high-volume laundry environment and a calmer state featuring markedly unnatural sounds.

I originally experimented with using survey-style feedback to gauge audience sentiment. However, the casual and intimate nature of the dorm environment meant that residents responded best to general qualitative discussions about the exhibition. I thus gauged opinion of the new soundscape through talking about the installation with those who stayed in the laundry room for longer than one uninterrupted minute. This was done either upon prompting (directly being asked about the research) or, barring that, engaging residents when they motioned to leave the room. Common lines of conversation included the project’s inspiration, technical and creative methods behind composing the tracks, and the broader field of sound art.

As peers and dorm-mates of mine, the Blackwell residents were willing to discuss their reactions to the installation at length. A total of forty to fifty people spent time in the laundry room during the exhibition period, all of whom offered their opinions and observations. Social factors may have had some impact on their responses, but certainly not so much as to render feedback fundamentally untrustworthy.

When first encountering the soundscape, most listeners reported a degree of confusion or uncertainty, the severity of which correlated with the perceptibility of nonnative sound objects at the time. (As the very impetus for the design philosophy of Lacey et al, this can be reasonably expected; the human ear quickly identifies the sounds of wind chimes, world drums, and the like as fundamentally out-of-place in the laundry room, unintrusively mixed as they may be.) Residents entering the room during high-volume periods became gradually aware of the reintroduced audio as the noise level fell, offering interesting and varied reactions. One student loading a washer, unaware of the exhibit’s presence, was noticeably disconcerted as the asynchronous heartbeats near the end of “Organic” became audible, even briefly checking his own pulse.

After identifying the installation through either the loudspeaker or posted sign, the majority of people immediately asked for more detailed information about the project. This discussion was usually followed by additional time spent listening in silence, if appliance activity and social circumstances allowed. However, some residents delayed in their inquiries, opting to listen intently of their own accord — sometimes for up to a few minutes. Such unprompted close listening was observed multiple times per day, a proper realization of my aim to inspire greater awareness and appreciation of one’s aural surroundings. 

Residents most often identified the character of the reintroduced sounds as “interesting” and “surreal.” A common description was that the room sounded “strange, but not unpleasant.” This was in large part due to the loudspeaker’s well-balanced volume level; further amplification, upon experimentation, immediately produced an unbalanced environment in which the tracks compete against the laundry appliances for sonic space instead of existing in compliment. Some people reported an altered sense of physical space  the room seeming larger or smaller  — though the perceptions themselves were inconsistent. Few residents stayed for more than one or two full tracks, and thus were unable to compare different compositions. However, each confirmed that he or she had spent a “greater than usual” amount of time in the laundry room engaging with the installation.

In Conclusion

Anthropologists, by their own admission, have “largely treated the work of sound artists as tangental to their enterprise,” claiming that the creative manipulation of recordings offers little in terms of compelling “ethnographic argument” (Samuels et al. 2010, 334). I contest this evaluation in respect to the piece discussed here. While the experimental music tracks may not be useful objects of study in isolation, field recordings of an entire sound art installation can be rich material for sociocultural analysis[7]. Specifically, the audience’s involvement in sound art can demonstrate their ethnographic realities. This exhibition is linked to a major component of modern Western life; the Blackwell residents react and change their behavior towards the laundry room as a direct result of the altered soundscape, in turn indicating their relationships with the space. Our demonstrated inattention to general ambient aural stimulus is one such example.

But discerning greater sociocultural truths about Duke’s undergraduate life is not the main purpose of this work (though the prospect may attract the attention of otherwise indifferent anthropologists). This was, first and foremost, an exercise in design. In sonically renovating this staple of residential life, I aimed to introduce real and appreciable aesthetic value into an unconventional social space. Though I succeeded to an extent, the potential for more advanced expressions of sonic creativity in laundry rooms remains enormous. One can imagine an endless variety of similarly “themed” tracks: Aquatic, Choral, Tropical, or Industrial, to name a few. Audio could be reintroduced through more sophisticated speaker installations, possibly employing Philips Pavilion-style spatialization methods. The venue could also be changed to other Duke dorms, and even non-Duke residential laundry rooms with similar use patterns.

Sound art in this vein may even inspire listeners to consider the broader role of sonic design in their lives. Reintroducing non-musical sound into everyday environments, where appropriate, clearly has the potential to enrich routine or otherwise unremarkable experiences. I achieved this here through fairly rudimentary design methods; there is clear potential for incorporating more advanced analytics into the process. In time, I suspect, progress in psychoacoustics and audio design could lead to enhanced ambient soundscapes being installed in commercial spaces — even as a means to subconsciously drive customer behavior.

But nefarious predictions aside, laundry rooms: curious spaces, no?



[1] Some, notably the British, shorten this to “laundry”; the longer title is used here in keeping with North American custom.

[2] The makes & models of the Blackwell laundry room machines are as follows: Washers: Speed Queen Ultra High Efficiency Commercial Washer (Custom) x 4; Dryers: Speed Queen Commercial Dryer (Custom) Stacked x 4, Standing x 1; 2 IntelleVend 2000 beverage dispensers; and 1 Automatic Products 932 Premier vending machine (more or less silent). To my knowledge, Speed Queen appliances are common to all East Campus laundry rooms, though not all feature snack or drink machines.

[3] The distinctions between music and sound art are heavily disputed among the ranks of academics and creative professionals. For one explicitly defined system, one might refer to Batchelor’s “Acousmatic Approaches to the Construction of Image and Space in Sound Art.” Defining/categorizing art is a tricky business, and, in my view, more of a semantic exercise than a path to deeper understanding or appreciation.

[4] Cain & Jennings use a 2D coordinate map to plot Calmness and Vibrancy against each other, a thought-provoking way of representing a space’s real impact.

[5] Steffens also offers interesting and highly specific data on laundry equipment, even breaking down the analysis of washing machine sound by spin vs. wash cycle.

[6] Check out this Sonic Dictionary entry of a Blackwell washing machine running a warm water cycle with four coins inside. It was taken with both the Zoom handset’s unidirectional mics and the contact microphones.

[7] Since live recordings of the installation prominently feature intelligible conversation between the room’s occupants, the audio file is not included here out of consideration for privacy.

Works Cited 

Baer, Kyle. “Washing Machine (Hot Water Cycle) & Quarters,” Sonic Dictionary, wav file, recorded November 11, 2015.

Batchelor, Peter. 2015. “Acousmatic Approaches to the Construction of Image and Space in Sound Art.” Organised Sound 20: 148-59.

Cain, Rebecca, Paul Jennings, and John Poxon. 2013. “The Development and Application of the Emotional Dimensions of a Soundscape.” Applied Acoustics 74 (2): 232-9.

Chiariotti, Paolo. 2010. “Noise Source Localization on Washing Machines by Conformal Array Technique & Near Field Acoustic Holography.” SAE Technical Paper Series 0148-7191: 1.

“DAMAGE (Dave Brown and Misha Mross) – Beach Ball @ Sound Art Forum.” 2009. YouTube video, 1:45, from Cornell University’s Spring 2007 Sound Art Forum. Posted by “Cornell Electroacoustic.” 27 August.

“Fifth Annual ‘Envisioning the Invisible’ Image and Photo contest at Fitzpatrick Center Schiciano Auditorium.” Duke Chronicle Photography online image, published 2010. Duke Student Publishing. 

Klein, Georg. 2009. “Site-Sounds: On Strategies of Sound Art in Public Space.” Organised Sound 14:101-08.

Lacey, Jordan. 2014. “Site-Specific Soundscape Design for the Creation of Sonic Architectures and the Emergent Voices of Buildings.” Buildings 4 (1): 1-24.

Licht, Alan. 2009. “Sound Art: Origins, development and ambiguities.” Organised Sound 14: 3-10.

Ouzounian, Gascia. “Sound Art and Spatial Practices: Situating Sound Installation Art since 1958.” (PhD diss., University of California, San Diego, 2008).

“Philips Pavilion at Time of Exhibition,” Wikipedia in-article image, updated 2015. Wikimedia.

Samuels, David W., Louise Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa, and Thomas Porcello. 2010. “Soundscapes: Towards a Sounded Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 39: 329–45. 

Steffens, Jochen. 2013. Realism and Ecological Validity of Sound Quality Experiments on Household Appliances. AIA-DAGA Conference on Acoustics. Milan.

Additional Design Materials

Crickets  —  Heartbeat (Synthetic 1)  —  Heartbeat (Synthetic 2)  —  Heartbeat (Human)   —  Light Rainfall   —  Mountain Birds   —  “Prologue/Inside,” from Inside (the Taj Mahal) by Paul Horn  —  Tibetan Bells  —  Wind Chimes  —  Shepard Tone (Up)  —  Shepard Tone (Down)  —  Synth Warped Garden Chimes   —  “Weightless” by Marconi Union


Blackwell Laundry Room Drink Dispenser (Unedited)  —  Laundry Sound Art Template  —  “Blackwell Laundry: Organic”  —  “Blackwell Laundry: Rhythmic”  —  “Blackwell Laundry: Meditative”  —  “Blackwell Laundry: Electronic”


Zoom H4n Handset Recorder  —  Contact Microphones by JrL   —  Induction Coil Pickup by JrL  —  Alto TX8 Loudspeaker

Bioacoustics: Communication and Conservation


Nature has been playing symphonies since long before man discovered ‘music’. They resonate through landscapes and urban cities all around the world to remind us that we aren’t alone.

The variety of sounds, from the rustle of the leaves to the call of the Langurs, produced in different ways, convey their own unique meanings. This has been studied for hundreds of years in order to understand how similar animal communication is to that of us humans.

Many creatures tend to fall prey to those at higher trophic levels. In order to survive, many organisms have their own unique way of communicating, in order to protect themselves from predators. What are these ways of communicating? How do organisms convey ideas using these different methods and sounds? My research has given me knowledge on the various methods of communication animals use, as well as the different types of sounds they produce in order to interact with one another. Much of this involves the use of infrasound, another area I studied in order to understand the various ways in which low frequency communication is used by organisms. Extinction and endangerment are major problems in our world, which is in desperate need of conservation. As I aspire to be a conservationist, I did a lot of research on the various ways in which I can contribute to the environment. The first step I took involved understanding what role recordings play in the conservation of a species, which is explained using a case study of whales.

In order to answer my questions, I collected a number of different resources from the Internet. By using Google and Duke’s online library, I found books, journals, and articles using keywords such as, “bioacoustics” and “acoustics and conservation.” I also found videos and recordings online relating to my topic. By critically engaging with these texts and videos, I have produced my final research paper, answering the questions I have always wondered about.


Animal Communication:

The extent of biodiversity in our world means that organisms are able to use a large number of different techniques to communicate with one another. Although my topic focuses on auditory communication, organisms effectively use all their other senses to interact with other animals as well:

  1. Visual
  2. Olfactory
  3. Electrocommunication – fish create an electric field, that if disturbed, convey information
  4. Touch
  5. Seismic – vibrations created by the organism itself are used as signals
  6. Thermal
  7. Autocommunication – the signal is sent by an organism and received back by the same organism after the environment has modified it.

