Hi my name is Daniel Meuser, and I’m the owner of Systematic Sound, an independent label for professional high quality Sound Effects. This article is not an academic paper. The reason I’m writing this is that I went out to record ambiences in the countryside last summer and I wanted to analyze this topic, and put the experiences I made recording out in the field, into a better perspective. The quiet rural soundscape is a space that is getting more and more rare. As an active member of the acoustic ecology movement it is important to me to raise awareness special character of these regions and why it is worth to protect the so called „Quiet Areas“ (Directive 2002/49/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council relating to the assessment and management of environmental noise, June 2002.), to which I also count rural soundscapes.
But what constitutes a „rural soundscapes“, what does define the sound of the countryside and how can we find a in general a analytical way to describe the sonic characteristics of these environments?
A) The Landscape, a way to describe the physical properties of an environment.
There are many ways to describe an environment with it’s physical properties. In this context, we will take a look at the sound sources & events within that space and its acoustic properties, that can be experienced by a listener. The semantics we use to describe an acoustic environment are based on the descriptions of the visual, which need to be reinterpreted according to the special features of the acoustic world. It therefore makes sense to first of all describe the main aspects of the landscape before we focus on the acoustic conditions that constitute of the soundscape of a region.
We can part from two perspectives in this endeavor: The term „rural soundscape“ derives from an anthropophonic point of view. This describes the area outside towns or villages that is defined by human activities like agriculture, leisure or recreational activities and transportation.
If we left the human perspective out of the equation, we would need to look at the natural characteristics of the countryside to describe its acoustic properties. These consists of the physical properties of the terrain, its climate & biology, that together build all sorts of landmarks and biotopes with their distinctive sound.
If we take a look at the various physical properties of an environment, it can come in very handy to use the concept of the landscape to be able to properly acknowledge those factors. Physical properties can be of tangible and intangible nature. When we look at the tangible physical properties, the main elements are composed by the natural topography of the environment. It‘s Geography
and landforms, such as hills, planes, woodlands, rivers, valleys, lakes, that are typical for landscapes described as countryside. Not only do they build the visual frame of a place, they also have a deep impact on the acoustics of it and what kind of biotope can develop there. Although everything related to vegetation and living species is part of its Biology, which is another important factor in terms of the Biophony of an environment. And lastly there can even be human elements too that might have transformed the physical contours of a landscape to a considerable amount, like building structures or specific cases of human land-forming such as the construction of walls, the leveling of areas for agricultural use, etc.
When we lay down those three factors (Geography, Biology and human factor), then it might be smart to try to define the rural environment or countryside landscape in a subtractive way. This would exclude areas with specific geography with specific climate conditions, Biology or the characteristics of the human factor, that doesn’t match with the ones described in the definition above. On base of these properties, we can make the following assumptions:
- There must be a certain degree of human activity, in contrast to genuine natural environments & biotopes that are untouched by humans. The degree of human activity must be different from industrial areas, suburban residential areas or urban cities, towns or villages. Since those environments are more industrialized and/or have a higher population density, there is usually more human activity in general. With the exception of the motorways, these areas also show more traffic activity vs. more low-level roads and less traffic activity in the countryside. Since the countryside evolves around towns & villages, it is very likely to encounter heavy agricultural use. Farms and fields, vineyards, cattle, etc. In order to ensure intensive agriculture, the fields must be laid out on flat ground. This is one of the many reasons that transformed the countryside into an environment of open vegetation & manly flat planes with soft hills (specially in central Europe, Germany, where I have been mainly recording). We will find places of leisure and recreation like bike trails, amusement parks, ski lifts and slopes, horse riding trails, off-road trails etc.
- If we focus on the biological ecosystems that define an environment, then the lines of distinction are fluid. Well maintained woodlands exhibit a certain degree of agricultural activity and should be included into the definition of countryside landscape. On the other hand, old primeval forests with fully intact ecosystems that are not altered by human activity should be excluded by this definition and another term should be used that is more suitable to describe primeval natural landscapes. Same goes for swamps, moors, riparian zones, jungles, tundra & taiga, glaciers and deserts. These environments are usually defined by pretty specific biological or climatical factors which make them usually not suited for agricultural usage and where human activity is very reduced. The environments I’m trying to describe here are the last resorts for wildlife as well as wild flora and fauna. Prairies can be seen as the natural native form of the fields and farmlands that are at the heart of the modern-day countryside.
- Geographically, there is not an effective way to describe the term rural countryside. For this reason, I would opt to only exclude very specific geographic landscapes & formations like canyons, glacial & high alpine mountain regions, coasts, etc. But since humans have always preferred generally flat treeless expanses of fertile soil for their agricultural needs, the typical topography are fairly open planes, soft hills and river valleys that offer a better protection from wind and the cold.
