Do the waves in an Australian bay sound different from the surf on an Atlantic beach? Do the street sounds of London differ from those of Beijing? And what does a sound researcher actually do? Professor Rainer Bayreuther has the answers.
“The ancient Greeks maintained that the celestial bodies speeding through the universe produced sounds, thus creating a mighty polyphonic chord in space. Because the planets have harmonic intervals and relative speeds, the celestial chord was considered harmonious, in other words musical. It was only in the 19th century that interest began to be shown in our world’s disharmonious sounds. Factories, machines or the soundscape of a busy street now also gave a certain situation a characteristic acoustic signature, long after the characteristic colours, forms and smells of a situation had been registered.
Trees sound the same everywhere
But do our respective social worlds really have a sound of their own? A busy traffic intersection basically sounds the same, whether it’s in Los Angeles, Shanghai or in a German city. Forest glades always have the same soundscape, whether they’re in the Black Forest, the Eifel Mountains, Vermont or the Ural Mountains. That’s because of the identical things that are found in each of these places. On the streets, there’s the sound of rubber tyres on tarmac; moving columns of cars, similar in size and shape; the noise of similarly built engines in which similarly shaped components made of similar materials move at similar speeds and in similar directions, setting each other into vibration. In the forests, there are trees of similar size and shape, all made of the same material – wood – with similar spaces between them so that they produce identical sounds when stirred by the wind. The same can be said of kindergartens in Nairobi, Cordoba and Lüneburg, and of airports in Frankfurt am Main, Oslo and Beijing.
Similar sounds, unconscious interpretation
To put it in a nutshell, the often asked question about what the world sounds like is the wrong question. Sounds are made by things – on their own or interacting with one another. Sounds serve as orientation aids in our everyday lives in myriad ways. That’s because of our intuitive and largely unconscious capacity to interpret the sound of things very subtly: What sort of thing are we dealing with? How big and what shape is it? In which direction is it moving and at what speed? That’s the focus of my work as a sound researcher.”
Rainer Bayreuther is professor at Leuphana University of Lüneburg's Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media. He heads the Soundcaching Group, a joint project of the University of Freiburg and the University of Lüneburg, which is seeking to digitally capture the world’s sonic diversity. To this end, the researchers are developing a social media platform featuring a map on which users can listen to, share, combine and comment on sounds.