Auditory communication is further classified based on the methods of sound production and the type of sounds produced. When looking at classification based on the method of sound production, we must understand that any movement that causes molecules in the air to vibrate about or causes pressure waves will produce sound. In order to carry out these actions, many organisms have adapted body features. These include:

  1. A Vibrating Membrane that is attached to a muscle. This membrane is like a drum. It is often found in insects and is used to producing mating calls.
  2. A Stridulatory Organ that consists of a ‘scraper’ and a rough surface, present on two different parts of the body. When these are rubbed together they produce a ‘chirp,’ which is higher pitched based on the speed at which the two surfaces are rubbed together. This, again, is found in insects.
  3. A vibrating membrane present in the Larynx of amphibians and mammals, and the Syrinx of birds. The vibration is caused by air pushed up along it by the lungs. The pitch can be changed based on how fast the vibrations are. These vibrations are controlled by muscles, which contract and relax to control the membrane.
  4. A surface, which is struck to produce sounds. This technique is used by a large number of creatures. For example, beavers use their tails to hit the surface of water to create a warning or alarm signal. This is an efficient method of communication, as sound travels very quickly in water.
Beaver striking water.
Beaver Striking the Water With It’s Tail to Produce a Warning Sound.

Why do organisms need to use so many different methods of communication? What would happen if all of organisms of just one species used only a single method to communicate?

One theory could be that animals may not be able to convey all their ideas using just one method of communication. They may require more complex techniques to share more complex messages. Further, I believe that if all organisms used the same technique to exchange information, then the ‘soundscape’ of the organisms, may get ‘saturated’ with sound. The soundscape may get so full of the same sound that messages may be interrupted and organisms may not be able to communicate efficiently. So, by having diversity in the methods of communication, the environment is less full of the same sound, and organisms are able to interact properly.

Another question to consider is what originally influenced the development of these methods of communication. Was it the physiology of the animal, or was it the features of the environment itself? For example, the beaver uses its tail to strike the water and create sound. Did this technique develop because the beaver’s tail was able to create the sound, or because the water was already present in the environment and the beaver could use it to communicate? Although this is a question that may not have a definite answer just yet, it is an interesting one to think about.

When auditory communication is classified based on the type of sound produced, it is usually categorised into the following:

  1. Infrasound – sounds that are below the lower bound of the frequency range that humans can hear.
  2. Audible sound – sounds that humans are able to hear.
  3. Ultrasound – sounds that are above the upper bound of the frequency range that is audible to human.

The most common use of ultrasound is in echolocation, which is carried out by many organisms, including bats, whales, dolphins, and a few species of birds. This process involves the emission of ultrasound from an organism into the environment. The animal waits and ‘listens’ for the echoes after the sound waves reflect off surfaces. The process of echolocation is used to locate and identify objects. Most organisms use it as a form of navigation system, a process known as biosonar. This is used to locate and capture their prey. Many fish, such as herring, are only able to hear up to 4 kHz. However, there are many other fish of the subfamily Alosinae, which are able to hear up to 180 kHz. Porpoises also have one of the highest known frequency ranges, with an upper limit of 160 kHz.

Bat Using Echolocation
Bat Using Echolocation to Detect its Surroundings

Another example of an organism that has the ability to hear ultrasound, is a dog. Humans are not able to hear dog whistles, but the dog themselves are able to do so because the whistle is produced at a very high frequency, that is only audible to dogs. Many insects are also able to hear ultrasound, which they often take advantage of in order to identify incoming bats (their predators) that are using echolocation.

Interestingly, it has been found that a few individuals, who are blind, are also able to use echolocation to help ‘visualise’ their surroundings.

Many animals, including elephants, tigers, whales, giraffes, okapi, and alligators, also use infrasound to communicate with one another. This allows long distance communication, especially in the case of whales, where sound travels more quickly and efficiently in water.

A major contributor to the discovery of the use of infrasound by elephants was Katherine Payne. She has released many videos discussing how she discovered this, and released a book called Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants. In her poptech lecture, Elephant Songs, she talks about how she was observing elephants rumbling and communicating, when she “repeatedly felt a throbbing in the air” (Payne 01:49). She believed that the rumbling was from elephants communicating at a very low frequency. Through further investigation, she discovered that her assumption was true. By recording the elephants and increasing the speed of the recording, she was able to hear sounds at higher frequencies, which allowed her to confirm the result of her investigation.

As part of my research, I used elephant recordings that I found on the Internet, and increased the speed on one copy of the recording and increased the frequency on the other. Although my results were not as clear as those obtained by Payne, there was some evidence of elephant communication taking place at very low frequencies, which was only audible on the modified tracks. These are heard more as rumbles and felt as vibrations, rather than being heard as loud sounds.

Elephants tend to have a very complex and ‘fluid’ social structure, which means that each family or group of elephants tends to be very large and individuals tend to move around freely. These elephant families, consisting mostly of females, tend to merge with other families or groups. Therefore, in order to communicate and locate each other over long distances, elephants tend to use infrasound. These infrasound calls tend to have a frequency of around 21Hz. Each individual call is also unique, so this might help elephants recognize which elephant the infrasound message is coming from. After carrying out a lot of research on the topic, I also believe that the use of infrasound provides the elephants with the private channel of communication that is not understood, heard, or interrupted by other organisms, thereby providing extra protection for the elephants.

A Male African Elephant
A Male African Elephant

Many organisms use infrasound for purposes other than the two mentioned above (communication and protection) as well. An interesting use of infrasound is when a tiger roars. An investigation carried out by bioacoustician Elizabeth von Muggenthaler, showed that the tiger’s infrasound roar has the ability to temporarily paralyze an animal or human. Although it remains a mystery as to how this happens, it is clear that the roar is felt by the organism, but not heard. She carried out the research by playing infrasound and checking whether the tiger would react to it. The reaction by the tiger showed that they were able to hear and therefore produce sounds at very low frequencies. The use of this infrasound roar aids the tiger when it is stalking its prey, as it helps to stall the prey, giving the tiger an opportunity to kill it.

Another fascinating use of infrasound is that by humpback whales and blue whales. They often use sounds ranging from 20 Hz to more than 24 kHz. These whales tend to produce periodically repeating sounds at various frequencies, a phenomenon known as the ‘whale songs’. These have been described by many as the most complex song produced by an animal. The whales, especially humpback whales, tend to produce these songs during the mating season. However, it is not clear how the songs help the whales during the mating process – it may be used to fend off rivals, to attract females, or even to show the whales’ territory. Whales in a particular geographical area tend to sing similar or same songs, whereas those from a different area tend to sing different whale songs. These whale songs in each area are also slowly evolving, with different notes being added to the song. The humpback whales also tend to make two other sounds that are not songs: 1) sounds made during mating and 2) feeding calls. The feeding calls are loud calls made before the whales attack a school of fish, but it is unclear why the whales make this sound. From my study, it seems as though the whales are trying to coordinate their attack on the fish. So by sounding the call, all the whales are able to attack and feed together, thereby making the frenzy more efficient.

Humpback Whales Coordinating an Attack and Feeding on Fish
Humpback Whales Coordinating an Attack and Feeding on Fish


Interaction with Humans:

In the 1950’s and the 1960’s, about 50,000 whales were killed each year, until the discovery of something special by Roger Payne. The discovery of the Song of the Humpback Whale. This finding took place when military researcher, Frank Watlington, handed over recordings of submarines and dynamite explosions to Roger Payne, as he could not figure out what the noise in the background was. “These sounds are, with no exception that I can think of, the most evocative, most beautiful sounds made by any animal on Earth,” (May 2014) said Payne.

Payne discovered that the sound the whale was producing was a complex song, as the whale was continuously repeating itself. He realized that he may be able to use this beautiful sound to produce some changes in the whaling industry. In the year 1965, whaling was very severe and humpback whales became endangered. The International Whaling Commission did not allow whaling for a certain period of time, until the whale population increased once more. “Do you make cat food out of composer-poets? I think that’s a crime,” (May 2014) said Payne, as he began to think of ways to make everyone aware of these whale songs. His aim was to integrate the songs into our culture. He distributed the recordings to singers and composers all over the world. A singer crucial to the success of the project was Judy Collins. In her album Whales and Nightingales that was released in 1970, she included the song “Farewell to Tarwathie.” This song, which included actual recordings of whale songs that were given to her, became an instant hit. It spread the idea of whale songs to millions all across the globe.

A couple of years later, after hearing the songs, Greenpeace started their own movement called “Save the Whales,” which was a huge success. The song of the whale seemed to completely change the mindset of people. In this way, recordings of animals can really help in the conservation of the species.

After listening to the recordings, I felt guilt. Guilt for being part of a race that has been destroying these creatures. Guilt for doing nothing to protect these creatures. I am sure this was the same way people felt during the mid 20th century, when the movement was introduced. The songs also give us an opportunity to think about the intelligence of the creatures. As former Greenpeace director Rex Weyler said, “It certainly was a huge factor in convincing us that the whales were an intelligent species here on planet Earth and actually made music, made art, created an aesthetic” (May 2014). Why would one kill organisms that are creating art, and are doing nothing to harm us?

People tend to associate certain actions and ideas with sound. This too could’ve been one of the crucial factors in convincing people to protect whales. An example of this idea can be seen in the movie The Big Lebowski, when the main character is listening to an audio recording of whale sounds, while relaxing and smoking marijuana. Here, the character associates the sounds with the idea of relaxation. In the same way people may associate certain ideas with animal recordings, which makes it more likely that they will refrain from harming such creatures.

By incorporating whale songs into our own songs, we tend to anthropomorphise (ascribe human features to) the whales. Why do we do this? Why do we incorporate them into human culture? By doing so, it feels as though they are now great parts of our lives. It is as if they have a role to play in our lives, whether it involves aiding in music production, or helping us relax. From my research, I also believe that by anthropomorphising the whales, we tend to feel as though the whales are expressing themselves. We tend to feel emotions as if the whales are feeling them too. Although the idea of animals communicating emotion in their sounds is complex, some investigations have been carried out in the field, and documents have been produced, in order to support this idea.

The basic idea of using recordings to convince individuals to help conserve a species can also be used for other animals as well. One example is the recording of tiger roars. Many countries are trying to introduce the recording of tiger roars in order to estimate the tiger population and whether each individual tiger is male or female. The recording is put into computer software that generates spectrograms showing each individual tiger’s roar. Each roar acts as an identity to each individual tiger and can be used to identify it. In the same way, these recordings are being used to estimate animal densities of various creatures all over the world.

Around 5% of the studies carried out on human impact on animal communication show that, effects such as hunting, habitat fragmentation, chemical and noise pollution, “introduced diseases,” “direct human disturbance,” and urbanisation, tend to affect acoustic communication (Laiolo, 2010). Therefore, another way recordings can help with conservation is by helping in identifying how humans have affected the organism’s bioacoustics. By comparing previous and current recordings, changes in the animal’s call can be identified. Although many organisms tend to adapt to their environment in this way, many adaptations may be disadvantageous to the species. This may be because other groups of the species are no longer able to communicate with them, sometimes sexual signs of animals are affected, echolocation of bats and cetaceans can be severely interrupted, habitat loss can affect the way birds select their nesting grounds based on acoustic cues, and noise pollution can also affect social signs of mammals. So through the use of recordings, identification of anthropogenic changes to bioacoustics is made easier. This could help with improvements in conservation of animals, as it is now clear what changes need to be made.

