Nature, sound and silence

I was sent a survey by email today, about music and how the score of wildlife documentaries affect the viewer’s perception of the creatures they are watching.  I almost shouted “Yes!” out loud.  Almost all the wildlife and nature programmes we watch have a human-created soundtrack on top of them and it really affects how we think about the pictures we are seeing.

The survey used out-of-copyright pieces of classical music, which was distracting because they are familiar, unlike the scores we usually hear in these programmes.  However, it certainly highlighted the fact that if you see a shark swimming elegantly along with menacing low strings playing, you think, “Killing machine”, whereas if it had ripply harp arpeggios, you might just enjoy its sinuous beauty.  We are so used to having background music, though, that we don’t always notice it – or that our responses are being affected by it.

I have particularly enjoyed a segment that’s been introduced in Springwatch and Autumnwatch during lockdown – the Mindful Moment.  These are 90-second-long pieces, all exquisitely filmed, but I think they are especially meditative because they only use the sounds of nature rather than imposing a human soundtrack.  The audio is, of course, collected and edited by a human and I’m sure the fish we see jumping may not always be the fish we hear, but the intention is for us to value the sounds that belong to the natural world.  

At the beginning of lockdown, last March, there was an audible reduction in human-made noise.  The natural sounds of birdsong, woodpeckers drumming, and water running were easier to hear and carried further, even in the heart of town.  The qualitative difference in background noise was something to savour on every walk around the park.  I think it’s encouraged me to listen more closely to natural sounds, so that I hear them better even now the background is noisier again.  When you first hear hidden noises, you start to listen out for them, and then they become more obvious.

Much as I love music – and I do – there are times when I do not want to listen to it. If I am outside I like to hear what I am seeing. I like the wind in the trees, the rain on leaves, whether the stream is rushing along full or trickling quietly.  If you look at apps or recordings for relaxation, most of them involve natural sounds.  The sounds themselves are soothing, but if we listen to them while looking and paying attention to whatever makes them the effect is amplified.  Our eyes and ears work together creating sensations that connect us to the natural world;  it takes us out of ourselves and away from our own concerns.

Listening to nature, we have to create a silence and be comfortable in it – no chatting, no rushing, no music. This is not always easy, but it always helps to find a little calm and mental space.

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