B) From Landscape to Soundscape
Now what has all of this to do with field recording and the concept of the soundscape? It has to do with the semantics that we use to describe the sounds of environments in a broader scale (vs. the sound of a specific source). The terminology for sounds derives from descriptions of the visual. Now that we have analyzed what the unique properties of the rural landscape are, we can now show how these circumstances influence the soundscape of this environment. A soundscape is a sound or combination of sounds that forms or arises from an immersive environment including all sources of sound found in a natural environment (Biophony), the sounds of weather phenomena & the acoustic properties produced by the physical topography landscape or by geothermal events (Geophony), as well as human activities that make noise referred to as (Anthrophony). If we consider these basic ingredients, we have now to discover which sounds are significant to the rural soundscape because of their rareness, abundance or repetition or because of their power and domination over the remaining acoustic events.
At the heart of any soundscape is the keynote sound. It serves as anchor or fundamental, that, like in a musical piece, serves as a reference point that sets the tone & mood of a landscape. This is usually created by ist geography and climate. When we take into consideration the typical topography and vegetation of the countryside that mainly consists of open planes, wild meadows, grasslands with bushes and fairly open woodlands with soft hills and valleys where you can find grapevines and other crops of limited height of growth, then one has to come to the conclusion that it is very likely, that this environment will predominantly have the acoustic properties of an open field.
When there are less obtrusive landmarks and lower vegetation, there are less obstacles for the wind to circulate freely through those environments. It’s therefore that the sound of the wind softly rustling through the vegetation sets the predominant keynote sound for the countryside in general. There is even an archetypal and musical character attributed it it when we compare it with „a giant wind harp“ (R. Murray Schaefer; The Soundscape, Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World; S. 22-23.). The different types of grasses, bushes & crops of different heights, small trees, scattered hedges with their various types and forms of foliage, all these plants make different noises when they are stimulated by the wind. Each grassland, each type of crop, each forest has its own keynote sound. This creates an abundance of different wind sounds that are worth to be discovered. In the countryside it is possible to hear the wind from a far perspective, sounding similar to a deep roar that sets the tone for the soundscape from a distance. On sites with hills or irregular topography, there might be different air flows, creating local turbulences & wind cells that can have an impact on the acoustics of a place, making auditory communication a lot more difficult. Sound wave propagation can be scattered pretty significantly under windy conditions. The rustling of the vegetation on the spot gets louder too, reducing the hearing range even further. This has a significant impact on wildlife communication and the species habituating those ecosystems have adapted to these circumstances. For that reason it it very important to check the weather (especially wind) before to head to the recording location. I like to use Windy.com for this. Wind is a weather condition, and therefore variable by nature. It is subject to atmospheric and thermal influences. These are significantly influenced by climate and the geography of a location. Wind is a physical force. It is essentially the manifestation of an energy exchange that is based on a gradient. That is why it always takes the path of least resistance and depends on the strength of the gradient. Apart from the atmospheric and local thermal influences, the day-night cycle creates a stable framework for the weather phenomenon of the wind. As soon as the first sunlight hits the surfaces, temperature hot-spots start to build, due to the uneven terrain. This is a point in time when the air pressure gradient begins to develop, which causes the wind to blow. The you are on location, then it really depends what sound of wind you are after. Do you want to record a far, cinematic perspective or close one with a lot of detail? Are you after more static sounds that roars gently or do you want to record a more variable wind with heavy blows setting some highlights? Not only your relative position in the sound field matters, also the vegetation of your immediate and further away surroundings matter. Especially if you want to make close-up detailed wind sound recordings, then the differences in the physiognomy matter. The shape, size and thickness of the foliage if trees and bushes, as well as the form and size of crop, grasses and herbaceous broadleaves can sound surprisingly different when stimulated by the wind.
The wind is not the only weather condition that that has an influence on the soundscape of the countryside. The heat of the sun, that dries out the fields in late summer changes the physiology of the crop considerable. It gets lighter and more porous making the rustling of the wind sound lighter with a soft sizzle. You can even hear light crackles and pops as the sun heats up the crop. The sun also increases insect activity and you will start hearing all sorts of buzzing & humming. In the absence of high structures or trees, an open field offers the chance to record rain and thunder in a very natural way without excessive reverberation. But thats also the reason why it is quite difficult record under such conditions. Due to the lack of those higher structures, it can be quite challenging to find places where you can install the recording equipment safe from rain and humidity. I might share some tricks on how to record rain safely in a future blogpost. If we compare the sounds of urban rain to rain recorded in the countryside, then it will more often then not sound softer, because the dense vegetation on natural ground dampens the impact sound of the water drops significantly in comparison to harder surfaces like concrete or cobblestone.