Deforestation in the Amazon
Deforestation in the Amazon

Understanding bioacoustics is very important in a world where wildlife is in desperate need of conservation. By understanding the way organisms communicate, we will soon be able to understand the way organisms feel. Future developments may also see us being able to understand what the organisms are communicating about. By working to achieve our goal of decoding animal communication, efficient interspecies communication may develop as well to some extent, between humans and animals. This will open up a number of opportunities to both animal and man. By making us humans more aware about the way in which organisms live and interact, conservation of various species will improve. Protection provided by the government to the species will improve. People’s view of the organisms will improve. So working towards a positive goal, might give us a better future.




Altenmüller, Eckart, Sabine Schmidt, and Elke Zimmermann. 2013.Evolution of Emotional Communication: From Sounds in Nonhuman Mammals to Speech and Music in Man. Firstition. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Au, Whitlow W. L., and Mardi C. Hastings. 2008;2009;. Principles of marine bioacoustics. 1. Aufl. ed. New York: Springer.

Brumm, Henrik, and SpringerLink (Online service). 2013. Animal Communication and Noise. 1;2013; ed. Vol. 2. Dordrecht: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

Chapoy, Annick. 2005. Acoustic Senses Prevented Carnage: Animals At Park in Srilanka Fled Well Ahead of Wave: All but toronto edition.National Post 2005.

“Could We Speak the Language of Dolphins?” Denise Herzing:. Accessed November 8, 2015.

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“Eavesdropping on Tiger Roars Can Improve Conservation.” THE WILDLIFE SOCIETY. Accessed November 11, 2015.

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Gisiner, Robert C. 2010. “Marine Bioacoustics in a Changing Arctic”.The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 127 (3): 1756.

Gordon, Jonathan, and Giuseppe di Sciara. 1997. “Bioacoustics: A Tool for the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Mediterranean Sea”. Marine and Freshwater Behaviour and Physiology 30 (2): 125-46.

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“Infrasound Roar – Tiger’s Secret Weapon to Paralyse Its Prey !” YouTube. Accessed November 11, 2015.

“Katy Payne: Elephant Songs.” PopTech. Accessed November 3, 2015.

Laiolo, Paola. 2010. “The Emerging Significance of Bioacoustics in Animal Species Conservation”.Biological Conservation 143 (7): 1635-45.

Mapes, Jen. “National Geographic News @” National Geographic. Accessed November 8, 2015.

May, Michael. 2014.”Recordings That Made Waves: The Songs That Saved The Whales.” NPR. Accessed November 7, 2015.

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and Sense of Place. 1;2013; ed. New York: Springer

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Underwater Noise Pollution: A Growing Problem

As oceanographic noise pollution rises, there is a growing concern for the stress it places on marine life, as well as for rising trends in the amount of noise pollution caused by industry and anthropogenic, or human-caused, sound. Because of the nature of sound in the ocean, noise pollution and, more broadly, the soundscape in the ocean are difficult to research. A seemingly insignificant problem to humans causes significant changes in marine life, and in order to explore the link between population changes and noise pollution, the complex causes of anthropogenic sound in ocean soundscapes must be explored.

Why is noise pollution in the oceans that important? At least in my eyes, even though humans avoid dealing with the firsthand effects of noise pollution in oceans, the broader consequences on the larger oceanic ecosystem harms us more than we think. As the delicate balance in the ocean changes due to behavioral and physiological changes on certain marine life, entire populations of marine life shift and shrink, causing immeasurable harm to other species of marine animals, and creating a never ending domino effect, changing the marine environment forever.

To first understand how underwater sound is changing, ambient noise and the bioacoustics of the ocean, that is the production, usage, and reception of sound in the ocean by animals, have to be considered. Humans have long known that underwater creatures utilize and communicate using noise, shown from the myths of singing sirens and dolphins rescuing Arion, a Greek musician from the sea, but in more recent times, much work has been done to identify and qualify the marine acoustic environment (Stocker 2002, 16). Most of the noise previously thought of as “background” noise in oceans has been now recognized as being crucial sounds for animal survival and is being used by sea creatures to communicate, navigate, hunt, bond and breed. Most people consider the ocean to be a silent place because humans are poorly adapted for underwater sound, in juxtaposition to say air, which even produces the sound of our voice.

The ocean’s acoustic environment includes many sources of sound, mostly naturally occurring noises from wind, waves, tides, and currents, but anthropogenic sound has, in fact, been present since the days of the first seafaring people (Stocker 2002, 16). Over the past 100 years though, anthropogenic sound underwater has exponentially increased, adding to the ambient noise, and drowning out sources of ambient noise already present. Of those sources that were drowned out, perhaps the most important is naturally occurring, biological ambient noise.

Some of the most recognizable naturally occurring, biological sounds include the songs of whales and dolphins. In addition to those, there are countless other sources of biological noise, including scraping, grinding, grunting, and singing produced by fish, crustaceans, mollusks and cnidaria.

Recordings That Made Waves: The Songs That Saved The Whales

Katherine Payne, an acoustic biologist, along with her husband Roger Payne, in the 1970s made an album of humpback whale songs, which became one of the best selling natural sounds album of all time (May 2014).

Whales’, and other animals’, use of sound can be categorized in two different ways, active usage, or when an animal creates a sound to interact with other animals and their environment, or passive usage, when an animal responds to environmental and ambient sounds it does not create. Usage of sound becomes an extremely important evolutionary tool that sea animals rely on in order to detect and locate prey and predators, detect proximity to co-species and changing environmental conditions, and to navigate (Stocker 2002, 23). But as these sounds become harder to discern or more difficult to create effectively, their significance diminishes.

In order to explore the specific evolutionary changes in marine mammals, and even more generally marine life caused by noise pollution in ocean soundscapes, the specific sources of oceanographic noise pollution have to be thoroughly explored to gain a deeper understand of the true magnitude of anthropogenic noise. McCarthy, in International regulation of underwater sound, thoroughly describes the complexities of various industries that contribute the most, including shipping, dredging, coastal constriction, offshore oil and mineral exploration, boating, fishing, and military activities. McCarthy examines and presents the increasing trends of noise pollution in those industries are provides a useful basis of explaining the worsening conditions of underwater noise pollution.

Sources of historical data of ambient noise from each of these industries can be found by utilizing data intended for military research projects such as the US Navy’s Sound Ocean Surveillance System (SONUS) which utilized networks of hydrophones to listen for and record signals from enemy submarines. Since such projects were clearly intended for military applications, it sometimes lacks the focus that is required to provide detailed data, but connected to other data, such as the increase in the amount of ships on the ocean or the number of offshore oil rigs.

The recording technology utilized by such projects however remains applicable in monitoring and recording underwater noise. Hydrophones, analogous to microphones above water, convert sound in water into electrical signals that can be played back. Demonstrating the usage and sound produced by this type of recording tool, I’ve made a recording of the Brodie Aquatics Center.

Made by placing the hydrophone into the edge of the pool, I recorded the pool in which kayakers were practicing. This created noise analogous to what animals in the distance would create. Since the water was relatively calm while recording, there is not as much variation in sound as there would be in the ocean, but the recording does present an accurate enough representation of how sound would be monitored in oceans to collect data on ambient noise in the ocean.

Specific cases of deleterious effects on marine mammals caused by humans include abandonment of entire habitats by significant populations of Gray and killer whales due to icebreaking, some even 50 kilometers away, and sonar caused noise pollution causing mass stranding of beaked whales (National Research Council 2005, 14). The National Research Council Committee notes that some of these small changes in behavior for these mammals over time lead to more significant effects.

“Although there are many documented, clearly discernible responses of marine mammals to anthropogenic sound, responses are typically subtle, consisting of shorter surfacings, shorter dives, fewer blows per surfacing, longer intervals between blows, ceasing or increasing vocalizations, shortening or lengthening vocalizations, and changing frequency or intensity of vocalizations. Some of those changes become statistically significant for a given exposure, such as increases in descent rate and increases or decreases in ascent rate of northern elephant seals.” (National Research Council 2005, 14)

But the council also notes that “it remains unknown when and how these changes translate into biologically significant effects—effects that have repercussions for the animal beyond the time of disturbance, effects on the animal’s ability to engage in essential activities, and effects that have potential consequences at the population level” (National Research Council 2005, 13).

The only reasonable way of curbing the amount of anthropogenic noise introduced in oceanographic soundscapes is introducing legislature and through focusing on policy and governmental decisions regarding the protection of ocean soundscapes. Most research regarding noise pollution in oceans contain an abundance of raw data, hinting at the negative consequences caused by noise at certain frequencies, but barely touching on the actual evolutionary changes caused by humankind inadvertently on marine life.

A small amount of research on the most alarming consequence, in my mind, of underwater noise pollution is problematic. Stronger data collection efforts using more focused networks of hydrophones and creating more concrete links with ambient noise levels might usher in new support towards minimizing the destruction of underwater soundscapes.

The relevance of underwater noise pollution to humankind is that the interconnectedness of humans and animals is placed into danger if humans carelessly or recklessly endanger the other. Placing the important of marine life as a food source aside, shifts in populations of marine life alter our enjoyment and our enchantment of the seas forever.

Works Cited

International Conference on the Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life. 2012. The effects of noise on aquatic life ed. Arthur N. Popper. New York: Springer.

Jasny, Michael. 2005. Sounding the depths II the rising toll of sonar, shipping and industrial ocean noise on marine life. New York, NY: Natural Resources Defense Council.

Low-frequency sound and marine mammals: Current knowledge and research needs1994. , eds. Committee on Low-Frequency Sound and Marine Mammals, Ocean Studies Board, Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources, National Research Council., National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Low-Frequency Sound and Marine Mammals. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

May, Michael. “Recordings That Made Waves: The Songs That Saved The Whales : NPR.” Last modified December 26, 2014.

McCarthy, Elena. 2004. International regulation of underwater sound: Establishing rules and standards to address ocean noise pollution. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

National Research Council (US) Committee on Characterizing Biologically Significant Marine, Mammal Behavior. 2005. Marine mammal populations and ocean noise: Determining when noise causes biologically significant effects, ed. National Academies Press (U.S.). Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Stocker, Michael. “Ocean Bio-Acoustics and Noise Pollution.” Soundscape: The Journal of Acoustic Ecology 3, no. 2 (Winter 2002): 16-28.

Alternative Experimental Music, Minorities and Counterculture

The interdependence of experimental electronic music with minority groups and urban countercultural movements.

A large debate has been airing around the transcendent nature of contemporary progressive electronic music and its subversive impact on present day musical and cultural scenes. The discussion of revolutionary aspects of ambient and striking sounds in modern day avant-garde experimental electronic music of the 21st century is an emerging field that deserves further research development and attention. The role of music and noise in creating controversial electronic musical tracks that influence individuals is a crucial aspect to study and review. Of most importance is the exploration of how the creation of a “grey area” in electronic music subtly roots for contemporary countercultural — popularly denominated as “hipster” — music tendencies and “underground movements” resembling those of previous decades.

Runway Entrance at the Paradise Garage – Paul McKee (

How does this controversial modern day electronic sound, essentially what some people may call noise, influence countercultural movements and activism through instilling specific sounds into the daily lives of listeners? How is it influencing changes in musical tastes and dis-tastes? How are soundscapes integrated to a larger extent into music through this practice? Do these sounds have a psychological effect or create movements and trends within society? And most importantly, to what extent do they incite and support revolutionary thinking and social change?

