Natural sounds

New research shows health benefits of exposure to birdsong

Photo credit: sue licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Researchers affiliated with CalPoly University and the Max Planck Institute designed a “phantom sound” method to systematically explore the effects of
exposure to birdsong on the well being of hikers in a natural landscape. Guess what: just the sound of birds singing makes a significant difference!

The method used for this study echoes Jesse Barber’s brilliantly-conceived and widely-acclaimed “phantom road” research at the University of Idaho that showed the effects of highway noise on birds’ migratory and feeding habits.

Both of these research projects brilliantly demonstrate the importance of careful experimental design in doing noise-effects research. Congratulations to the participants in both projects! They will both advance the need for regaining control of the long-neglected issue of noise exposure.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Military jets are damaging the quietest region in the U.S.

Photo credit: AvgeekJoe licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

The Olympic National Park in Washington State is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it welcomes more than three million visitors a year to enjoy what Gordon Hempton has identified as “One Square Inch of Silence.” Today this “quietest place in US” is being overwhelmed with military aircraft noise according to a study published by Lauren Kuehne and Julian Olden. Diane Urbani de la Paz, Peninsula Daily News, reports that Kuehne and Olden monitored military flights over three sites in the park which included the “most quiet rainforest and region in the U.S.” and found that at times the sound levels “registered at 80 decibels or more.” Olden believes that this deafening noise will adversely affect the wildlife of the park and deter people from visiting this park.

Concerned that the quiet soundscape of the Olympic Peninsula is being overwhelmed by noise, Kuehne informed me that she shared the data of her study with the Navy, hoping that the Navy would consider moving its aircraft training away from the Olympic Peninsula and to a region that would not adversely affect people or quiet parks with overhead aircraft noise. I responded that studies such as hers will put greater pressure on the military and the airline industry in general to explore ways to lessen the impacts of aircraft noise.

Kuehne also told me that she is working with Gordon Hempton, co-founder of Quiet Parks International, an organization dedicated to preserving quiet which, of course, includes protecting our national parks. I, too, am part of Hempton’s organization, serving as an advisor, and urge readers to advocate for the protection of our beautiful, quiet national parks.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Au revoir, les noisy frogs

Photo credit: Egor Kamelev from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Guardian reports that in the Dordogne region of France, a judge ruled that homeowners must drain their pond to eliminate noisy frogs bothering their neighbors. On one side of the matter is a useful habitat for local fauna, and on the other a very tired neighbor.

The problem is that during mating season, the frogs’ calls have been measured at 63 decibels (dB) at the neighbors’ window. Sound pressure levels as low as 30-35 A-weighted decibels* can disrupt sleep. The decibel scale is logarithmic, so 63 dB isn’t just twice as loud as 31.5 dB but orders of magnitude greater. (I would also note that in psychoacoustics the word loudness has specific meaning, and here I am just using it as we use it in everyday speech.)

The situation is complicated by the fact that some of the frogs belong to endangered species, and the small pond serves as a local watering hole for other animals, including deer and wild boar.

Nature lovers are concerned, and the case is being appealed to France’s highest court. Keep an eye here to find out how it ends.

*A-weighting adjusts sound measurements for the frequencies heard in human speech.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

The pandemic’s changing soundscape

Photo credit: Sanaan Mazhar from Pexels

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

Bridget Read, The Cut, identifies the past eight months of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of the dimmed and heightened sounds in her environment. She associates the start of the pandemic with the silencing of many of the customary sounds in the environment, e.g. less horn honking, no din from restaurants, the absence of the voices and shouts of children as they leave school at three p.m. On the other hand, the increase in ambulance sirens reminded her, as it did many of us, of the people who had fallen victim to COVID-19. This thought also brought us greater fear.

April brought on the sounds of clapping in the evenings to say “Thank you” to our hospital workers, postal workers and grocery store employees. In late May, Read writes that there was the explosion of sounds that accompanied the marches and demonstrations after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. July 4th is generally recognized with fireworks, but July 4, 2020, brought about many more localized fireworks that actually started before the 4th and went on for weeks afterwards. But as the summer ended and autumn approached, Read writes that there was a quieter period as if people were holding their breath as they reflected on a potential second wave of the pandemic.

November was ushered in by long lines of people waiting to vote and quietly reflecting on who would be elected the next president. Then, on a warm Saturday in early November, Read was overwhelmed by cheers, clapping, car honking, and loud talking from the streets. Everyone seemed to be making lots of noise. What brought about all these sounds–Donald Trump had lost the election.

More excitement followed for the next few days with people rushing out into the streets to celebrate the election of Joseph Biden. Music seemed to be everywhere as people danced in the streets. These sounds that accompanied joy may have been brief, according to Read, but the joy was real.

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Twenty Thousand Hertz podcast reaches big audiences with well-told stories about noise

Photo credit: Magda Ehlers from Pexels

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Sound designer, Dallas Taylor produces a wonderful podcast called Twenty Thousand Hertz that is a joy to listen to. So far he has produced 45 episodes that cover a broad range of “stories behind the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds.”

Recently he teamed up with TED and Apple Podcasts so now he’s reaching big audiences, which is terrific for those of us who are concerned about the effects of noise on health and environment.

A friend urged me to listen to an episode called “City That Never Sleeps,” in which Taylor interviews a New York City-based writer who discovered that her perpetual anxiety was the result of noise exposure, so she took some simple precautions that others may want to consider. The prodcasts includes a couple of compilations of “nature sounds” that you might want to bookmark. Enjoy!

