We can all relate to the stress we feel when surrounded by anthropogenic noise, such as horns, motors, machinery, etc. Likewise, most of us feel soothed and relaxed when walking through nature. But why? Recent research shows that the quality of sound has a lot to do with it. Sounds that emanate from nature, such as water currents, the murmur of wind in the trees, or the singing of the birds, have a significant impact on feelings of well-being. Rachel T. Buxton et al. (2021) carried out a meta-analysis –a review of the conclusions reached by different studies on the same topic– to demonstrate that listening to birdsong relieves stress, and produces feelings of pleasure or well-being, which directly affects our health.
Two psychological theories draw heavily from the theory of evolution to explain the restorative effects of exposure to nature (including sound). Attention Restoration Theory centers on the ability of nature to replenish our attention through unconscious, cognitive processes. In contrast to the constant fatigue-inducing stimulation in urban environments, nature does not require directed attention and simultaneously elicits pleasure and relaxation. In contrast, Stress Recovery Theory posits that nature may be perceived as less threatening and thus less arousing, leading to recovery from stress through our autonomic response to nature.
Natural soundscapes play a central role in urban sustainability because they offer reduced exposure to noise and its adverse effects (Dzambhov et al. 2014). Natural sounds have also been recognized for their ability to mask noise (Nilsson et al. 2010), to improve perceived park soundscape quality and park experience (Tse and Chi Kwan Chau 2012), to enhance perceptions of the built environment (Hedblom et al. 2014), and to increase capacity for psychological restoration (Payne 2013).
Researchers also evaluated soundscapes across the network of national parks in the United States to facilitate incorporating public health measures into its soundscape management. They examined the distribution of natural sounds in relation to anthropogenic sound at 221 sites across 68 parks. National park soundscapes with little anthropogenic sound and abundant natural sounds occurred at 11.3% of the sites. Parks with high visitation rates and urban park sites had more anthropogenic sound, yet natural sounds associated with health benefits also were frequent at these parks (such as sounds from animals, wind, or water). Their results assert that even in more crowded, urban parks, natural sounds provide important ecosystem services, and parks can bolster public health by highlighting and conserving natural soundscapes.
As the relationship between natural soundscapes and well-being become clearer, the potential use of natural sound collections, such as those at Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library, become ever more vital, not only to the long-term preservation of natural sounds, but as a means of promoting public health.
Buxton, R.T., A.L.Pearson, C. Alloud, K. Fristrup, and G. Wittemyer (2021). A synthesis of health benefits of natural sounds and their distribution in national parks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118(14) e2013097118
Dzhambov, A.M., and D. D. Dimitrova (2014). Urban green spaces’ effectiveness as a psychological buffer for the negative health impact of noise pollution: A systematic review. Noise and Health 16(70): 157–165.
Hedblom, M., E. Heyman, H. Antonsson, and B. Gunnarsson (2014). Bird song diversity influences young people’s appreciation of urban landscapes. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 13: 469–474.
Nilsson, M., J. Alvarsson, M. Rådsten-Ekman, and K. Bolin (2010). Auditory masking of wanted and unwanted sounds in a city park. Noise Control Engineering Journal 58(5): 524–531.
Payne, S.R. (2013). The production of a Perceived Restorativeness Soundscape Scale. Applied Acoustics 74(2): 255–263.
Tse, M.S. and Chi Kwan Chau (2012). Perception of urban park soundscape. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 131(4): 2762–2771.