An already extensive body of research exists surrounding this topic, as electronic music has been emerging, growing, changing and transforming ever since technological music experimentation began taking place. It is often called “experimental electronic music” and at times involves “sound art” and elements of “noise”; often Implemented by bands, musicians and producers such as Arca, Crystal Castles, Alt-J, and Empress Of. Some, such as Joanna Demers, claim these effects to be the future of music, however, commonly, they appeal to a minority and are more popularly used in alternative/indie musical tracks, platforms and playlists. Nevertheless, I am thrilled to embark on a journey of exploration which can contribute to this body of research, as I consider there to be a lack of extensive findings or specific studies regarding the minority groups, and modern day countercultural “hipsters” and “activists”, who are often influenced by these electronic musical tracks. One of the regularly dismissed issues in progressive modern day alternative electronic music discourse is the concept that this music is a somewhat underground movement, a statement, a subtle form of noise and revolution. With that in mind, this field catches my interest and therefore prompts my further discussion of the subject area.

When talking about marginalised groups in terms of electronic music audience, I mean the crowd willing to escape the frameworks built by mainstream pop culture. This crowd seeks another form of self identification and comfort through sound that shapes outlooks on the world and unites countercultural masses. Alternative electronic music has been around for decades, emerging with dance music in the 1970s, which at that time was a frontier largely dominated by the LGBTQ community and marginalised groups such as black-americans and latinos. These clubs were largely disheveled and underground, establishing themselves as forerunners of these countercultural trends surrounding the initial stage of what in the present day is often known as alternative electronic music — from clubs such as Rhonda in Los Angeles to Paradise Garage in New York, both established in the 70s (Garcia, 2014).

So, who listens to electronic music now? A large majority of its modern day audience consists of the youth striving to question authority — the “anti-mainstream” hipster culture of modern day society. Yet, most of these musicians, producers and listeners still identify as queer in accordance with the discussed genre’s historical roots. Not only this, but a large portion of given music, also known in urban slang as “high music” or “stoner music”, is currently associated with drug consumption. This is because disco beats have become more mainstream than ever, and modern day progressions are now falling into deeper obscurity to differentiate themselves from the general current. Experimental electronic music is also often associated with creativity and flux of imagination, perhaps due to its links to LSD or its effect on the brain. This effect ranges from ambient tranquillising sounds that create an evasive space to almost escape reality, to disturbing uncomfortable counterintuitive dissonant sounds that can integrate someone further into the awareness of reality and therefore awaken inner rebellion. Furthermore, it often integrates sound art and what many would denominate as technological “noise”, creating a synthesised ambiental atmosphere that with headphones almost seems to send sound signals straight through your head and juggle your hearing senses. This music and its perception is also prominent amongst the rebellious youth, bohemian youngsters, artistic “hipsters” and present day “grunge” urban teenagers — the image of the idealised urban outcast. On that account, these sounds almost seem to be making an active countercultural statement.

Let’s take the example of Arca — also known as Alejandro Ghersi — a Venezuelan producer, mixing engineer and DJ currently residing in London. Who struggled with his homosexuality since a very young age while living in a wealthy family and an isolated elite community in south America. Having gone through trouble with self-identification and acceptance, he found escape in his music. His countercultural rebellious nature shines through his debut album, Xen, released on November 4th, 2014 — an electronic psychedelic sound, claiming to portray an in-between state of sexuality and any kind of identity. A state of mind and discomforting sound through which you can relate and find your identity no matter what you are feeling. Combined, the afore mentioned factors imply that each listener of his music can be whoever he or she wants to be. Ghersi searches for odd, uncomfortable, unusual and unexpected twists and combinations of tunes to place in songs, and essentially finds comfort in discomfort. Electric currents of sound art, buzzing, and recognisable electronic sounds with indistinguishable words make up his music — such as in the single “Attractions”, his collaboration with Sylvain Chauveau. Thereby, in this way he reaches out to the larger audience of misunderstood teenagers struggling with their sexuality and self-identification (Frank, 2014). This case-based individual example is almost directly related to the historical idea of the emerging 70s queer club culture and its prominence. These transgressive sounds and electric noises aim to represent the transmission and transgressive nature of the journey of self-identification. His habitual lack of words or hardly distinguishable dialect is an almost secretive whisper that longs for interpretation, a message only at the ears and understanding of a few.

Essentially, Arca does not form part of a singled out exceptional case, but of a rebellious group of “outcasts”. Let’s take the pressing example of Crystal Castles, a Canadian band that blends the electronic, electropunk, and synthpop genres. A band celebrated worldwide amongst the modern day indie and punk population, who’s former lead singer Alice Glass was an outcast raised in a strict family, and who escaped from home as a teenager and joined a punk community. Their style has been described as “ferocious, asphyxiating sheets of warped two-dimensional Gameboy glitches and bruising drum bombast that pierces your skull with their sheer shrill force, burrowing deep into the brain like a fever.” To listen to Crystal Castles, according to the BBC, “is to be cast adrift in a vortex of deafening pain without a safety net. You get the feeling you could do anything in the world, but that ‘anything’ would ultimately mean nothing.” Alice Glass often comes out with remarks such as “the mainstream hates women” and says that modern day mainstream artists “sell sex to children”. This in itself is a form of activism, and stands hand in hand with feminist movements and other battles for rights, therefore directly links to their sound in its non-confrontational aesthetic nature, similar to the non-conformity of activism. These feministic activist movements directly represent the countercultural ideas and meanings behind this music genre; an approach that only seems to be reasonably taken on by non-mainstream underground bands. Which are famous amongst a specific group of people that can question authority by stating that they are not part of it. Much like abstract art, they create a statement that can be debated and put forth as a symbol for anything that comes to mind, awakening the listener’s senses in a manner that raises the will to question.

What is more, Grimes, also known as Claire Elise Boucher, an electronic experimental synthpop musician, is described by the New Yorker as a “noise musician” producing “pop for misfits” (Sanneh, 2015) — in this case more anime comic-con geeks than anyone else. It almost seems like the variety of tastes never ceases, and there is a sub-genre of electronica that fits every single type of marginalised or “misfit” kid/individual out there. Her music plays with its deceitful nature, as one of her most upbeat songs, Oblivion, is said to depict sexual assault — a more profound and parlous matter than her sound might initially let on. Her songs create a sort of paradox, with her electronic voice taking over the track, along with electronic sounds that often fall into pop-like dance music — generally upbeat with a certain gist of ironic sadness and playful nostalgia. She is perhaps the least experimental of the thoroughly discussed artists in terms of the integration of sound art, but still stands for alternative tendencies and utilises ambient sounds that at times almost feel flowing and atmospheric within a wholesome creation of a dance-like tune.

Similarly, the Californian electronica/synthpop musician and producer Empress Of, Lorely Rodriguez tackles many “explicit” topics such as sex, violent breakups, and issues such as closeness and alienation. She in some way creates a protection of the female identity and challenges minor stigmas, thereby can also be interlocked with feminist activism and questioning of the taboo surrounding mental illness — in addition to her latin-american identity, one of the marginalised minorities initially discussed. Lorely implements electronic sounds that are mostly meant to represent “sexual rhythm”. In her debut album, Me, she encompasses and covers the whole spectrum of factors and features of experimental electronic music and its distinct sound through the use of both her voice and electronic synthesisers. The distilled sound of her music appears to be perfectly placed and situated in the track and record; “making each song more focused and tenacious.” The song “Everything Is You” begins the album with just a pinging bell tone, finger snaps and a lone vocal, asking, “Should I be afraid?” Only a few other instrumental sounds appear, with a predominance of bass tones, and only slight hazy chords that in a cliff-like structure “cut off abruptly”, “a pattering programmed high-hat, sporadic bass tones.” The vocals of these records arrive in pieces, harmonising and fading in and out of the song, “sometimes wordlessly pulling away”, such as in her track “Water, Water”. The melody, as in most of the songs on the album, is a “jumpy dotted line sketching sharp angles, a nervy but utterly precise zigzag.” In more positive songs, such as “How Do You Do It,” the beat moves toward electronic dance music and the tunes grow more symmetrical. “But there’s always tension somewhere: in a tinge of dissonance, in an insistent syncopation, in the spaces she refuses to fill in” (Pareles, 2015). Perhaps this is the most subtle example of culturally revolutionary electronic music, but the sounds implemented do certainly seem so, and like is the case for most of the other artists discussed, minority groups comprise the largest part of Empress Of’s audience — in particular young hipsters, bisexuals and latinos.

The countercultural tendencies explored run through a large number of alternative electronic music bands, and are created by and for who some people would denominate as outcasts, “minority groups”, or simply for those who want to feel a little different. It is often music that particularly resonates with the “getting high around the corner” kids, the photographers, film directors, the painters, the actors, the environmental activists. Moreover, all the bands explored within this study involve the implementation and fusion of music with technology in the process of creating given tunes, mostly synthesisers. “Technoculture” creates “exoticizing tendencies”; and technology is linked to “subcultural activity” (Lysloff, 2003). This phenomenon has been around for years — “there’s more to this piece than reminding ourselves that queers were historically important for dance music, or that they’re still musically relevant now” (Garcia, 2014).  This occurrence is about the link of counterculture and the subversive nature of experimental electronic music in the present day, a futuristic outlook that remains and will remain present amongst marginalised minorities or those who seek to understand or integrate themselves within one.

For this study, I chose to focus on the cultural context and the less technologically complex sounds within experimental electronic music. However, the presence of the further obscure and intricate sounds should not be dismissed. Even though sound art is implemented in the case studies discussed, the field allows for a much more in-depth expanded study. Additionally, I acknowledge that most of my inclusions do indeed involve more “listenable” tracks that could serve as an introductory basis for new audiences intending to join the force of listeners of given genre. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this particular research, how sounds and our perceptions of such create these experimental music tracks that awaken senses which incite human reaction and response, much like both the natural and artificial daily soundscape environments around us, should be understood. This particular “reaction and response” pattern spawns a somewhat cult-like musical trend, where consumers remain loyal and listen not only for the aesthetic pleasure of sound but also for emotional meaning. Yet, the aesthetics of these particular sounds also play a crucial role in awakening the listeners attention and directing it towards activistic causes. This is achieved by either creating a space of detachment, a form of passive resistance through ambient sounds; or thorough the heightening of emotions calling for action. Said reaction and response to sounds forms a unison in a music-dominated world of clubbing and online audio/media exchange. The ongoing increase in the blending of  music and technology, alongside the accessibility and multi-functional use of synthesisers, is perhaps why this countercultural trend has incorporated itself in this singular world of experimental electronic music.


The priorly discussed artists implement elements of experimental electronic music advanced by other experts, such as the works of various artists compiled in “An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music Vol.7”. Which is a 2013 compilation of experimental avant-garde sounds, “a wonderful account of infinite inspirations”, resembling those pioneered by John Cage himself. The compilation contains the technological tones and at times penetrating noise that can resemble or hint at the aesthetic value and intention of the artists studied in the presented case studies. The semi-academic  online publication “PopMatters” reviews this album as an “engrossing voyage into mind-expanding experimentations and frequently ear-splitting notes.” This review is one quite reminiscent of the ones discussing artists such as Arca, Crystal Castles and Empress Of. Disc One contains “varying doses of decaying noise and corrosive drone on their respective and powerful tracks.” While Disc two contains “delightful amounts of pandemonium, all dunked in industrial-strength acid.” And Disc Three “tweaks the nerves completely with its menacing minimalism.” All these sounds are the basis and starting points from which the above explored artist have extracted inspirational material from, to implement in their own work and develop increasingly dynamic sounds (Hayes, 2013).

