how sound reveals an invisible world

Vision is often considered the first of the human senses, as our eyes are how most of us come to know the world. However, vision has its limits.

Even now, as you use your eyes to read this, other senses are operating which open up a greater appreciation of the world. Perhaps the most powerful of these is listening – hearing.

The sound contains clues about the world that we might otherwise miss. And with the development of new technologies and the work of dedicated scientists and artists, today we can listen to what was previously unimaginable, from the inner workings of plants to catastrophes in distant galaxies.

In my own work, currently on display at the Brisbane Museum, I have made field recordings of environments and creatures from around the world. These works sit alongside an ever-growing collection of recordings revealing the unheard sounds of our world.

The limits of the ear

Humans can only hear a limited range of sounds: those with frequencies between about 20 hertz (low-pitched sounds like thunder) and 20 kilohertz (very high-pitched sounds like some species of bats). Other sounds exist outside the range of our hearing abilities.

“Infrasonic” sounds such as the rumble of earthquakes have frequencies too low for us to perceive, although other animals can detect them. There are also “ultrasonic” sounds, with frequencies above the threshold of human hearing.

Read more: Listening to the ocean reveals a hidden world – and how we might save it

Strictly speaking, a sound is a vibration in the air. But we can also think of other types of vibrations, such as electromagnetic waves, as having the potential to be registered as sound.

With the right kind of tech translation tools, you can hear the electromagnetic sounds emitted by devices like the one you’re reading this on right now.

The ‘Stereo Bugscope’ created by the artist Haco amplifies the sounds of electronic circuits.

Why should we listen?

Listening is a different way of knowing the world that broadens our understanding. Sound travels around corners and through walls, from places that are out of sight.

Our ears are a gateway to a deeper perception of the world. Take birdsong, for example.

For most, even those of us who live in densely populated urban centers, the arrival of dawn is heralded by a chorus of bird calls. These voices, which seem to expand in all directions, suggest acts of territorial dominance, search and discovery of food, and other basic activities of animal species. A variation of the chorus plays as the sun disappears below the horizon.

These daily occurrences are so mundane that they do not attract attention. But on closer inspection, we discover that they reveal a lot about habitat health, seasonality, and other environmental markers.

Listen longer, listen deeper, listen wider

Today we listen to more of the world, and beyond, than ever before, with the growth of disciplines such as bio-acoustics, radio telescopy, and more philosophical fields such as sound studies.

The proliferation of technologies such as hydrophones (underwater microphones) and electromagnetic receivers has also increased the range of our ears.

It is this combination of intellectual, scientific and artistic curiosity, coupled with technological developments and availability that has resulted in the capture of incredible sonic events that exist far beyond the visual plane.

Just a quarter of a century ago, it sounded like science fiction that we could capture the sound of two black holes colliding in space – but scientists did it in 2015.

These discoveries and others like them have fostered new research programs that aim to undertake the deepest and most focused galactic listening to date.

As above, so below

We have also made many discoveries closer to home.

The underwater world has long been known to be rich in sound, but it has been underrepresented in dedicated research. This trend is changing, with numerous studies highlighting the rich acoustic diversity of rivers, oceans and reefs.

Plants can use the sound of water to guide their root growth.

On land, Australian researcher Monica Gagliano explored hearing in plants. She demonstrated how plants can use sound to find water – so the next time your plumbing is blocked by plant roots, keep in mind that they’ve listened to the water flowing in. the pipes.

Equally profound are the studies of the bioelectrical sounds emitted by plants by artists such as the Irish “sound ecologist” Michael Prime. For several decades, Prime has cataloged various bioelectric emissions from plants. Sometimes they sound like unstable but rhythmic avant-garde music.

Field recording

This curiosity to listen to places and those who inhabit them has also spawned an area of ​​creative sound practice called field recording. A field recorder is a listener who primarily focuses on capturing the sonic aspects of environments that captivate them.

Once a fringe part of the sonic arts canon, field recording is now seen as a critical area of ​​creative engagement. This year artists such as Philip Samartzis have been commemorated in a series of Australian Antarctic postage stamps.

Read more: The Sounds Around Us: An Introduction to Field Recording

Even if you don’t want to make your own field recordings, you might be interested in listening to Canadian artist Hildegard Westerkamp’s sound walks, or experimenting with situational listening from Japanese artist Akio’s Oto Date project. Suzuki.

These works, like my own Site Listening at the Museum Of Brisbane, recognize that the more we listen to the world around us, the more we realize that we have yet to hear its true resonances.

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