by Joe Antonioli, DLINQ Sr. Curricular Innovation Specialist

There is a satisfying crunch when my boot makes its way through the puffy powder down to the pack, marking each step through the woods. The metallic tags jingle on my dog’s collar as she hops over a stick poking out of the new-fallen snow. We both turn quickly to look behind us when the wind elicits a loud pop from the frozen bark of the dormant gray birch. A half a mile away there is the constant whir of early traffic, connecting all of the sounds of the winter morning walk. The environment is different than in past years; it is missing the high-pitched static-like noise from the needles of the three large pine trees on the corner. We had them taken out because they were close to falling over.

In his paper Acoustic Ecology 2.0, Garth Paine asks us to “ engage with the idea of the sounds around us as a set of dynamic relationships,”. In his reflection he states:

“It is critical that we are conscious of our sound environment and that we play an active role in moderating noise and designing the sonic properties of urban (and all) environments to promote well-being. Humans should develop an acute awareness of their own contribution to the acoustic ecology.”

With this in mind I realized that we changed the acoustic ecology of the wooded area on our property by choosing to remove the trees, an analog to adjusting the eq on a multitrack recording. This kind of critical listening is already in use, using sound to learn about our world. Ultrasound, sounds with frequencies above the range of human hearing, are used by medical professionals to look at organs and tissues inside our bodies. The recording of infrasounds, sounds below the range of human hearing, can be used to predict tornadoes hours before they form. Scientists are recording sounds of a volcano, from the deep drumbeats of earthquakes increasing in tempo to the high-pitched “screaming” right before eruption. Seismic waves are “observable as sound waves” that can be recorded, even monitored, to provide advance warning of a coming seismic event.”

In the digital landscape, Zoom has had a big impact on my awareness of sound in the past few years. Whether it is a one-on-one conversation, a small group, or a large gathering of digital boxes, I am constantly aware that we are not all in the same room. I can hear differences in the attendees’ environments based on their choices of computer, mic, headset, and the placement of their bodies relative to the equipment. It leaves me mentally reaching for the eq to turn up the articulation, turn down the reverb, and reset the tempo as Zoom catches up from a delayed feed. However there is one sound event in my home office environment that makes it impossible to function:

“Sorry everyone, I can’t hear because a plane is flying over my house.”

Link to the recording of the fighter jets: F35s 08 01 2022 1:55pm

I have said this to many friends and colleagues during Zoom-based meetings, more frequently since COVID-19. 3 years ago F-35 jets arrived at Burlington International Airport, about a 3 minute drive from my house. There is some irony in calling them the “next generation stealth fighter,” since the noise as the jets take off over my yard prohibits me from hearing any other sound; there is no question that the jets are overhead. The noise from the jets does not seem to affect most of the other participants on the video conference call, since most of them are using the noise-canceling features built into the software. But the multi frequency rumbling is loud enough that I cannot hear my own voice, so I feel the need to mute my own microphone, regardless.

According to this map hosted by the airport, my home falls squarely in the 65 DNL range. The Federal Aviation Administration says that DNL, “the day-night average sound level (DNL) noise metric… takes into account both the amount of noise from each aircraft operation as well as the total number of operations flying throughout the day.” The Equivalent Operations for DNL = 65 chart shows 10 events at 104.4 dBA (a “scale most closely approximates the relative loudness of sounds in air as perceived by the human ear”). On the Comparative Noise Levels chart, this would fall somewhere between being 3 ft. from a gas-powered lawn mower and being inside a New York subway train.

The tension between sound, our technology adoption, and our collective ability to function in our environment will increase over time. Paine suggests that we (personally, and collectively) should take action to be aware of, and work to reduce, these tensions. Sometimes, the actions to remedy the issues seem outside of our sphere of influence. During these flybys I cannot participate in a videoconference, choices made by the Guard and others that affect my home acoustic ecology prevent this. I’ve learned that funding may be available for noise mitigation options, this would most likely involve taking on new construction projects for my home.

In other cases, companies are beginning to notice this tension and address it through design. My favorite feature of the electric car is that it is quiet; the motor in place of an engine has fewer moving parts that generate noise. At the same time, the same feature that does not drown out my music can be a safety hazard for pedestrians, especially those that are visually impaired. Now artificial sounds are being added to EVs to increase safety. The engineers that are designing the new sounds have the potential of drastically changing our sound environment, especially in urban areas, with an 88% increase in EV sales to date reported in October of 21.

There is an anthrophonic relationship between the sound of the jets, the computer’s speakers, and my own voice. The pedestrian and the sound of the electric car also have an anthrophonic relationship. One of my favorites is the harmonic relationship between the anthrophony of the siren somewhere around Maple Tree Place, and the biophony of my dogs’ singing with it.

Link to dogs singing: Howling 16 12 2021 8:04am

Please pardon me while I take a break from Zoom and join their chorus.

Take Action

  • Outdoor critical listening and action.
    • Record the sound of your environment outside. Listen back to the recording and consider how much of the sound is created by nature, and how much is man-made. Consider adding trees and shrubs to dampen some man-made sounds while increasing the foliage sound, or remove some foliage to let other sounds be more present.
    • Record the sound of your outdoor environment at different times of year, once per season. Is there a difference? Consider landscaping changes that are both seasonally visually and audibly appealing.
    • Take a moment to pick out a sound in your environment. Hum with it, then try to harmonize with it. Record your humming and consider yourself a collaborative songwriter.
  • Indoor critical listening and action.
    • Notice the noises around you in the places where you watch tv, listen to the radio, talk on the phone or video conference. Is there sound coming from heating vents? Air conditioning? Fans? Kitchen appliances? Consider rearranging so that you do not have to increase the volume of your media.
    • Consider keeping the volume low on the tv and turning on subtitles.
    • Consider noise-canceling headphones and keeping the volume low.

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