Although perhaps these at times anti-mainstream electronic music genres and sub-genres are another way for the youth to artistically dissent from the mass, a portion of teenage angst that looks to defy all that commands it to conform with the “norm”. Be that as it may, the redundancy of such outlook does not encompass all case scenarios and the general sonic influence of experimental electronic music on individuals. Hence, even though the discussed field of experimental electronic music remains somewhat concealed in terms of the relationship between the sounds produced and their cultural impact, it is an emerging sphere of study. Many producers and musicians have discussed the matter of their sound as well as its source and origin, however, as a cultural crusade, this movement requires further thorough exploration, and gives way to some interesting open ended conclusions and assumptions that should be regarded with further closeness and broader scope — as a major phenomenon, as opposed to a singled out occurrence.

Soundscapes (a playlist of commercialised alternative electronic music):

An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music Vol.7 (experimental electronic music):


Yngvar B. Steinholt. 2013. “Roars of Discontent; Noise and Disaffection in Two Cases of Russian Punk” In Resonances: Noise and Contemporary Music, edited by Michael Goddard, Benjamin Halligan and Nicola Spelman. New York: Bloomsbury Academic: 121-33.

Edgard Varese. 2004. “The Liberation of Sound” In Audio culture: Readings in modern music, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. New York: Continuum: 17-21.

Sheila Whiteley. 2013. “‘Kick Out the Jams’: Creative Anarchy and Noise in 1960s Rock” In Resonances: Noise and contemporary music, edited by Michael Goddard, Benjamin Halligan and Nicola Spelman. New York: Bloomsbury Academic: 13-23.

Demers, Joanna Teresa. 2010. “Listening through the noise: The aesthetics of experimental electronic music.” New York: Oxford University Press: 135-53.

Babbitt, Milton. 1960. “The revolution in sound: Electronic music.” In Music Journal 18 (7): 34.

Allington, Daniel, Byron Dueck, and Anna Jordanous. 2015. “Networks of value in electronic music: SoundCloud, london, and the importance of place”. In Cultural Trends 24 (3): 211-22.

Gresser Clemens. 2004. “Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music” edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. Continuum.

“Resonances: Noise and contemporary music”, edited by Michael Goddard, Benjamin Halligan and Nicola Spelman. 2013. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Lysloff, René T. A., and Gay, Leslie C. 2003. “Music and technoculture.” Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press.

Alex, Frank. 2014. “Venezuelan Producer Arca on Gender, Hope, and His Brave New Album.” November 4. Accessed November 6th, 2015.

Adam, Bychawski. 2012. “Crystal Castles’ Alice Glass: ‘The mainstream hates women.’”  October 2012. Accessed November 3rd, 2015.–2/66920

Luis-Manuel, Garcia. 2014. “An alternate history of sexuality in club culture.” January 2014. Accessed October 25th, 2015.

Kelefa, Sanneh. 2015. “Pop for Misfits.” September 2015. Accessed November 2nd, 2015.

Jon, Pareles. 2015. “Review: ‘Me,’ by Empress Of, Has Cool Assurance and Jumpy Lines.” September 2015. Accessed October 29th, 2015.

Craig, Hayes. 2013. “An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music 7.” November 2013. Accessed November 15th, 2015.

Arca 1000000. “Arca – Thievery (Official Audio)” YouTube video, 2:34. September 11th, 2014.

Crystal Castles official. “Crystal Castles ‘PALE FLESH’ Official” YouTube video, 2:59. November 8th, 2012.

GrimesVEVO. “Grimes – Oblivion” YouTube video, 4:11. March 2nd, 2012.

EmpressOf. “Empress Of – ‘Water Water’ (Official Video)” YouTube video, 3:42. June 8th, 2015.

Anastasia, Budko. 2015. “Soundscapes” Spotify Playlist.

Various Artists. 2013. “An Anthology of Noise & Electronic Music, Vol.7” Spotify Playlist.

A Note on Thoughts: Striking a Chord in Behavioral Acoustics

The vulnerabilities of the human mind have deep ties to the realm of human hearing and shed light on the inner workings of the human subconscious. Behavior is a multifaceted concept that can be divided into three core parts – emotion, decision-making, and performance. Although closely related, these three aspects lie on separate parts of the reaction spectrum, falling within external physical reactions and internal emotional reactions. Emotional influences have an almost complete lack of physical manifestations and are the most difficult behavioral changes to track. Human interpretations of emotion are necessarily subjective, and efforts to quantify data about emotions relies on the thorough and accurate introspection of the subjects in question. Alternatively, decision making draws from both emotional reactions and the resulting physical actions. Arbitrated by mood, this branch of behavior has emotional components that can be determined through an analysis of the sonic environment before the decision and the very nature of a decision made within that environment. At the physical extreme of the reaction spectrum sits performance, focusing on accuracy and precision as quantitative functions of a sonic environment. As a retrospective measurement of emotional and decision-making effects, performance evaluations offer concrete data about sound impacts during cognitively intensive tasks. In essence, the three stages of behavior follow each other in a natural progression, dealing with subconscious influences of sound, conscious choices made under those influences, and the physical consequences brought on by those choices.

The emotional effect of sounds plays a crucial role in the understanding of human reaction, yet for the scope of a research project the term “emotion” must be comprehensible and mathematically natural. Researchers like Didier Grandjean have simplified the complex task of researching emotions by employing a survey of descriptive words for data gathering. He believed that “some emotions may be more felt than acted on, and these emotions may not have obvious behavioral, expressive, or physiological manifestations,” so feelings “thus identified include emotions with behavioral or physiological manifestations, without excluding those emotional states that may not have these overt expressions but still represent highly characteristic reactions” (Grandjean 2008). Given the elusive and at times indefinable nature of emotion, qualitative studies of emotional reactions can be concrete only to the extent defined by researchers like Grandjean and often contain data supplied subjectively by test subjects. The genres of music offer a fundamental introduction to categorizing emotional influences of sound. An experiment by Krumhansl published in 1997 details an experiments where college students listened to classical music selections that expressed sadness, happiness, or fear. During this study, “all music, regardless of which discrete emotion was represented, resulted in decreased heart rate and increased breathing rate and blood pressure” as well as “an aggregated decrease in sympathetic system measures (i.e., skin conductance level and finger temperature)… because of increases in comfort, familiarity, and even boredom” (Carpentier 2007).  The lack of negative emotions when listening to music remains consistent among experiments; many indicate that “various kinds of positive emotions can be both aroused by music and perceived by music,” and “music rated as fearful or sad still tends to produce positive affect” (Grandjean 2008). The surge of positive emotions experienced when listening to music of negative emotions may seem counterintuitive, but the relationship is grounded on the ability of the listener to relate to the music being played. A study on why people listen to sad music when feeling stressed led to the term “self-identified sad music” and it can be inferred that the positivity of a song has more to do with how a person relates to the music than the genre of the music itself (Edwards 2011). If a listener in his or her saddened state cannot relate to happy experiences relayed by a song, the effect of the song is lost. However, a feeling of connection to a sad song that relates to how the listener is feeling can add a sense of belonging and establish an emotional connection to the message of the song itself. The study by Jane Edwards expands on this hypothesis with a model of song type and effect as seen below:

Emotional Response Flow

Interestingly enough, the overt human tendency to seek comfort through a relationship to negativity as opposed to trying to change through positivity speaks to the human mind’s focus on itself over its environment. Regulation of emotions is strongest when the personal needs of belonging are met and a connection is felt. Further studies on this subject will likely indicate that humans get progressively less pleasure from positive things in the environment if they have an initial state of sadness, but get more pleasure when the environment’s events mimic their own emotions. Since finding the right emotion for a listener has such a strong impact on their experience, many music companies including Spotify and iTunes have adopted models for categorizing media. One prominent example is the Tellegen-Watson-Clark model (seen below), which has found widespread acceptance in the classification of emotions in not only music but also television shows, movies, and other kinds of media.


Tellegen-Watson-Clark Model

Decision-making has a close correlation to mood and performance but stands at the cross-roads of physical action and emotionally-driven thought. The independent assessment of decision-making as a function of sound exposure is therefore a crucial component to understanding behavior and the role of sound within it. A study by Cohen (1984) tried to understand the effects of sonic environments on human cooperation and state of mind. During the span of the study, researchers generated car horn and construction noises and then acted in scenarios where they dropped parcels, requested interviews, and asked for spare change. As the environment became more crowded with urban noises, people were shown to decrease their cooperation while walking along a street. These results were confirmed in a similar study involving the request for participation in a survey, where participants not only displayed less cooperation but also had increased walking paces in crowded areas (Boles 1978). Alternatively, strangers in rural, relatively quiet environments partook more willingly in interviews, alerted strangers to objects they dropped, and looked for spare change to donate (Cohen 1984). In general, increased urban sounds lead to higher levels of noncommittal behavior in subjects.

brain waves 2The difference in cooperation between soundscapes was most likely due to the rate and intensity of high- and mid-tier frequencies.  As explained by researcher Flindell (2014), low frequencies are “felt,” but the middle and high frequency ranges are truly processed by the brain and can have powerful psychological impacts. One key impact is subconscious stress, which the body can express with the common feeling of annoyance. In fact, the relationship between high frequencies and mental stresses has natural links that could be explored further. The brain stimulates the body for energy-intensive activities through high frequency signals as seen in the Brain Waves Graph.
External sounds with high frequencies could force the brain to process such sounds with a higher level of activity or energy, leading to stress, annoyance, and consequential desire to leave the sound environment. Such conclusion coincides with the result of the UK RANCH study and its follow-ups, where children growing up in high-intensity airport noise environments experienced uncommon levels of annoyance towards noise and even showed lower academic performance (Clark 2013). The intensity of a soundscape also plays a key factor in decisions and could similarly induce higher stress levels as it increases. Intent on studying the effects of sound on behavior, some researchers gave shocks to random subjects in urban environments with two noise levels: 55dB and 95dB . When given the option to retaliate, subjects in the louder environment expressed greater aggression by giving a greater number of shocks at higher intensities (Cohen 1984). The recurring link between high-energy noises and noncommittal behavior generates the following profound behavioral chain: An external high-energy noise induces stress in the brain, the body experiences a negative mood shift, and the listener experiences a desire to avoid any external, unexpected, and cognitively demanding task within that environment.

As an evaluation of emotional stability and decision-making efficacy, performance stands out as the most concrete, physical manifestation of behavior. The idea that background sounds can either impair or promote engagement in a task has been historically accepted, but the degree of engagement that sound can provide has garnered strong scientific interest. From developing more immersive games to improving working environments, work-environment quality depends on the control of disruptive noises and the promotion of helpful sounds. The audial engagement and learning performance for players in a progressive, task-oriented game sees significant improvement when the in-game characters are given voice-over recordings (Byun 2014). Though sound can induce an improvement in cognition through assistive audio, noise can distract at both conscious and unconscious levels of human thought processes. As a task becomes more cognitively demanding, the vulnerability of the task performer to external noise interruption grows. Naturally then, the performance of thirty three undergraduate students “did not differ significantly” when detecting spelling errors but did have differing results in identifying grammatical errors (Weinstein 1974).