Wildlife has adapted to this fact and relocates the majority of the communicative activity to a time before this happens (dawn), when there is only a slight thermal inflow due to the evenly cooled down surface temperatures at night. The other optimal point of time for communication is at dusk, after the surface has been heated up fairly even by the sun. This is the reason why we can experience the beautiful phenomenon of the Dawn Chorus, where birdsong activity peaks at its maximum a beautifully orchestration where each creature has its acoustic niche. The sound of the dawn chorus also stands for the sounds of the seasons (especially spring).
Another example of a keynote sound would be the omnipresent rushing of a river or stream that is amplified inside a valley, giving the environment a distinctive tone. I could experience this at the “Nahetal” (Alley with a river in the south-west part of Germany) but also at the Rhine River valley (although here, the noise of industrial shipping masked everything else).
As we said earlier, human activity is significantly more reduced in comparison to more densely populated environments. Wider and more open space with less human activity leads to potentially longer noise-free intervals and less overlapping sounds and therefore less energy accumulating at any given point of time. Wide spaces also mean less echoing or reverberation reducing the overlapping of broadband sounds and unfavorable effects like masking even further. Under such circumstances we start regaining acoustic perspective. The listener is able to hear further in the distance and will be able to distinguish between acoustic foreground and background. That’s why it makes sense to describe the rural soundscape of the countryside as a „Hi-Fi Soundscape“, which possesses a favorable signal to noise ratio. In these environments we are able to distinguish single sources, if they are close by or distant. We can differentiate between foreground and background sounds. Sounds in the foreground usually have more importance to the listener. They can give him clues about changes in the environment, the relative positions of creatures or objects. The listener will usually be able to estimate how the different actors are moving through the terrain. These so-called “Signals” are listened to consciously. The main actors here are humans and wildlife that lives in the rural countryside.
On the human side, there are the sounds of the farm that can be quite powerful and dominant. They are the noises of work, of hard labor, of heavy harvesting equipment. Of hooves trotting, metal plows and straw ballets bumping on the ground and the sound of engines and metal rattling which derives from the operation of huge harvesting machines and tractors (Technophony). The voices of farm animals can also set the tone of the farm soundscape with occasional peaks that set some highlights. This is especially true for large groups of cattle when all voices mesh together into a distinctive tone that is typical for each species. The sounds and voices of farm animals belong ,to the classification of domestic sounds which can also be of functional character.
The signal of dogs barking is typically interpreted as a warning sight that an intruder has entered the territory of the farm. The call of the rooster on the other hand is a signal that is widely interpreted as the announcement that a new day has begun. It is a sight of civilization that gives the working day structure. In this same category are the sounds of light industrialization that can be found scattered through the countryside.
Those sources of noise would be something like the humming of pipeline compressors, the metal clanking oil wells, the deep roar of windmills, etc.. And then there is the omnipresent obstructive sound of traffic and transportation: Trains, highways, and air traffic produce a roaring mash of sounds, a powerful wall of sound that can travel huge distances and dominate entire landmarks. Therefore is is highly recommended to scout for highways and flightpaths or train routes before heading into the field. Useful tools are obviously: Google Maps, Apps like Flightaware, noise pollution maps like the National Transportation Noise Map or the Noise Observation & Information Service for Europe.
The Biophony of the countryside can be very diverse and rich if one listens carefully. You can find plenty of birds, mammals, amphibians and insects living in this environment making all sorts of sounds with their vocalizations or activities. One of the most obvious and beautiful sounds to enjoy is a nearby solo of a songbird will certainly be heard as a single foreground event. In the European countryside you can find plenty of birdsong. One species dominate the scene with their beautiful musical solos (like the Nightingale),
and other species with their collective voices (like the Sparrow).
One could ask: Why is it described as pleasant and not nerve wrecking by listeners most of the time (although bird song can exhibit quiet high amplitude and frequency modulation)? This might be because it is deeply connected with our anthropogenic past. It is very likely that a high density of birdsong is an indicator for an intact ecosystem with a high biodiversity. This would lead our ancestors to find good, fertile land with lots of water reservoirs and plenty of plants and wildlife to feed from. This might explain the positive connotation that birdsong has to us humans. And it is no coincidence that birdsong has something musical, as it may have been the origin of music itself.
Mammals usually populate the lower part of the spectrum with their voices and find this way their perfect niche. Some species like foxes, wolves and deer use the time at dusk or dawn to their periods of highest vocal activity. They choose reverberant use the humid woodland or forest environment to amplify their voice. They even change their voice to accommodate for the echoes. One of the most famous examples is the terrifying vixen scream of the fox, the majestic howl of the wolf and the eerie hooting of the eagle owl.
