Sound Tourism

In Global Perspectives, Maps101 by

A hiker treks the Kelso Dunes in California's Mohave Desert. The area is famous for its "singing sands," a low rumbling sound produced when visitors slide down the sides of the dunes.

A hiker treks a ridge of the Kelso Dunes in California’s Mojave Desert. The area is famous for its “singing sands,” a low rumbling sound produced when visitors slide down the sides of the dunes.

When people travel, they usually say it is to see new places, and when they return, people are likely to ask them what they saw. Travelers capture what they’ve seen with cameras or smartphones, so they can remember these sights later. Vision has always been a key part of traveling. For example, the English word visitor is based on the ancient Latin root word vis, meaning see.

We don’t have to think too long, however, to realize that there is more to travel than vision. For instance, although we may remember the sight of a beautiful sunset on an ocean, we may also recall the smell of fresh salt air, the feeling of foamy waves washing over our feet, or the briny taste of salt water in our mouths.

Along with with the senses of sight, smell, touch, and taste, hearing is another way we experience a new place. Sound tourism is the activity of traveling to places specifically for the interesting sounds we might hear there.

People travel to the Hemlock Gorge Reservation in Massachusetts to hear their voices reflected by the appropriately named Echo Bridge. People visit the Mojave National Preserve in California to listen to the so-called singing sands of the Kelso Dunes, where visitors can produce a low rumbling sound simply by sliding down a giant mountain of sand. Sometimes people journey to places that are especially quiet. One such place is the One Square Inch of Silence in the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park in Washington State. This area is said to be the quietest area in the United States.

“Hearing” the Sights

The recent interest in sound tourism comes mainly from the work of Trevor Cox, a professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford in England. Cox operates a website at which features places around the world that are interesting for sound tourists.

“We’re used to going on our travels and looking out for beautiful vistas and wonderful architecture, but we tend not to think about the sound,” Cox said. “So then I began to think about where I would go if [I] wanted to listen to the most remarkable sounds in the world.”

Professor Cox’s website includes a map showing places around the world where people can hear interesting and unusual sounds.

In the Canary Islands off of the Atlantic coast of Africa, you can hear a language based on whistles that allows people to communicate over large distances without cellphones or e-mail. In the remote Norwegian island of Svalbard, you can listen to the calls of bearded seals, mammals whose calls sound like they could have been produced by an alien spacecraft. In the remote Colored Canyon on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, there are areas so quiet that it is possible to hear the sound of your own blood pumping through your veins and arteries.

While traveling to many of the places on Cox’s website would be difficult or expensive for most people, he insists that people don’t need to buy airplane tickets or special equipment to be sound tourists.

“It’s all about making yourself aware and thinking as you wander around about what you are going to catch—but all you really need to do is listen,” Cox explains.

Sounds Everywhere

Anyone can be a sound tourist. A fun way to enjoy the sounds around you is to participate in a soundwalk.

The term soundwalk was created by members of the World Soundscape Project. This educational and research group was founded by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in the late 1960s, and was intended to make people aware of the problem of unwanted sounds in the environment, or noise pollution.

“A soundwalk is any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment. It is exposing our ears to every sound around us no matter where we are,” explains one of the group’s members, the German-Canadian composer Hildegard Westerkamp. “Wherever we go we will give our ears priority.”

People on soundwalks may try to identify soundmarks and keynotes of the places they visit. A soundmark is similar to a landmark, except that soundmarks are heard but not seen. They are sounds unique to a particular place. For example, Niagara Falls is a famous landmark in the state of New York, but a soundmark might be the low rumble produced as the Niagara River drops 165 feet onto the rocks below.

While it is easy to notice soundmarks, it is not as easy to notice keynotes. Keynotes are the sounds that we hear all of the time but have learned to ignore. Some examples of keynotes include the noise of car traffic from a distant freeway or the mechanical hum of an air conditioner in a classroom. A soundwalk gives us a chance to notice sounds we might otherwise ignore.

A hand-drawn map made by participants in a soundwalk at Edward R. Ryerson Conservtion Area in Riverwoods, Illinois.

A hand-drawn map featuring sounds heard by participants in a soundwalk at Edward R. Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods, Illinois.

Planning a Soundwalk

If you want to go on a soundwalk but have never participated in one before, Nature Conservancy Canada offers some useful tips.

  • Walk in a Group: Soundwalks should always be done with a group of people. If you want to explore an unfamiliar area, include a trusted adult such as a teacher or parent.
  • Plan Your Route: Use a paper map, the internet, or a smartphone mapping app, to find a location and route for your walk. Many people find walking in natural areas, such as forests or parks, to be especially relaxing, but interesting soundwalks can happen anywhere: a school playground, a busy subway station, or a sidewalk in your neighborhood.
  • Quiet, Please: Although you will want to discuss the sounds you hear with other members of the group, plan on spending at least 30 seconds of your soundwalk with absolutely no talking. Being quiet allows everyone to notice all of the sounds around them. You might want to break up your walk into times for quiet, followed by periods of discussion.
  • Close Your Eyes: This doesn’t mean that you should attempt to walk with your eyes closed. Instead, stop for a moment on your walk and spend time listening with your eyes shut. Since our eyes are not using so much energy, our brains are better able to notice sounds.
  • Keep a Record: If you have a smartphone, record interesting sounds. If not, take a notebook and write a list of the various sounds you hear. Compare your list to others’ lists in the group. You may be surprised to discover that different members of the group noticed different sounds.
  • Review: Think about the soundwalk once it is over. What were some of the most memorable sounds you heard? If you were able to make a recording of a bird’s song, see if you can identify it. Then, decide where your next soundwalk will be!
Additional Resources

Visit Trevor Cox’s sound tourism website.

Discover more ideas for your soundwalks at Hildegard Westerkamp’s webpage at Simon Fraser University.

Listen to a library of thousands of sounds recorded around the world at the British Library.

Images and Sources

Kelso Dunes Photo: Binksternet.
Kelso Dunes Photo License: Creative Commons 3.0.

Soundwalk Map Photo: Eric Leonardson.
Soundwalk Map Photo License: Creative Commons 3.0.