12/21/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Can Sounds Say About the Environment?

Dr. Bill Chameides is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. He blogs at

Think of your favorite place and you're likely to conjure a picture in your mind -- a landscape, not a soundscape. That's because you're not Peter Cusack, a sound artist keenly interested in the intersection of environment and sound. On a recent visit to Duke I asked him about pleasant versus positive sounds, a topic that got him riffing on sonic monoculture and why it's such a negative part of our modern culture.

Let's talk sound.

Sound artist Peter CusackMost of us probably take sound for granted until it intrudes on our comfort zone. In a city, for instance, the screeching brakes of a bus or a man walking down the sidewalk screaming may not even penetrate our consciousness in the cacophony of other sounds. What do these sounds say about the place? Are they mere intrusions or an intricate part of the space?

Peter Cusack spends his time pondering such questions and looking at different cities around the world from an acoustic point of view. When he started out, he was dismayed to hear London noises encroach on his beloved bird songs -- he wanted to record wildlife. But then he realized those urban sounds could be an important part of his study.

Back in 1998 Cusack began a project called "Favorite Sounds." He asked Londoners -- primarily residents -- what their favorite city sound was. Rather than a generic answer like "Big Ben's clock chimes," a sound known around the world thanks to its use in BBC broadcasts, people were far more precise -- and quotidian.

"People would say," Cusack recalled, "my favorite London sound is the guy who makes the station announcements at Waterloo's South Station on the northern line. And another person would say, well, I like the woman who makes the station announcement at the Regent Park on the south-going Baker line."

It's the same sound and yet it isn't.

Back then, Cusack continued, "All those station announcements were done by real people, and everyone had a different voice, and a different way of doing it and people remembered that."

Listen to Cusack's London sound: "Mind the Gap" »

In other words, people's acoustic references are much more than sounds themselves. They are reference points to the environment they inhabit and their interactions with it. Of the thousands of people he surveyed, much more often than not the favorite sounds were specific and quite mundane....

As he spoke about his findings over his decades of study, I got to thinking about the ultimate potential application of his work. Was it to engineer soundscapes to make them better? And what constitutes a "better" soundscape? One that is more pleasant and soothing?

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