In autumn the deep rotting and barking of deer that resonates through the forest can be a dominating sound of a landscape specially at twilight. This is another typical sound that stand for a season. In the German-speaking area, the red deer is also called the “king of the forest”. This is thanks to its imposing antlers and impressive deep roaring.
Small rivers, streams, ponds and pools are embedded in the idyll of the rural countryside. Wet meadows with wild grasses, moors and swamps may be as well part of those ecosystems that build these environments. These are the home of many amphibian and reptile species. Probably one of the most well-known and signals are the sounds of the frog chorus, with is intensive and loud croaking that builds another important backbone of the soundscape of the rural countryside.
The other main elements constituting the natural sound of the lake site are the sounds and vocalizations of waterbirds. Ducks, geese, Cormorants or Cranes can populate lakes in big numbers dominating a scene acoustically.
The sounds of insects play another important role in the rural soundscape. In the European countryside, where I have been recording most of the time, you can hear flies, wasps, bees and bugs humming, buzzing and flying around once the sun heats up the atmosphere so that these insects are able to fly. Another very prominent sound that can be heard in wild meadow and fields during the warm summer-days is the chirping of crickets, grasshoppers and (mostly in southern Europe) of cicadas, which can be even active deep into the night if temperatures don’t fall too quickly. In uneven terrain, where local spots heat up differently, I could hear crickets chirping at different rates building a complex inter-modulating chorus including different tonalities. This is a good indicator for a rather high insect population and rather many different species that only on dominant species. This can be seen as an indicator for a healthy ecosystem with a rather high biodiversity.
But the concept of the soundscape goes further than the mere definition of the acoustic environment, it also includes the listeners perspective. When we try to characterize an acoustic environment from the perspective of a human listener, then there are psychological and sociological aspects that come to play.
Here, we can recur to the concepts of the „Psychoscape“. This describes personal factors and historical and socio-cultural factors on how we may perceive sound. Typical personal factors might be the individual sensitivity or attitude towards a sound that is developed by each listener depending on experiences he made in life. It is directly related to the state of mind of the individual and whether he experiences the situation in which he perceives the sound as positive or negative. Symbolism we give to sounds can derive from personal factors as well as from historic socio-cultural development which is anchored in the collective perception of a community.
A so called „Soundmark“, is a community sound which is unique, or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community. An example that can also be heard in the countryside is the ringing of church bells. There are many ways to describe this sound depending on the perspective of the listener. For a Christian that hears the bells ringing in the distance from a nearby town, it might be sacred noise that interrupts the monotony of the secular silence. It might give him structure and orientation in his working day or even remind him of civilization that breaks indolence of idleness.
In regions with intensive agriculture, it might even be the sound of the cattle. In the alpine regions in Europe, specifically in Switzerland, people celebrate the so called „Almauftrieb“ in spring (which refers to when the cattle drive moves from the valley barns to the alpine pastures) and the „Almabtrieb“ in autumn (where the cattle is been drive back to the valley barns). If there were no accidents on the Alm (pasture) during the summer, in many areas the cattle is decorated elaborately, and the cattle drive through the villages or towns is celebrated with music, feasts and dance events in the towns and villages.
If you went all until the end: Thank you for reading this article. I hope you found it useful and interesting. If you have any further questions or just want to say “hello” just drop me a message here:
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About the Author:
Daniel is a graduated Sound Designer and Field Recordist from Germany, who completed his Bachelor in Sound and Music Production at the Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences in 2017. He has a passion for interactive creative sound design and complex field recordings. He has worked in the areas of game audio, library creation, advertising, broadcast and film. His influences range from Pierre Schaeffer’s early Musique Concrète to the 8-bit chiptune sounds in retro video games, the powerful sound of electronic dance music and the hyper-realistic sound of Hollywood films. He also knows that great sounds can be found even in our daily lives. R. Murray Schaeffer’s principles of Acoustic Ecology sparked his passion for field recording and led him to the conclusion that he wanted to be a better listener and not want to distinguish one sound from another. And finally, Bernie Krause and Gordon Hempton showed him the wonderful world of Biophony and the sounds of nature, which are becoming increasingly rare. Systematic Sound has been part of the Soundly Pro Library since 2020. In the same year, he was invited to join the Artlist.IO platform, on which he was thrilled to create some exclusive sound effects libraries. In 2019 Daniel has been working for BOOM Library and Dynamedion as a Field Recordist and Sound Designer where he was involved in creating sound libraries as well as audio assets for external clients. In 2018 he mainly worked on various short and feature films. He wrote articles about his work as a field recordist for microphone manufacturers like Lewitt Microfones, Austria. He also worked in the field of acoustic ecology as a contributor to The Global Composition 2018 conference. In 2017 Daniel was mainly active in the field of interactive game audio design, where he was involved in the production of Crytek’s game “Hunt: Showdown”, which won the German Developer Award for best audio in 2018.