Music and Waves in a Suburban Backyard

I had a hard time figuring out what audio to record for this blog. The concept of soundwaves is very complex, and as a musician, I rarely think of sound from a scientific perspective (except when I’m in physics class). Sound is everywhere, and if you really think about it, there is no such thing as silence. For instance, in John Cage’s famous 4’33”, the performer never touches a single key on the piano, yet the music produced from the piece is different every time. The acoustics of the stage, the coughs, sniffs, and chair squeaking from the audience, or even the humidity of the room can affect how the piece is performed and what it sounds like. There is no sound produced from the pianist playing the piano, but there is still no silence. How do we define sound? Unlike light waves, which are electromagnetic, sound waves are mechanical, meaning that it travels through a medium. According to Merriam-Webster, sound is “a particular auditory impression” or “the sensation perceived by the sense of hearing.” Are sounds that are imperceptible to the human ear still considered sound? If a tree falls in a forest but no one is there to hear, does it still make a sound? As I pondered about this week’s topic, these were the types of questions running through my head. I still don’t have an answer to those questions, but either way I think that there is much to be discovered about the world of sound.

This lecture reminded me of a question discussed in my ethnomusicology class last quarter: what is music? Is speech considered music? Most of the class said no. If the speech is modified until it demonstrates music-like qualities, is it considered music? Most people answered yes (if you are interested, I highly recommend checking out “I am Sitting in a Room” by Alvin Lucier). Are whale class considered music? Most people said no. Is bird song considered music? At this, most people were conflicted – it feels wrong to say that bird song is music but then not consider whale calls music. The point of me bringing up all of these seemingly random questions is to emphasize that the definition of sound, just like the definition of music is arbitrary. Instead, it is more effective to focus on different qualities of sound. The visual aspect of soundwaves can be illustrated on a graph. Based on the graph, you can break down the wavelength and amplitude of the sound. The vibrations of sound themselves make up the pitch. However, sound produced from a voice or instrument is not a single soundwave, but rather a complex layering of many soundwaves that come together to produce a unique timbre (which is how you are able to discern between the sound of a trumpet and a violin, or between the voices of your mom versus that of your dad).

With all of that in mind, I wanted to reflect on the sounds in my suburban backyard. I stood underneath our Chinese Pistache tree and stood there holding my phone, as motionless as possible. Right off the bat, you can hear the sound of the wind and rustling leaves. There’s a dog barking in the distance, and my mom’s footsteps can be heard in the background as she checks on her collection of succulents. A car drives by, and you can tell how close it is to me based on its volume. As it gets further away, the soundwaves produced by the car have more medium to travel through, and thus the amplitude of those soundwaves decreases by the time that it gets to my ears. Throughout the recording, I can also hear the sounds of birds chirping and bugs buzzing. The ability of nature to flourish in a suburban environment is remarkable. Those birds and bugs have learned to live amongst humans, and their songs become intertwined with ours as a result. At one point, my mom started to sing an old Chinese song, and her voice was incorporated into the mixture of natural and manmade sounds of my backyard.

Listening back to the recording, I contemplated a few things. First of all, I think that it’s underappreciated how powerful our ears (and brain) are! The fact that I am still able to discern what is happening in the recording without any visual aid is amazing. We do it without much thought, but our brain is able to interpret the various timbres of different sound sources to paint a picture of what is happening during the audio recording in our minds. Also, I thought about how fascinating it is that we are constantly surrounded by so many waves. At any point in time, we are surrounded by not only different sound waves, but also electromagnetic waves. While I was recording my audio, my ears were absorbing the soundwaves from multiple sources, my eyes were observing the colors of visible light reflected from the environment around me, and my skin was absorbing the UV rays of the sun. Overall, this was a fun, unique experience, and my perspective on sound was significantly broadened.



Performance of 4’33”:

“I am Sitting in a Room”: