Soundwalks are popular among ecomusicologists. Walking amidst any environment we pay attention to the sounds we hear while walking (or stopped to hear more closely a sound in a particular place). At some ecomusicology events and conferences, and in a growing number of college and university courses on sound, walkers accompany a leader on a nearby soundwalk during the first class, take mental notes only, and then right afterwards they talk about what they heard. Needless to say, the walkers listen to environmental sounds; if they are used to walking around with mp3 players and earphones on, they put these away. The leader usually has done the walk before and identified certain sounds at certain places where they may stop—water moving along a stream, the sound of an HVAC, places where they are likely to hear birds, traffic, airplane fly-overs, and so on, including relatively silent spots (if there are any).
Soundwalks usually combine indoor with outdoor places, but they may be taken anywhere. The main object is to increase one’s awareness of the surrounding soundscape. A secondary aim is to reflect a little about what those sounds may signify—how the sounds interact with one another (interference, blending, etc.), their impacts on all the creatures in the landscape and our well-being, and so on. Some soundwalkers bring along sound recorders and microphones, sometimes fairly elaborate ones, along with headphones, transforming the soundwalk experience into a less reflective experience. Some later create sound environmental compositions using what they recorded, along with synthesized sounds and music. But although these too are called soundwalks, their purposes are quite different from the kind of soundwalk I am writing about.
A soundwalk is a deliberate ear-opening experience that leads to reflection. A sound bath is meant to be a healing experience. Sound baths have become commercialized, with any number of therapeutic benefits supposedly resulting. Predictably, they have become a fad. An internet search reveals articles with titles such as “I Tried a Sound Bath and Learned I Am Definitely Not a Sound Bath Kind of Girl,” with descriptions of sound bath emporia that make their activities appear like restorative yoga to “activate the chakra points” while listening to singing bowls, gongs, and so on. All very New Agey. Somewhere in the middle between soundwalks and sound baths fall the sound environment Apps which supposedly help put one to sleep or wake one up gently, or ones that encourage meditation.
Thoreau was the original model for my own soundwalks in the woods behind my house. As his journals reveal, he walked (or boated) nearly every afternoon in the woods and hills and meadows and streams and rivers around Concord, Massachusetts. Of course, a soundwalk needn’t last for several hours every day, as Thoreau’s did. On his walks he brought a notebook, and from time to time he would stop, think, perhaps meditate, and jot down a few words about what he saw and, also, what he heard. He sought certain sounds, like the wind in the wires of the telegraph lines that vibrated the air and the telegraph poles (to which he pressed his ear), or the sounds of the crickets, or the spring peepers, and especially the birds. Right now, as I write, I just heard the sound of a pileated woodpecker in a tree not far from the house. A pair have lived nearby all summer, as last.
Thoreau’s walks were deliberate attempts to keep his senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, even taste, in good condition and in tune, so to speak, with nature. This was not merely restorative, but also a kind of necessary maintenance for body and soul. It wasn’t exercise. There were exercise fads in Thoreau’s day. Predictably, he thought it ridiculous to do exercises to build muscles and endurance when one might instead keep them in shape by daily walking, cutting wood, and so on—including work for a living (he earned money as a surveyor). Being in shape involved all the senses, and balance—something that sound bathers must understand—for well-being, and of course for personal sustainability. Ironically, Thoreau himself was predisposed genetically to tuberculosis, and he succumbed to it in middle age; but his soundwalks made a lot of sense (no pun intended) and were, I know, personally sustaining.