With inspiration from a sociological program in Japan, explore new, more intentional ways of tuning into sound.
A tone clear and warm as sunlight sounds from the giant bronze bell. The ring contains no hint of clang or jangle, just a single frequency, sweetened and fattened by overtones, pitched a few notes below middle C, exactly at the midpoint of the range of human speech. Although I stand two meters away from the bell, the sound seems to emerge from within me, a calming, centering glow that spreads from chest to extremities, then flows outward into my perception of the park in which I stand. The barrel-shaped bell, a meter tall and more than half a meter wide at its mouth, is suspended from the domed roof of a pagoda. A horizontal wooden beam hangs from chains next to the bell.
The sound is persimmon fruit in the mouth. The fading of red to orange in a sunset sky. The transience of all beings.
This bell was made by the late Japanese Living National Treasure Masahiko Katori. Like other recipients of the honorific, Katori’s artistry and craftsmanship are considered part of Japan’s Important Intangible Cultural Properties, a government-sponsored system honoring practitioners of significant artisanal and artistic practices.
Like cultural knowledge, sound is unseen and ephemeral. When artisans die, the wisdom carried in their muscles and nerves goes with them. Likewise a sound wave carries meaning and memory imparted by its maker but soon disappears. If the artisan teaches others, knowledge passes on and is modified by students’ interpretations and innovations. A sound wave, too, transmits energies, sometimes only as the heat of friction as the wave dissipates, but sometimes when it is heard by living beings and changes them. The ring of the bell lives on in my memory, held in electrical gradients and a tracery of molecules, all sustained by the furnace of my metabolism. In writing these words, the bell’s vibrations flow to the page and then into your mind and body. The sound of a single strike of wood on bronze lives on in human bodies, just as the cultural knowledge of Masahiko Katori is alive in the knowledge and work of contemporary Japanese artisans.
The sound of this particular bell—the Peace Bell in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park—has, like the intangible cultural properties of Katori’s work, received official government recognition. Along with other bells in the park, the ringing of this bell is Soundscape 76 of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan, a government program established to find and honor significant soundscapes, and to encourage deeper listening. This program, launched in 1996, is a rare example of government recognition of the value of soundscapes.
Globally, policies designed to preserve and honor valuable national or regional treasures are almost entirely focused on visible, tangible objects and physical spaces. From the point of view of preservation and curation, this focus is understandable. Objects can be sequestered into collections and viewed at will. The boundaries of parks and buildings can be marked and protected. But the wonders of human culture and the living world come to us through many senses. To honor only material objects and spaces is to exclude much of what gives life joy and meaning. Might we honor other manifestations of human culture and beyond-human life, as does the 100 Soundscapes of Japan project?
The distinctive sounds of human neighborhoods and natural communities. The nuanced yearly cycles of aromas in forests and seashores. The taste of foods particular to a region. The feel on our skin of the wind blowing down a wintry street canyon or across a springtime park. The varied sensations of the ground under our feet. The shiver or glow of changing seasons. These, too, deserve attention, celebration, and, in some cases, preservation. Sounds can be recorded and archived, as can the chemical mixes of aromas, but these static records do not capture the living, changeable presence of the sensory environment.
Some of the 100 Soundscapes are fleeting sounds, such as the sweet ringing of suzumushi crickets or the singing sands of Kotogahama Beach, and others are omnipresent, such as the rumble of waves on the shore of the Sea of Enshu. The collection attempts to capture some of the changing sonic qualities of human activity, including the anachronistic sound of steam engines alongside more contemporary sounds like whistles of ships and the ebullience of cultural festivals. The soundscapes are available to listeners regardless of wealth, class, or religion, although visiting all of them would require travel.
A survey in 2018 found that five of the original 100 soundscapes were gone or inaccessible. Frogs had disappeared, trams no longer ran, or earthquake damage made access to sites impossible. The majority of those remaining had some form of local government or citizen group promotion or protection.
Although the list is, for now, static, the project has stimulated new ways of relating to sound in Japan and overseas. Soundscape researcher Keiko Torigoe served on the selection committee and later visited some of the sites to understand how local communities responded to their designations as nationally significant soundscapes. In the dunes near Nagaoka, on the east coast of Japan’s mainland, the local government commissioned and installed statue of Namikozo, the “wave boy,” an ocean spirit who announces the weather through the drumming of waves. Torigoe felt ambivalent about representing the intangible spirit of the waves in concrete form, although the sculpture does orient visitors to the soundscape and honors an important cultural story. River damming and tree plantations are threatening the shoreline here, and so the sound of water beating against sand is considered threatened by some residents.