With an understanding that noisy environments impair physical performance, I internalized the process of behavioral analysis by developing my own case study. Following up on research in cognitive function measurements, I decided to focus on memory capacity as a function of noise. With a twenty-four person sample, I expected to lay the ground work for a larger and more comprehensive study. Through research, I learned that noise impairs cognitive function and that mid-range to high-range frequencies have the greatest impact on behavioral thought. My hypothesis thus developed as follows: memory function will be incrementally impaired as the intensity of a high-frequency noise interrupts a cognitively-intensive task.

Randomly assigning my sample of twenty four subjects a noise intensity – Zero, Medium, High – I used a personal audio recording of the Duke University fire alarm, accessible below.

This type of audio perfectly aligns with the extreme case of a high frequency noise environment, best indicating if such an environment affects cognitive abilities. The intensities were standard 0dB, 10dB, and 20dB increments from the natural sonic environment (about 50 dB) and measured using the Decibel 10th meter application.

Once assigned an intensity, the subjects watched a short video of twenty objects, from which I asked them to only focus on the first ten as they watch the whole video. The purpose of this was to test their long term, processed memory as opposed to short-term, regurgitated memory. The video is only a little over a minute in length:

A bar graph for the results of the experiment is available below, colorized based on sonic environment. As shown in the data, the subjects were able to memorize a minimum of four objects and a maximum of seven objects, but the distinction between performances is not readily apparent.


baravgThe influence of intensity on memory becomes clear when the data is further assimilated into average values based on intensity, as seen on the right:

Clearly, there is a negative correlation between noise intensity and cognitive performance, indicating that high frequency noises as intense as the fire alarm do impair some brain functionality. However, to test my hypothesis and remain within the time and resource constraints of my project, my sample contains convenience, voluntary response, and undercoverage bias. These result from the easy accessibility of Duke students and locals of the Durham area and the unwillingness of certain people from participating. The university environment is not representative of other regions from an intellectual and emotional perspective which, if added to the study, may have led to different results.

In addition, the sample size is too low to give strong statistical significance and ignore large variability. The emphasis and importance of this case study lie in the foundational contribution to further research and the educational observation that experiments can contribute tremendously to a deeper understanding of a scientific field.

The state of the human mind has an inextricable link to the state of its surrounding sound environment and, as seen, can be subjected to the synergistic effects of emotional connection or the deleterious result of disorienting, high frequency noise. Although a tangible method of regulating such sounds and noises in the environment has yet to make a surge in the market, the question of how sounds affect humans now has a variety of answers. Whether it be prolonged or short exposure to noise, unexpected and distracting sonic environments can put a large strain on the human brain and force a person to perform poorly or even sink into emotional extremes, as seen in many of the urban environment cases. A truly thorough examination of human responses to sound would involve  a series of neurological, psychological, and physiological studies in different sonic environments, but as the field of acoustics research expands, so will the understanding of the true power and influence of soundscapes.

Works Cited

  1. Boles, W.E., and S.C. Hayward. 1978. “The Effects of Urban Noise and Sidewalk Density upon Pedestrian Cooperation and Tempo.” Journal of Social Psychology. Volume 104: 29-35.
  2. Byun, JaeHwan. 2014. “Audial Engagement: Effects of Game Sound on Learner Engagement in Digital Game-Based Learning Environments.” Computers in Human Behavior Volume 46: 129-138.
  3. Carpentier, Francesca R.D. , and Robert Potter. 2007. “Effects of Music on Physiological Arousal: Explorations into Tempo and Genre.” Media Psychology. Volume 10: 339-363.
  4. Cohen, Sheldon; Spacapan, Shirlynn. 1984. Noise and Society. 221-243. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
  5. Clark, Charlotte. September 2013. “Longitudinal Effects of Aircraft Noise Exposure on Children’s Health and Cognition: A Six-Year Follow-Up of the UK RANCH Cohort.” Journal of Environmental Psychology Volume 35: 1-9.
  6. Edwards, Jane, and Annemiek Van den Tole. 2015. “Listening to Sad Music in Adverse Situations: How Music Selection Strategies Relate to Self-Regulatory Goals, Listening Effects, and Mood Enhancement.” Psychology of Music. Vol 43: 473–494.
  7. Flindell, Ian, and Antonio Torjia. 2014. “Differences in Subjective Loudness and Annoyance Depending on the Road Traffic Noise Spectrum.” Journal of the Acoustical Society of America Volume 135 (1): 1-4.
  8. Grandjean, Didier; Klaus R. Scherer; Marcel Zentner. 2008. “Emotions Evoked by the Sound of Music: Characterization, Classification, and Measurement.” Emotion Volume 8: 494-521.
  9. Krumhansl, Carol. 1997. “An Exploratory Study of Musical Emotions and Psychophysiology.” Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology. Volume 51 (4): 336-352.
  10. Weinstein, Neil. Oct 1974. “Effect of noise on intellectual performance.” Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 59: 548-554.

The Power of Sounds in Advertising

You’re watching your favorite television series when, once again, it goes to commercial break. You reach for your iPhone and start scrolling through your emails, occasionally checking Instagram or Twitter. Commercials all seem to blur together, not deserving of your attention. Suddenly, as you open that new text message, the Star Wars theme song plays from the television and it reminds you of your childhood. You glance up at the screen to notice the commercial, drawing you in with it’s familiar sounds and feel good tones.

In an era where we are constantly bombarded by sounds, marketers must be aware of the powerful effects of noise. From the beginning of advertisements on the radio, marketers have used the influence of sound to their advantage. Living in a modern society, humans are constantly exposed to noise. While people pay less and less attention to television advertisements, companies must find a way to make viewers pay attention to their commercial. It is important to investigate the effects of sound on emotions and how that corresponds to buying potential. Commercials frequently use background music and strategic human or familiar sounds to influence the consumer’s perception of a product. The emotion viewers feel while watching a commercial directly relates to how effectively they remember the product. Different sounds connote different meanings, leading the consumer to associate the commercial and the product it advertises with a variety of corresponding feelings.

Companies spend billions of dollars developing marketing strategies to influence consumer behavior. Sound is an important aspect of marketing a product. If a consumer views a steak in a commercial, they can be convinced that the steak looks delicious, but by hearing it sizzling on a grill, the consumer craves the steak. This power of sound creates a sense of reality for the viewer. Studies show that, “consumers are not only influenced by what they see, but what they hear as well” (Lewis 82). By engaging multiple senses of a viewer, companies can more effectively promote their products or messages.

Studies have been done that focus on commercials and their effectiveness. An article in the American Journal of Management focuses on better understanding how consumers emotionally respond to common advertisement sounds. In a highly rated commercial from the 2011 Super Bowl, sounds were used to evoke an emotional response in the viewer. It was a commercial for the Volkswagen Passat involving no spoken words, yet the message was conveyed through familiar sounds. The commercial can be viewed here: Volkswagen Passat Commercial: “The Force”. Sounds in this commercial included the Darth Vader theme song, a dog barking, and a car turning on. The Star Wars soundtrack links the music to the child in the costume. The child makes several attempts to exert his power over things using “the force”, but only the car is responsive. It is the sound of the car starting that signals his success. When the car engine is heard starting up, there is the connotation of a powerful force. This leads the viewer to believe that the Passat is a mighty car. The dog barking leads viewers to associate the car with an all-American way of life. Bringing in the sound of the dog is one way Volkswagen is trying to connect and influence its target consumer. The commercial provides an example of how sounds can elicit meaning and emotion.

In another study, student volunteers listened to 20 sound clips each prepared to reflect a different emotion. They then rated the intensity of the evoked emotion based on a scale: not felt, low, moderate, high. All of the sound clips were common sounds that participants should have been familiar with. The results concluded that emotion was highly correlated with familiarity, interest, and attention. A sound that captures the attention of the listener has a higher level of emotional response. In the study, “Hypothesis 2 suggested that as a sound produced more interest, the level of emotion felt toward that particular sound would also increase” (Lewis 82). This is consistent with the results of the study.

According to the Journal of Applied Business Research, advertisements often improve their effectiveness by including background music during a television commercial. Based on the context of the commercial, sound is used to influence consumer preference. The Law of Extreme Hypothesis suggests that “an emotional presentation has an indirect influence on consumer behavior, through the amount of attention paid to an ad” (14). There is a direct relationship between the emotion felt during the commercial and subsequent brand attitudes. In television, consumers are bombarded with commercials, one after the other.  Only certain commercials grab their attention and only for a brief period of time. There are two approaches to television advertising, one where the information of the product is most important, and the other where the advertisers goal is to appeal to the emotions of the viewer. The first category of commercials can be exemplified by obnoxious commercials like this one, OxiClean Versatile Stain Remover Powder Commercial. The high tempo background music and concise dialogue connotes a message to the consumer that the product is efficient, easy to use, and trustworthy.

However, an example of a commercial that uses sounds and advertising techniques to evoke emotion can be seen here, The Wish Writer Macy’s Commercial. This commercial tells a story through music accompanying the visual images. Although this is a commercial for Macy’s and promotes their connection with the Make-A-Wish foundation, the store is not mentioned until the final seconds of the video. The purpose of this commercial is not to push a product in your face. Instead, it is to grab the viewer’s attention and have them become emotionally invested in the story that the advertisement is telling. The tempo of the music allows the viewer to experience the shifting emotions of sadness, excitement, wonder, disappointment, and ultimately joy that the advertisement is trying to evoke.

Studies have shown that incorporating background music into commercials has the ability to influence brand attitudes. A study by Moore sampled over 200 undergraduate students. Two hypotheses were formed; the first hypothesis was that a neutral emotive cue will exert an influence on brand attitudes which is less favorable than either negative or positive emotive cues in high involvement situations. High involvement situations occur when the consumer creates connections between his or her own life and the stimulus. The second was that negative, neutral, and positive emotive cues will exert a progressively enhancing influence on brand attitudes in low involvement circumstances, where a personal connection has not been made. A low involvement circumstance is considered to be more effective for broadcast media because it appeals to a more general audience. The study took a single commercial of soap and overlaid it with three different sound tracks.  Some participants listened to a positive soundtrack which was comprised of major chords and fast paced music. Those participants had an overall better view of the product than the participants who listened to the negative sound track. The negative sound track consisted of minor chords and a slow pace. The third soundtrack was considered a neutral soundtrack because it did not have a distinctive tempo or tonal quality. In comparing the reaction of the viewers to each soundtrack, the positive sound track was proven to have more purchasing power than the negative sound track. Although consumers were likely to remember a product that was the main focus of a commercial, like the OxiClean example, importantly, consumers were more likely to purchase a product that had a positive message associated with the commercial.

Over time sounds associated with commercials have changed. In the late 1970s, commercials used popular songs to engage and relate to the viewer. In the past, jingles and slogans have been the primary marketing tool to appeal to the ear. This advertising method, seen here: Coca Cola Commercial, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” uses past experiences and common songs to interest the viewer in the commercial. It also uses the lyrics of the song to present the message of the product as one that brings different people together in peace. A recent commercial plays on the same technique of altering popular songs to contain the product in them, ‘Gangnam Style’ Wonderful Pistachios Commercial. Not only does this commercial gain your attention because of the ridiculous dancing pistachios, the song by Psy is well known and catchy. Both of these commercials use familiar songs to lure viewers into actually paying attention to their commercial.

