Finding Tranquility In The Sounds Of Nature
If you stand in the middle of a busy street in New York City and listen to the sounds around you, you’re hearing what Bernie Krause calls “the anthropophony.” It’s the cacophony of “incoherent and chaotic” noise that’s drawing people away from the natural world.
“In fact, the further we draw away from the natural world, the more pathological we become as a culture,” he said.
Krause has been charting this change for more than 50 years, as one of the world’s foremost chroniclers of nature sounds. He’s recorded more than 15,000 species and their habitats.
In his new book, The Power of Tranquility in a Very Noisy World, he makes the case that human-made noise is causing us stress. Krause offers a simple prescription: “Shut the hell up,” and listen to the soundscapes of nature, what he calls “the biophony.”
“If we listen to sounds of the natural world, for example, which are the original soundscapes that we were exposed to, it’s very restorative and therapeutic,” he said.
Krause had already had a full career in folk, rock, and electronic music when he went into bioacoustics. “I thought I knew everything there was to know about music,” he said.
But what he found was a new world of rhythms and melodies composed by frogs, birds, fish, and mammals.
“I discovered a whole new area of music,” he said. “All of these things in the natural world are far more complex and far more interesting than anything that I’ve ever heard humans write, or compose.”
Many of these sounds are part of a multimedia exhibition currently at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, called “The Great Animal Orchestra.”
Krause’s book also explores the very local—and personal—ecosystem changes of Northern California, the result of that state’s long drought. In 2017, he lost his home, and many of his recordings, in the North Bay fires.
In a short video, he illustrates four years of diminishing birdsong in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, north of San Francisco.
These changes have intensified, Krause says, during the pandemic lockdown. “The first thing that I noticed is that there weren’t planes flying overhead interrupting our recordings,” he said. “And it was pretty remarkable. Maybe we need a day of human silence.”
Bernie Krause joins guest host John Dankosky to talk about his work, and his book, The Power of Tranquility In a Very Noisy World.
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Bernie Krause is an author and soundscape ecologist based in Glen Ellen, California.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Now I’d like to ask you to listen to the sound of what our next guest calls the anthrophony.
Yeah, that’s New York City. This, on the other hand, is the sound of the biophony, the sounds of the natural world that Bernie Krause says are being increasingly crowded out by man-made noise.
Krause has been listening very closely to these changes over a 50-year career as a soundscape ecologist. He’s recorded more than 15,000 species and their habitats from meadows, [NATURE SOUNDS] to deserts, [NATURE SOUNDS] to subarctic mountains [NATURE SOUNDS]. And in his new book, The Power of Tranquility, In a Very Noisy World, he raises concerns about what he’s hearing in these changing soundscapes.
He’s heard birdsong slowly leave the areas near his northern California home, the result of that state’s long drought. And he’s personally experienced the effects of climate change, losing his own home and many of his original recordings in a 2017 fire. But his book is hopeful too, giving readers tools to listen for natural sounds as a way to heal ourselves as a people and a planet. Bernie Krause, Welcome back to Science Friday. It’s wonderful to have you here.
BERNIE KRAUSE: Thank you, John.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Could you tell me what the difference in your mind is between sound and noise?
BERNIE KRAUSE: Well, noise is sound. And the difference is that some of the noise that we create is controlled sound, like music and theater, and language. And then there is a second subclass of sound, which is incoherent and chaotic that we refer to as noise. And it has a real impact on us, noise is partly a consequence of the times that we live in, it’s chaotic. What happens is it draws us further and further from natural world encounters we need to remain calm and to quiet us and sustain us. In fact, the further we draw away from the natural world the more pathological we become as a culture.
JOHN DANKOSKY: You tell a story very early on in your book that illustrates this very well. And you talk about a couple that rents an Airbnb from you that comes from the city and maybe you can just describe what their experience was being exposed to a place that had more natural sounds than man-made sounds?
BERNIE KRAUSE: Well, my wife Katherine and I lived in Glen Ellen, California on a 10-acre area that was a wildlife corridor. And it was very quiet and it was really extraordinary. It was beautiful. There was hardly any noise there.
And a young couple from New York checked in one night and I went out to run the next morning and they were downstairs at the bottom of the– in the driveway putting their luggage in the back of their car at 7 o’clock in the morning. And I said– when I asked them what was wrong, the gal says to me, you know, we were scared to death. Those crickets made us crazy.