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Sometimes we need to put up with noise

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Sometimes people have to put up with noise. This fun piece from the Atlas Obscura folks describes a noisy rooster on the French vacation island of Ile d’Oléron. Summer visitors filed a noise complaint with the local authorities, who ruled in the rooster’s favor.

Corrine Dessau, the rooster’s owner, commented that “[t]here’s always been noise in the countryside: frogs, tractors, and, yes, roosters. When you’re in the countryside, you accept the noises of the countryside. And when you’re in the city, you accept the noises of the city. If you don’t like the noise where you are, don’t stay there.”

I would disagree about urban noise. Much if not most of urban noise can be quieted.

But in the countryside, a rooster’s wake up call is part of the charm, and visitors should get used to it.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Beluga whales sing better in a quiet ocean

Photo credit: Diliff licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I first saw beluga whales in the aquarium in Vancouver, Canada, and then last year in the wild in Canadian arctic waters. They are marvelous creatures, with a bulbous head that helps them vocalize and hear the vocalizations of other belugas.

A National Geographic television show discusses research showing that belugas sing better in quieter oceans.

For belugas, noise from ship motors is like ambient noise in a too-noisy restaurant. It makes conversation difficult.

Quiet is better for both animals and people.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Lockdown was a boon for science

Photo credit: Kwh1050 licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

As I have written before on Silencity, the COVID-19 lockdown has given city dwellers around the world the opportunity to hear a landscape with less road traffic, fewer overhead jets, and a slowdown in constructions sounds. Yes, one sound was heard more frequently – birdsong. But on June 22, New York City is entering Phase 2 and the “older, less welcoming sounds” could be returning.

Interestingly, the quieter pandemic environment has given the Quiet Project in the UK the opportunity to map out the lower decibel levels that have occurred during the lockdown, writes Philip Ball of The Guardian. In addition to actual sound recordings, the Quiet Project has asked the public to reflect on how the changed soundscape has affected them. According to Lindsay McIntyre, the director of the company involved in this project, “[e]veryone I speak to has got an opinion on how the changes in noise makes them feel.” For example, as I have noted in earlier writings, some people actually miss the more traditional urban sounds, but what they really missed was what their lives were before the pandemic.

The researchers involved in the Quiet Project hope to use their data in ways that may result, for example, in having planners factor in more “tranquil areas” in cities as we move forward. Seismologists are especially interested in how the pandemic altered human activities. With less human activity, and the accompanying noises they are responsible for, seismologists can detect small earthquakes and this information can tell more about the “state of stress and movement in the crust.” Oceanographers, concerned about the impact of low-frequency noise from ship engines on the communications of marine life, found the change in ocean sounds during the pandemic provided the opportunity to study ship factors that harm marine animals. This finding could “help plan ocean transportation so it is less disruptive to marine life.”

With the pandemic resulting in less noise, scientists were given the opportunity to collect the kind of data that may help them find ways to keep our planet quieter in the near future for all its inhabitants. Out of adversity, can come creativity!

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Lessons from “The Great Silence?” Researchers are listening.

Photo credit: Angy DS licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I’ve been eagerly watching for researchers to probe the effects of this unique, unprecedented period of global silence. Recently, Nick Smith, writing for Engineering And Technology, has reported on academic projects at the Max Planck Institute in Gemany, the British Geological Survey in the UK, New York University in the U.S., and in several other places around the world where researchers are digging into the effects of “anthropogenic noise,” i.e., human-generated industrial noise.

It appears that most of the effort is focused on birds—which would also imply impacts on insects and plants too—but that could just be because Smith was interested in that subject.

The best news is that researchers are actively working on the subject, and therefore we may learn from this moment. As Smith notes, “[a]ssessing the impact that human-generated or anthropogenic noise has on the natural world is fast becoming a growth area in academia.”

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The origins of soundscape ecology

Photo credit: Alex Braidwood licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

A wonderful, recent NPR podcast delves into the career and field recordings of Bernie Krause, PhD, who pioneered the emerging discipline of soundscape ecology. This podcast is great listening for the pandemic-induced “great silence” that we’re all currently living through.

Krause’ best known book appeared in 2012, “The Great Animal Orchestra,” which has been described as “the story of one man’s pursuit of natural music in it’s purest form, and an impassioned case for the conservation of one of our most overlooked natural resources, the music of the wild.” But Krause has just recently finished his 8th book—on top of hundreds of discographies. And, if you’re interested, his TED talk is a good listen.

Krause, who was born in Detroit in 1938, spent his early years promoting and performing on the then revolutionary Moog Synthesizer with leading 60s rock groups like The Doors and others. Having moved from the University of Michigan to Mills College in the San Francisco Bay area during the 1960s, he quit the drug-soaked music business and started recording natural sounds all over the world and working for museums and recording studios. From that deep immersion in the natural soundscape, he began developing original theories about sound that have gained him great respect. He’s best known for three core descriptive concepts: “Biophony” (sound from natural, biological sources); Geophony (sound from non-biological,natural sources); and Anthropophony (sound from human sources, including electro-mechanical noise).

Back in 1968, Krause founded his own organization, Wild Sanctuary. Now in his 80’s, he continues to be active in the field. Unfortunately, his home and virtually all of his belongings were destroyed several years ago when one of California’s wildfires swept through his neighborhood. Fortunately, his recorded archives were stored electronically off site, but everything else was gone. Still, he marshalls on, alerting the rest of the world to the concerning sounds he hears–or doesn’t hear.

The Quiet Coalition honors Krause’s pioneering work and his persistence and commitment to connecting our experience of soundscapes to the greatest issue of our time,climate change. The connections between the climate issue, the current pandemic, and the growing global problem of noise are not clear to many people, but Krause clearly understands how they are related.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.