Are sound walks the future of travel?

Lily Holbrook explores the idea of "sound walks" as a means of travel during a pandemic.

Lily Holbrook
14th December 2020
Imagine you’re walking through a forest. Bubbling streams, the gentle crunch of pebbles underfoot and the sound of birdsong high above the woodland canopy. The sun is glistening through cool river ripples while ponies chew softly on fragrant grass, and bees land delicately on honeysuckle. The air is clear, and the day is beautiful. But what if I told you, you’re not in the forest at all?

It feels like nothing could quite match the beauty of nature experienced in its immediate form. But with everything from birdsong to the flutter of falling leaves, sound walks are bringing a new dimension to virtual travel. 

Sound walking can be "any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment."

Image credit: Lily Holbrook

Sound walks can involve putting headphones in and listening to the beautifully composed sounds of nature. But equally, it can involve taking off your headphones and giving yourself time to be present in any outdoor space. Described by pioneering composer and professor, Hildegard Westerkamp, in 1974, sound walking can be "any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment."

Sound walks not only transport us to new worlds from our sofas, but they have an ability to heighten our perception of nature on our doorsteps

I’ve always loved the outdoors, often stopping on walks to take in the visual and acoustic wonders that surround me. On train journeys and lazy mornings I've enjoyed the effortlessly integrated sounds of the Blue Planet II and BBC Earth podcasts, bringing together noise from nature and beautifully composed music.

Image credit: Lily Holbrook

Yet listening to the first snippets of a creaking cave as I ventured out on my first sound walk experience, I wasn't too convinced. Usually when I walk I’m either listening to music, a podcast or speaking on the phone, so it took a moment for me to step back and embrace it for what it was.

But when I did, the effect was calming. Away from the busy voices and bustling streets, sound walks not only transport us to new worlds from our sofas, but they have an ability to heighten our perception of nature on our doorsteps.

In my quest for sound walks, I stumbled across one in particular that had me hooked. 

Clive Brooks, founder and master of New Forest Sounds, invites his listeners on a journey through nature, all from the comfort of their own homes. 

Speaking to The Courier, Clive, as he is known to his listeners, describes soundwalks as "enjoyable, creative and somehow relaxing at the same time. It is audio escapism."

Quoting the famous soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause, Brooks relates his work to visual imagery, "If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.

Each listener will bring their own mental pictures to a soundwalk based on their own lived experience, so they are different for everyone.

Image credit: Lily Holbrook

"I think that successful soundwalks require some gentle spoken intervention to guide the listener and fill in some of the details that they might not know, so I might mention the weather, where we are and generally what’s going on, and then leave it to the listener to fill in the details and enjoy engaging with the soundscape.

"It is a form of armchair travel that, because the listener needs to construct their own mental picture of the soundscape, is creative and enjoyable. Each listener will bring their own mental pictures to a soundwalk based on their own lived experience, so they are different for everyone."

On headphones, the playback mimics the way our ears hear, and sound seems to come, not only from the sides in stereo, but also from above and behind too

Using special recording technology, Brooks is able to mimic the way our ears hear, creating intimate audio sequences that make us feel like we're really there.

"Soundwalks can be enhanced by recording them using a binaural principle, where the recordist places a tiny microphone in each ear and records using this setup. The result is remarkable - on headphones, the playback mimics the way our ears hear, and sound seems to come, not only from the sides in stereo, but also from above and behind too. It’s immersive and further helps to bring the listener into an immersive and enjoyable place."

Get lost in your own soundscapes by checking out more of Clive's work here.

Featured Image: Lily Holbrook

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AUTHOR: Lily Holbrook
MA Media & Journalism student at Newcastle University and science sub-editor for the 20/21 academic year.

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