And I said, well, what are you going to do? She said well, we’re going to go to San Francisco and we’ve got a place on Union Square at a hotel, where we’re going to be able to hear traffic. We’ve got to hear traffic. And that was the– and they signed out and that was it. That was the end of their vacation at Wild Sanctuary.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And the way that you describe it in the book though, you say that the damage caused by these man-made sounds has already occurred to them. And I’m wondering if you can talk about that, about how that noise, that din of urban life or of industrial sounds, how it actually damages our ability to enjoy and appreciate the natural sounds around us?
BERNIE KRAUSE: Well, it distracts us. And the noise that intrudes on our life, and there’s all kinds of noise. There’s noise from the television set, there’s noise from news programs, there’s noise from the entertainment that we choose. So all of these things are affecting us in ways that are causing a stress factor in our lives. Like for instance, glucocorticoid enzyme levels are rising as a result of all this noise around us. As we begin to understand what listening is all about and what we’re hearing, it’ll have an impact on how we engage with sound.
Sound is very physical and so it affects us physically because it makes the eardrums move in and out and oscillate. So it’s really important to understand how to listen and what we’re listening for. If we listen to sounds of the natural world for example, which are the original soundscapes that we were exposed to, it’s very restorative and therapeutic.
JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m John Dankosky, I’m talking with soundscape ecologist, Bernie Krause, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Bernie Krause’s new book is called The Power of Tranquility In a Very Noisy World. He also has a traveling installation called the Great Animal Orchestra– [NATURE SOUNDS] –that’s on display right now at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. It’s an immersion into the soundscapes that he’s created from thousands of field recordings. Let’s listen.
BERNIE KRAUSE: What they’re going to hear is they’re going to hear these natural compositions from different habitats, marine habitats, and terrestrial habitats. And from the terrestrial habitats, there’s everything from subarctic up in the– up in Alaska, down to the rainforests of Brazil.
When I went into this field, bioacoustics, and began to record animals, I thought I knew everything there was to know about music. But really what I discovered when I began to record the natural world was I discovered a whole new area of music that had never been explored before. Rhythms and melodies and structure of sound and so on. All of these things in the natural world are far more complex and far more interesting than anything that I’ve ever heard humans write or compose.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Did you have a first sound as you were doing this work early in your career that really highlighted to you that idea that the natural world is so complex and so varied? Do you remember anything like that from early on
BERNIE KRAUSE: Yeah, did you ever hear an ant sing?
JOHN DANKOSKY: I probably heard recordings of ants but maybe an ant singing, no.
BERNIE KRAUSE: Ants sing. [NATURE SOUNDS] We’ve got recordings of viruses. [NATURE SOUNDS] I mean, think about that. Every living organism, by the way, creates its own sound signature. Sometimes by its metabolism and sometimes by an actual stridulation or vocalization. And so we have a whole world that we haven’t explored. And the sounds of the natural soundscapes are the origins of that.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Since you mentioned viruses, you talk in your book about the phenomenon that many of us experienced during the– especially the early days of the COVID pandemic, that the world did sound different. And what was your experience of that, of just the world sounding different than it had in such a long time?
BERNIE KRAUSE: The first thing that I noticed is there weren’t planes flying overhead interrupting our recordings. There wasn’t a lot of traffic and it was pretty remarkable. Maybe we need a day of human silence to celebrate.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And you write, and people have studied this, that it actually, this time period did change some of how the natural world communicated. A change in the vocalizations of urban songbirds for instance.
BERNIE KRAUSE: Yeah. Because they didn’t have to sing as loud and they didn’t have to change their pitch to fit within the niches that were available to them, the acoustic niches that were available. And it made a big difference. Now they’re changing back again. So things are changing and we’re filling those spaces with our own voices and noise and it’s having an effect on us.
JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s something that we’ve been doing for a long time, Bernie, not just in the last couple of decades. This has been a human phenomenon that’s been going on since the start. I’m wondering how we reverse that?
BERNIE KRAUSE: Well, there are two sides to that one. First of all, we got to learn to shut the hell up. And the second thing we’ve got to keep David Bowie’s aphorism clearly in mind, the future belongs to those who can hear it coming.
JOHN DANKOSKY: The book is called The Power of Tranquility In a Very Noisy World and the author is Bernie Krause. Thank you so much for joining us once again on Science Friday. I really appreciate it. And I wish you a tranquil rest of your day.
BERNIE KRAUSE: Thank you, John. You too.
JOHN DANKOSKY: You can hear some more from Bernie Krause’s Great Animal Orchestra and watch a short video he made that shows the impact of the California drought on birdsong over more than a decade. You can find it at sciencefriday.com/tranquility.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.