Farther south, in the subtropical forests of Iriomote Island, she found that tour boat operators had ceased using motorboats on a river whose bird and insect sounds are on the national soundscapes register. One of the goals of the 100 Soundscapes project was to draw attention to and protect vulnerable sonic communities. In this case, the river’s soundscape directly benefited from a reduction in engine noise. In the far north, on Hokkaido Island, she found that the designation had provoked conversations about understandings of soundscapes. The listed soundscape here comprises the creaking, groaning, and hissing sounds of winter sea ice on the Sea of Okhotsk. But the most notable “sound” of ice for locals is the sudden silence that descends when the garrulous motions of the sea are quieted by a cap of weighty ice, a process that often happens over just a few hours. The cultural meaning of this silence has changed. Formerly, it was a sign of the arrival of the “white devil,” an ice-imposed end to fishing that presaged months of hunger and poverty. But since the 1960s, scallop aquaculture has boomed, and ice sheets provide shelter for the bays in which the shellfish thrive. Now the ice’s sounds and silence are marks of the productivity of the sea.
The 100 Soundscapes of Japan project has led to elevated sensory awareness in places outside the locales on the official list. The Soundscape Association of Japan, for example, now offers regular encouragements to deeper listening, both by sponsoring experiences such as walks where participants turn their attention to the soundscape and by hosting discussions about how best to appreciate, understand, and protect the sonic diversity of Japan.
In 2001, partly inspired by the success of the soundscapes list, the Ministry of the Environment expanded its work into the realm of aroma. Japan’s 100 Sites of Good Fragrance lists those whose aromas have particular cultural or natural significance. These range from wisteria blossoms to grilled eel, sulfur springs to the scent of used books in Tokyo’s Kanda district. As was true for the designation of soundscapes, the motivations for this project were both to honor the sensory richness of Japan and to underscore the need to control noise and odor pollution. Rather than focus government efforts exclusively on managing negative experiences, these projects remind us to seek out and embrace the positive too.
That Japan should be a global leader in the recognition and celebration of its sensory richness is not surprising. Japanese religious, literary, and aesthetic practices pay close attention to the nuances of sound, aroma, and light, and to the embeddedness of human culture among plants, other animals, water, and mountains. Matsuo Bashō’s haikus, for example, are full of the sounds of frogs leaping into water, cuckoos singing, and cicadas trilling. Buddhist and Shinto temples draw our senses into the spiritual agency of trees, the life of water, and the insights offered by sand and stone. The “right to sunlight” is protected by law, forbidding building practices that cast too much shade on neighbors. These are cultural foundations of sensory attentiveness and respect.
The 100 Soundscapes of Japan project also drew inspiration from across the Pacific. In the 1970s, Canadian composers R. Murray Schafer and Barry Truax popularized the terms soundscape and acoustic ecology, and along with collaborating musicians and sound recordists, studied the varied textures of sound across Canadian and European landscapes. Schafer described this work as a “study of the total soundscape,” whose aim was to encourage “aural culture” and reduce noise, asking of every community “which sounds do we want to preserve, encourage, multiply?”
An official list of notable soundscapes draws private sensory experience into community. Just as we gather to eat, pray, sport, view visual art, and hear music, so, too, can we gather to listen to the sounds of Earth, the marvelous diverse interminglings of the voices of wind, water, and living beings, humans included. How else might we create a culture of listening?
An adapted excerpt from Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction (Viking) by David George Haskell.
The Wellbeing Benefits of Careful Listening
Paying attention to sounds is a great way to bring our attention back to the present moment. Our minds call us into the past and future, perhaps stressing us with regret, to-do lists, and uncertainty. Sound, though, exists only in the moment. It flees as soon as it arrives. To be more present to sound, try letting go of naming and judging (“that’s an annoying truck engine”) and pay attention to the varied physicality of sounds: their textures, locations, and tempos. Like other forms of sensory meditation, attention to sound lets us inhabit our bodies, giving us a way to resist distraction and reclaim our sensual nature.
For vocal species such as humans, birds, and many insects, sound is also a primary means of connection to others. By listening, the boundaries of the self dissolve just a little, bringing us into relationship. Listening to others—whether the voices of kids down the street, the songs of sparrows outside the window, music in a con-cert hall, or the sonic textures of wind in trees—draws us into the relationships that give us life. No individual can thrive alone. Listening offers us a beautiful way to link our senses to the lives around us. —George David Haskell