Evolution of Soundscapes over the Years

Even though the evolution of living beings has been, more or less, clearly charted out over the great gulfs of time, there are peripheral tracts of historical development that have not been shed “light” on, so to speak. It is easy to ignore that the sounds of our environment have evolved along with us, taking on as dynamic and vibrant forms as the living beings that produced, perceived and reacted to them. In this sense, sound is as alive as the creatures that have walked the face of this planet over the years.

Here, we strive to provide a glimpse into the way in which sound and soundscapes have evolved through the years, including the indelible connection that they have to the evolution and development of living beings in general.

The Primal Soundscape

Before the first living beings scuttled or glided around on Earth’s primal surface, sounds and noises of all kinds existed and thrived. The advent of living things was preceded by soundscapes that were mostly defined by natural phenomena, the patter of raindrops falling on naked rocks only to be consumed by the rumbling sounds of volcanic explosions that filled the air. There was also a slow din, the bubbling of lava as it seeped and spurted out of these primitive cauldrons of life. Amidst the more colossal noises, such as intermittent earthquakes churning the early Earth’s bowels, the vast clambering of rocks down cliffs and mountain surfaces during landslides, there were also the more subtle and soft sounds, such as those of waves lapping a shore, a breeze turning into a whistling wind, and waterfalls meeting with the rocks in an orchestra of tones that still ring in many parts of the world today.

Before life existed lava flows offered a constant din in the natural soundscape

Photo by Brent Keane from Pexels


Nature’s First Musicians Arrive

Some of the first natural sounds to impregnate the primal soundscapes of the Earth were the buzzing of insects and the clicking of their mandibles and serrated limbs. About the same time, fishes began to develop the prototype of the ear in the form of an organ that could sense low-frequency vibrations in the water. As life trudged on, there began the snorts, grunts, huffs and puffs of primitive animals as they obtained the ability to breath and used the same to be as noisy as possible. Some of these animals started to emit hissing sounds as a result of learning that could use this sound to intimidate predators. During the Triassic and Jurassic Period, the natural orchestra inducted many more diverse tonal participants and the soundscape exploded in terms of its vibrancy and variety during this time. Crickets were among the most pronounced sounds in this new sonic arsenal of nature, their chirping quickly proliferating in accordance to their fast reproduction rates. As the ear drum emerged in primordial animals during this time, their ability to create more intricate sounds also developed. The soundscape was markedly distinct during this age, from the roaring, clicking, and boom-filled mating calls of large dinosaurs to courtship songs of turtles and the drumming of stoneflies.

A Primordial Crescendo

The asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs and much of other large animal populations during the time was a crescendo of this natural symphony that spanned the ages. The sounds of the asteroid striking the Earth and the aftermath of the same would have been like nothing ever heard by living beings before. Even though it caused a lot of the life on Earth to end, the planet only became louder and more invigorated in terms of sonic tonalities after the event. After the dinosaurs left the stage, the birds entered and began a performance like no other, unparalleled in terms of the sheer variety of sounds that were emanated by a living species until then. Birdsong has been and still is one of the most articulate and well-arranged forms of vocalizations among all non-human species to have walked (or in this case, flew) on this planet. The quacks, whistles, honks and other sounds of birdsong coincided with the increase in hearing capabilities of fishes that were now able to perceive high frequency sounds, thereby resulting in an increase in soundscape complexity in the ocean. Small rodents and early mammals also joined the orchestra of life during this time, coming up with their own diverse sounds and adding the same to the ever-evolving chirping and birdsong filled soundscapes of the time. The natural sounds also changed considerably during these phases, from the whooshing and whooping of arctic winds coupled with the massive cracking and crushing sounds of majestic glaciers to the steaming jungles that were ripe with large insects, venomous mammals and all manner of birds, all of which had many centuries to practice their vocalizations.

Ancient birds and insects were major contributors to natural soundscapes

Photo by Marcus Lange from Pexels


The Beginnings of Our Story in the Natural Orchestra

Humans joined the orchestra of life about 3 million years ago, equipped with pinnae or external ears that were well adapted to perceive a variety of sounds. They found themselves enveloped by the primal song of predator and prey, a constant din louder than any traffic jam today filled their primitive ears as well as their minds as they began to understand the sources of these myriad sounds. The sheer level of intricacy in terms of the development of the human ear throughout history shows us the importance that sound played in allowing early man to understand and adapt to his environment. Thus began our first addition to the primordial song with the help of grunts, loud recurring ululations, and protolinguistic sounds of all kinds which were repurposed from our ancestors, the apes who had already began to use hoots, whoops, and other forms of calls for their own communicative purposes.

Fact File: did you know that we process sound about 20 to 100 times faster than we process visual information? This means that everything we see is essentially dependent on the perceptual information that we gain from what we hear before the act of seeing.   

Soon enough, as the soundscape of the natural world, pregnant with unknown possibilities, pushed man’s imagination further, the sounds of roaring fires, of implements, of tools and of tribal gatherings began to flood the cacophonous emanations of Earth. As the focus of man shifted from mating, protection from predators, and hunting, to farming and other, safer, social dimensions, language developed and the soundscape was no longer what it once was. Development began to accelerate like never before, boundaries were created between natural and man-made sounds, and thus, began the systematic accretion of nature from the orchestra of life.

The noise of the industrial revolution change the world's soundscapes

The Rise of the Machines

The Industrial Revolution was another major crescendo after the asteroid impact on Earth, rivalling it in its sheer loudness as well as its ability to silence other sounds that had till then played a key role in the environmental tonality. Cars, machines, factories, and myriad other inventions came with their distinct tones as they proliferated with the ferocity and speed of the early insects that grew and thrived in the swamps of adolescent Earth. Large cities arose that were so loud and so distinct from natural environments that they created a whole new soundscape of their own. Living beings born into such soundscapes were once again bombarded with a cacophony that early men confronted from the depths of their cave dwellings. However, this time, the sounds were all explainable and held no degree of mystery and obscure qualities. Nonetheless, the development of man continued at unprecedented rates as art, literature, music, technology, and other domains of modern life were churned out from the new cauldrons of evolutions, encapsulated in sonic cages.

The once fundamental contributors of the orchestra of life, birds and insects, became part-time contributors as all major positions were filled by the inventions and machinations of man. The natural sounds were choked out by unnatural and artificial sounds, monotone and purposeless, without reason and with sheer sonic ruthlessness.

In the midst of this tonal genocide of natural sounds by man-made sounds in our cities, we find ourselves today, contemplating on the irony of the song of our march into the future, embedded with the harsh tones of car horns and the grinding of vast factories.

Even though the sights of today speak of the majesty of human progress, the sounds of the modern world tell a very different story.

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