However, more recently advertisers have needed to alter their marketing methods to fit the ever changing world. It is not uncommon for multiple televisions to be playing at the same time in a house, and there is a constant level of noise pollution society has adapted to. Since people are used to omnipresent sound, sometimes to gain consumers attention, advertisers must oppose the norm of loud commercials by using the power of silence. One commercial noted for its effectiveness was a Chevy truck commercial that used silence to evoke an emotional response in their target audience. The commercial for the truck begins with a simulation of a television turning off seen here: Chevy 4G LTE WiFi Commercial. This silence is followed by simple words on the screen and then later pump-up music and a visual of the actual product, the truck. By beginning the commercial with silence, the viewers are disturbed and intrigued. The conscious absence of noise can have as great an effect on viewers as using any sound. In present society, constant noise is the norm. When there is a deviation from the norm, there is a call to attention.

In advertising, sounds have the power to affect a consumer’s emotion, buying habits, and memory recall. It is important to understand how music makes an audience feel. Generally, when promoting a product, the company would associate positive sounds with it. Negative sounds could also be useful for commercials that degrade political opponents. I performed a study to test the effects on emotion and memory after watching a set of three commercials. The first commercial had a popular song as the background music: Acura TLX, the second had a positive soundtrack ‘Inspire Her Mind’ Verizon, and the third had a negative soundtrack: Verizon Better Matters. I asked 10 volunteers to watch all three commercials and answer questions about them.

Acura TLX Commercial:

Verizon Inspire Her Mind Commercial:

Verizon Better Matters Commercial:

Questions: How did this commercial make you feel?

Acura Commercial: Majority of the volunteers felt that this commercial inspired them to go out and explore. Responses included feelings of excitement and intensity. The soundtrack of this commercial features the track “Wild Horses” by Bishop. Volunteers said that the song made them pay attention to what was going on in the commercial. Some reported that they felt the song made the car seem fast and sleek.

Inspire Her Mind Verizon Commercial: This commercial was noted to evoke feelings of hope, happiness, and joy.  Soft tones of piano can be heard in the background music. One volunteer stated that, “the music contrasts the words since you can hear uplifting sounds with little girls happily playing and exploring but then a parent’s voice is overheard putting the girl down for getting her hands dirty.” Of the 10 volunteers, 6 were female. 5 out of 6 of the females said they could relate to the message this commercial was portraying.

Better Matters Verizon Commercial: Volunteers reported feeling slightly bored during this commercial. The sounds associated with the negative actions on the screen of products malfunctioning were orchestral chords. Instruments such as a violin and piano can be heard with a slow tempo. Most volunteers stopped paying attention to this commercial before it finished.

Which commercial is the most memorable?

Of the 10 volunteers, 4 found the Acura commercial most intriguing. 6 found the Inspire Her Mind Verizon commercial. None found the Better Matters commercial to be the most interesting out of the three options. This is significant because the advertisement with the negative sound track was the least engaging. I believe that if I was able to increase the sample size of the study, there would be an even split between viewers who enjoyed the positive commercial and viewers who enjoyed the commercial which included a popular song.

Hearing is an important sensory input that advertisers often undervalue. Regardless of the visual images seen in a commercial, the sound behind the message is extremely influential. In order for a commercial to evoke the best short term response, it should portray a positive, uplifting, and inspirational activity. However, it is important to note that when the volunteers were asked to recall the commercials one week later, 40% of the volunteers forgot what company the Inspire Her Mind commercial was for. All of them could recall the basic idea of the commercial, and remembered they enjoyed it, but did not associate Verizon’s brand with the commercial. 80% could not freely recall the company that was being advertised in the Better Matters commercial. All 10 of the volunteers could remember that the car commercial was for Acura. This information makes an important point about memory. While people enjoyed the Acura commercial just as much as the Inspire Her Mind commercial, in this study, a commercial connected to a popular song rather than one evoking emotion appears to be a more effective advertising method.

Sound clearly has a powerful impact on advertising. Its ability to help viewers connect with the content and elicit an emotional response should not be overlooked. Further studies on the effectiveness of sound in advertisements on purchasing power and brand attitudes should be conducted.



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Kurpiers, Joyce. 2009. Reality by design: Advertising image, music and sound design in the production of culture.

Lewis, Carmen, Cherie Fretwell, and Jim Ryan. 2012. An empirical study of emotional response to sounds in advertising. American Journal of Management 12 (1): 80-91.

Maclnnis, D. J., & Park, C. W. (1991). The differential role of characteristics of music on high and low-involvement consumers’ processing of ads. Journal of Consumer Research, 18, (2), 161- 173.

Moore, David Lloyd. 1985. “The effects of cognitive style and advertising type on responses to advertising under conditions of low and high involvement: an experimental investigation (affective, manova).” Order No. 8509579, University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Novak, David, and Matt Sakekeeny, eds. 2015. Keywords in Sound. Durham: Duke University Press.

Park, C. W., & Young, S. (1986). Consumer response to television commercials: The impact of involvement and background music on brand attitude formation. Journal of Marketing Research, 23, (1), 11-24.

Smith, Karen H. and Mary Ann Stutts. 2003. “Effects of Short-Term Cosmetic Versus Long-Term Health Fear Appeals in Anti-Smoking Advertisements on the Smoking Behaviour of Adolescents.” Journal of Consumer Behaviour 3 (2): 157-177.

Taylor, Timothy Dean. 2012. The sounds of capitalism: Advertising, music, and the conquest of culture. Vol. 41744. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press.

Twitchell, James B. 1996. “Advertising carries our culture constant commercial speech drowns out all other sounds.” Orlando Sentinel, Jun 02, G1.

Veerasawmy, Rune, and John McCarthy. 2014. “When noise becomes voice: Designing interactive technology for crowd experiences through imitation and invention”. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 18 (7): 1601-15.

Is It Too Loud to Study?: How Volume of Sound Effects Distraction

All of the noise heard in a person’s environment defines their soundscape. The soundscape is always active and is rarely consistent. Anything that is consistently present in life will have a huge effect on a person and therefore needs to be closely observed. All of life happens in a soundscape and for a typical college student that includes studying. A great deal of research has gone into the study of how people are affected by a soundscape and the majority of that research focuses on young children in schools (Meinhardt-Injac et al. 2015) and adults in the work place (Banbury and Berry 2005) but little of that research focuses on young adults in a college setting. Adults and children will perceive sounds very differently (Muenssinger et al. 2013)  and a person that is not entirely defined as either will receive sound in other ways.

The importance of studying the young adult demographic relates back to the fact that they live in an in-between stage of life where the brain continues to develop but they have reached a level of maturity beyond that of most school children. College campuses have particularly active soundscapes largely created by the energy and independence that the students have. Activities do not have time constraints and take place at all hours. This presents an environment where constant noise is unavoidable. Although, there are many different soundscapes on a college campus, the focus of this study will center around the soundscapes that people study in. The typical college student will study in a variety of places ranging from the library to the coffee shop, their dorm room, common rooms, and anywhere in between. Each of these soundscapes have different aspects of sound that are frequently heard and can impact study habits by becoming distracting or even annoying to the student.

The often distracting soundscapes of college campuses need attention because the volume of noise that students are hearing can greatly affect their ability to focus and affect their mental health in general (Szalma and Hancock 2011). Many people prefer to have a certain level of background noise while doing work but at a certain point that often becomes a hindrance and can become distracting. Previous studies have shown that the volume of noise can have an effect on the average person (Ellermeier and Hellbrück 1998). The question becomes at what point does noise change from being a background noise to one that is distracting during studying? The goal in this experiment is to find a threshold as to where that changes for a college student and if that is dependent on the person or if the majority of students reach that point at the same time. Most likely all people will not have the same threshold, but if a small range of sound can be determined it may lead to a deeper understanding of how focus and concentration is affected by noise. I am interested in the idea of going beyond sound being distracting to find when it becomes stressful. I used the constant sound of a vacuum cleaner which tends to not fluctuate to much so that the type of sound is not the focus. The following is the recording that was played.

My plan was to have three test subjects work on puzzles while I test them under different conditions. Each subject will do five different Sudoku puzzles. My control subject will do all six of the tests with no noise, will wear headphones, and will be timed. The test will take place in the same room at separate times. The others will each be timed doing the puzzles with increasing levels of sound, however, the first trial of each subject will have no sound. The sound being played will be a clip of a vacuum cleaner being run on repeat and it will be played through Beats by Dre Solo 2 On-Ear headphones that are connected to an Apple iPhone. Level of sound will be determined based on the number of “ticks” displayed on the phone’s volume bar. A timer will be set for twenty minutes and once it finishes, regardless of whether or not the person is done, the headphones will be removed and the test will be reviewed. This time was set to protect the subjects from being exposed to a loud sound for too long, however, this does cause issues with how long the subjects have to complete the tests. After each test the subjects will take a five-minute break. During those five minutes, I will have each of the subjects fill out a survey which asks them how they felt, physically, emotionally, and otherwise during each test. The survey will be attached to this document, here, but the names will be changed so that subjects will remain anonymous. My goal is to observe how the time it takes to complete a puzzle changes with each successive volume, the self-reported emotions and stress levels of each person after each test, and how the emotions and stress levels change between tests in correlation to the volume of sound that they were hearing. My prediction is that the silent test will likely be the fastest time and the next couple will be equally as fast but at some point the volume of the sound will slow the subjects down and be distracting – this is the threshold. If a significant number of the people have similar results I will be satisfied that the prediction was accurate. Issues are likely to occur in response to the difficulty of the tests, the potential background noises, and the individuals familiarity with sudoku.

The majority of the test subjects knew how to play sudoku to some extent and a few were more comfortable with the game than others. The control subject, an eighteen-year old male, was not confident in his ability to play sudoku but was able to complete three puzzles with an average time of thirteen minutes. Two of his puzzles he did not complete in full and he left an average of twenty tiles blank between these two games played. The first two tests did little to affect his emotions and stress and he felt confident upon finishing them, the third and fourth puzzles, the ones that he did not finish, left him stressed, and the fifth puzzle he completed in half the time that it took to complete the first two; this left him very happy. Clearly, the tests were somewhat varied in difficulty level but that should is reflected in the results of the other subjects. This subject responded in the comments section of his survey that he “hates” sudoku. The first and second actual subjects were more inclined to play sudoku. They each started off at a good pace and then thought the first test with sound was very comforting. They agreed with the control that the third and fourth tests were harder than the first and second and the final test was by far the easiest. The students also seemed to all agree that the number of tests were very frustrating and they reported being tired after having done so many. Due to the small number of test subjects and a number of uncontrollable and unpredictable variables, the tests were largely inconclusive.

One of the few things that I was able to gather from the tests, based solely on responses from the subjects, is that all students who listened to music preferred when the sound was on at its lowest setting. This was not shown very well in their results but all responded on their surveys that this seemed to cause them the least amount of stress. What is clear is that at a certain level, the sounds change from being preferable to becoming very irritating and causing stress. The fact that test results points to there being no correlation indicates that the level of sound in an environment does not change productivity but will change stress levels. This evidence could be used in the design of study areas to help decrease stress during times where there are more midterms or finals.

Works Cited

Sudoku 3251 easy. in The Guardian [database online]. 2015 [cited November 23 2015]. Available from

Sudoku 3257 easy. in The Guardian [database online]. 2015 [cited November 23 2015]. Available from

Sudoku 3269 easy. in The Guardian [database online]. 2015 [cited November 23 2015]. Available from

Sudoku 3275 easy. in The Guardian [database online]. 2015 [cited November 23 2015]. Available from

Sudoku 3281 easy. in The Guardian [database online]. 2015 [cited November 23 2015]. Available from

Sudoku 3287 easy. in The Guardian [database online]. 2015 [cited November 23 2015]. Available from

Banbury, SP, and DC Berry. 2005. “Office Noise and Employee Concentration: Identifying Causes of Disruption and Potential Improvements.” Ergonomics 48 (1): 25-37.

Ellermeier, Wolfgang, and Jürgen Hellbrück. 1998. “Is Level Irrelevant in ‘Irrelevant Speech’? Effects of Loudness, Signal-to-Noise Ratio, and Binaural Unmasking.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance 24 (5): 1406-14.

Lucid TV. “Shim vacuuming 12 hours ~ vacuum cleaner relaxation white noise sound sleep colic.” Youtube, Mar 8, 2011 [cited November 22 2015]. Available from

Meinhardt-Injac, Bozana, Sabine Schlittmeier, Maria Klatte, Annette Otto, Malte Persike, and Margarete Imhof. 2015. “Auditory Distraction by Meaningless Irrelevant Speech: A Developmental Study.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 29 (2): 217-25.

Muenssinger, Jana, Krunoslav T. Stingl, Tamara Matuz, Gerhard Binder, Stefan Ehehalt, and Hubert Preissl. 2013. “Auditory Habituation to Simple Tones: Reduced Evidence for Habituation in Children Compared to Adults.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7 (377).

Szalma, James L., and Peter A. Hancock. 2011. “Noise Effects on Human Performance: A Meta-analytic Synthesis.” Psychological Bulletin 137 (4): 682-707.

Squirrels and Their Reaction to Different Soundscape Pieces

Animal habitats were created as far back in time as we can remember and exist in numerous places on Earth today. Over time, these habitats have undergone severe changes with human creations taking over nature. As humans, we develop and grow and as we grow so does our society. We thrive for bigger and better. But is bigger and better actually an improvement? For us, expansion seems great. Not only do the physical attributes affect nature but the noises we produce do too. Construction noise, like hammers and drills, creates loud crashes and bangs. Even once a society stands, noises that animals are unaccustomed to burden the wildlife. Comparing an audio clip from New York City and Yellowstone National park, the two are complete opposites. Soundscapes create different cultures, so they must impact animals in different ways as well. If we take a creature that has adapted to an urban environment and also lives in natural settings, we can document the reactions to sounds from both types of environments. 

New York City Soundscape:

Yellowstone National Park Soundscape:

In the past, conducted experiments have monitored behaviors of animals. Some of these tests observe the foraging of animals and nesting effectiveness. The basis of most articles relates to Luo’s idea, “…anthropogenic noise represents a major environmental pollutant of global concern,” (Luo 3278). Anthropogenic noise refers to all noise created by humans and their creations. The noise aggravates the animals within the soundscape and affects their behavior. Specifically in Luo’s experiment, analysts observe animal scavenging to determine circumstances where noise pollution disrupts the animal. This link to Luo’s experiment will take you to an article detailing the experiment undergone to show a difference in foraging due to noise pollution: Luo’s Experiment

The experiment studies different cases of possible disturbance and provides analysis on results. Other experiments such as an avian habitat disturbance test addresses mating aspects and how these differ due to noise influence on the creatures, (Francis). The results to both of these came back as anthropogenic noise having negative effects. Leading me more closely to my area of interest. The differences in the animal behavior in different soundscapes.

The experiment I have conducted considers these separate conditions and compares the soundscapes of both. Squirrels are seen in multiple types of environments. Due to the multi-environment nature of them, I believe, their behavior will change with the setting. Take the urban environment of Duke Campus for example. The soundscape is all the hustle and bustle of college, similar to a city. You hear the screeching of buses coming to a halt, the chatter of students and the occasional scream of joy or laughter. With the sounds above, one cannot forget about others such as instruments near the Biddle Music Building or the many sports practices consisting of yelling, feet stomping, whistles blaring, and players shouting on the field. Take all of these elements of a populated area compared to peaceful ones. The Duke Gardens, the Duke Forest, or the Al Buehler Trail, turn the campus soundscape upside down. Out in the Forest, the sound is peaceful. There is no immediate loud talk or screeching of a cars brakes. Only consistent sounds that blend into a forest like the rustle of leaves and branches, birds chirping, and the brush of an animal moving off in the woods. These are very different soundscapes, and the animals living in both are familiarized with their settings. So how will the animals react to the noises of their environment versus the opposite? According to studies conducted, animal behavior changes with the presence of unaccustomed noises. I will take sounds from both the Duke Campus and Duke Forest and test the question.

Possible variables I have identified are noises and squirrel population. I shall take multiple sounds from the forest and campus such as buses, groups of people creating noise such as cheers at a game, construction noises, trees rustling, birds singing in the trees, and footsteps in the forest. These shall all serve as my methods of testing two separate soundscapes. By taking separate soundscapes, I hope to come to a conclusion on squirrel behavior and new noises.

The animal of choice for my experiment, as mentioned before, is squirrels. Squirrels are animals that both live in nature filled environments and also those with numerous anthropogenic noises. With the ease of access to these animals on campus, they have become ideal to use in my experiment. The squirrels should have a visible response to the types of noise being presented as pieces of two soundscapes. Since the squirrels should respond in a negative way and a way with no influence to sounds the animal is used to. I intend to evaluate the squirrel’s reaction to the noise. This will allow me to analyze how soundscapes affect squirrels and answer if animals have adapted to new soundscapes.

I began my experiment on the Al Buehler Trail. With my six recordings of individual sounds, I set out to find 3 squirrels for each. The Trail is loud but not as urbanized in the front, and once you move around the back of path, the only sounds heard are those of insects chirping, occasional rustle of leaves, and someone running by every now and then. One piece that was very noticeable were footsteps.

Footsteps alerted squirrels the most frequently. Not only was it a recording to be played, but I had to approach a squirrel without it hearing my footsteps. This took a very long time and as soon as a squirrel heard a footstep it became cautious and generally hopped along its way leaving me in need of another test subject. When my own footsteps did not scare off the squirrels this sound was played to derive a reaction:

The sounds itself also caused the squirrel to flee. This noise took longer for the squirrel to react, and still in as little as 5 seconds the animal retreated farther and farther as the noise got louder.

A noise similarly found in the forest, bird sounds, also gave quite an unprecedented response. Compared to footsteps, which may be heard less often than bird calls, bird songs caused even more disruption. Quiet bird sounds seemed to have no effect. Assuming this is because it is also possible to drown out the sound when focused on other tasks. A full minute was given to the squirrel with quiet bird calls with no result. However, when the bird sounds began or were loud an immediate reaction occurred where the squirrels jumped and started to run up a tree. The volume of the bird songs varied one was quiet while two were loud.

The final piece of nature sounds, wind in the trees, gave the most promising look at how an animal reacts to the sounds it is used to. At full volume, 3 times in a row, the squirrels look towards the source of the noise and then continue on with their business as usual.

Comparing the opposite sounds in the natural landscape produced the hypothesized results: disturbance in the animals and an attempt to evade the noise. All of these noises will not have been heard in the forest under normal circumstances, so the squirrels will more than likely be reacting to the noise for the first time.

The first sound of Duke Campus is the bus stop. A bus comes to a halt and sits before taking back off. The response time varied from squirrel to squirrel, but all eventually defaulted to a similar answer to the unfamiliar noise. On average, the squirrels took 20 seconds to flee the sound of buses. The animals stopped and looked attentively around taking note of the direction of the noise and promptly ran in the opposite direction. The squirrels took notice at the stop of the bus, and either during the hum of the bus at the stop or the vroom as the bus drove off, the squirrels retreated.

Construction, another prominent piece of the Duke Soundscape currently, created another anthropogenic noise for the experiment. Three squirrels were once again approached with a sound of major construction. This level of construction was a step above the kind happening at Duke. On the Al Buehler Trail, the squirrels waited out the noise similar to that of the bus, and then took off in the opposite direction as well. Sound evasion was a major component to the reaction of unnatural sounds.

Finally, my favorite way to test the squirrels, the use of Cameron Indoor Stadium cheers. Sound recorded from the Basketball Museum booth was recorded and taken to the forest for testing. Squirrels absolutely despised the noise. They turned and ran as soon as the noise was played.

The results of my experiment were very close to my hypothesis. The squirrels reacted to more noises than I thought they would. Only truly natural sounds such as soft bird songs and rustle of leaves in the wind saw no response in the animal behavior. The other sounds all alarmed the squirrels and caused the animal to flee. Possible ways that the data could be inconclusive would be if a squirrel had heard my footsteps before I was able to play a sound. This would have already alerted the squirrel and altered its behavior prior to the sound being played. For possible further study I would like to observe the other portion of squirrel population. Due to time constraints, an experiment on the animal population in urban environments could not be established. My results clearly show that noises foreign to a soundscape cause alarm to the wildlife, so why do some squirrels also live in majorly populated areas that contain these noises that cause them fear? I propose that animals adapt to the soundscape, and in order to demonstrate this would take on the same experiment using the same noises on squirrels running around Duke Campus. These squirrels encounter anthropogenic noises and even interact with humans on a daily basis. The relationship between the two creatures develops over time, so should the relationship with squirrels and sounds not as well? Another experiment testing this theory would shine light on the topic.


“4 Hours Natural Sounds: Morning Birds Singing (No Music)” Youtube, 4:00:00, March 19th, 2014

“Bus Stop Sound Effect | Bust Stop SFX | HD” Youtube, 0:59, July 4th, 2015

“Demolition and Construction Sounds – Over 7 Minutes” Youtube, 7:10, September 11th , 2013

“Footsteps in the Forest” Youtube, 0:32, October 13th, 2015

Francis, Clinton D., Juan Paritsis, Catherine P. Ortega, and Alexander Cruz. 2011. “Landscape Patterns of Avian Habitat use and Nest Success are Affected by Chronic Gas Well Compressor Noise.” Landscape Ecology 26 (9): 1269-1280.

Leu, Matthias, Steven E. Hanser, and Steven T. Knick. 2008. The human footprint in the west: A large-scale analysis of anthropogenic impacts. Ecological Applications 18, (5) (Jul.): 1119-39.

Luo, Jinhong, Björn M. Siemers, and Klemen Koselj. 2015. “How anthropogenic noise affects foraging,” Global Change Biology 21, (9): 3278-89.

“Rustling Leaves of the Red Oak Tree” Youtube, 4:50, October 6th, 2015

“Sounds of NYC” Youtube, 01:05:32, June 13th, 2014

“Yellowstone National Park… in HD” Youtube, 9:15, November 19th, 2009