The howling Arctic winds is a familiar sound to many of us, either by direct experience in everyday life or from the sound design in countless fiction and documentary films that are set in the Arctic and the Antarctic regions. Such sounds might be associated with a setting that includes wild nature where the dangerous cold needs to be escaped, or perhaps the contrary: a more relaxed setting that depicts the taming of nature, sitting inside a warm and comforting “cave,” relaxing and rather enjoying the sounds of the cold winds outside. The following discussion will present how these sounds involve individual differences and ambivalence when commented upon in YouTube commentary fields in connection with the playback of seven selected videos that present such winter winds. You can test your own experience by playing back one of the seven long duration videos that are included in the following discussion.
There is some uncertainty involved in estimating the level of attention that listeners give to the sounds in such a video, and different modes or types of attentiveness are relevant. However, when considering the dynamic qualities of the winter wind sounds, the listening will most likely and realistically reflect a type of “background listening” as described by Barry Truax. According to Truax, this involves a listener who is aware of the relevant sounds and is able to recollect having heard the sounds afterwards but who does not pay any real attention to them during the unfolding of the listening event. Even if the listening experience starts off as an attentive or semi-attentive way of listening (similar to what Truax [2001: 21–22] calls “listening-in-search” and “listening-in-readiness”), the static sonic experience will in these videos most likely motivate the user towards a background listening mode after a while.
Due to the very long durations of the materials presented, the process of listening and the different listening modes and shifts between them will be central in the following discussion. The videos are all between one and nine hours long. The duration is connected to the various intentions that, according to the publishers’ notes, help the listener relax, meditate, sleep, study, block out unwanted noise, or achieve similar calming effects. However, the following will show that the intentions of the publishers and the desired effect on the individual listener will not always be achieved.
A parallel to the role of background music is relevant. People “use music as a background to help them celebrate, relax, clean house, or study,” write music theorists Patricia Campbell and Carol Scott-Kassner. Furthermore, in “most of these instances, the music is a kind of tonal bath that surrounds and washes over them but is not seriously attended to” (Campbell and Scott-Kassner 2010: 223). Campbell and Scott-Kassner describe this as functional listening, in contrast to a more active perceptive listening. And when users play back recorded geophony rather than music, as in this case, the functional use of natural sounds will have similarities to how background music is used.
R. Murray Schafer called attention to background sounds in the 1970s. Here, the sounds of “water, wind, forests, plains, birds, insects and animals” are described as part of “the keynote sounds of a landscape” (Schafer 1994: 9f). Even when such keynote sounds remain in the background of our living environments, they still affect us in powerful ways: “Even though keynote sounds may not always be heard consciously, the fact that they are ubiquitously there suggests the possibility of a deep and pervasive influence on our behavior and moods” (Schafer 1994: 9f). Schafer also proposes that such background sounds may possess archetypal qualities and presents a number of examples that draw attention both to the individual and cultural impacts of sonic environments.
In the following we will, based on the need for precision, rather use the term geophony than keynotes to describe the audio part of the relevant videos. Accordingly, we follow an important taxonomy developed about sonic environments by Bernie Krause (1987). Krause distinguishes between three acoustic sources: geophony (non-biological sounds, such as wind, thunder, rain, snow, ice), biophony (“biological” sounds generated by all organisms except humans) and anthrophony (later referred to as anthropophony by Truax - in both cases referring to sounds generated by humans). He uses this terminology while performing an ecological analysis of environments in nature by recording and analyzing sonic environments at specific locations over time, focusing especially on the different shifts in geophony, biophony, and anthropophony at specific locations. In the cases we present here, however, the recorded geophony does not represent a specific geographical location but has regional connections to the Arctic as well as to the winter season, high mountains, and wilderness in general.
Recorded geophony is made available for listening in numerous ways today, and the seven videos selected for this study are part of a larger body of online videos that present the sounds of ocean waves, rain, rivers, thunder storms, and other non-biological sounds for very long durations with static visuals. These kinds of online videos belong to the broader historical and contemporary phenomenon of listening to recordings of natural environments. In his recent book Hush – Media and Sonic Self-Control, Mack Hagood presents the long history of media technologies that have promised users the ability to achieve a “safe place,” using technology to “fight sound with sound,” similar to the stories of Orpheus in Greek mythology (Hagood 2019: 12). Hagood coins the term “Orphic media” to describe this use of sound and draws upon more than fifty years of historical trajectories, including the listening to LPs with nature sounds in the 1970s up to the current situation, about which he writes:
Generating billions of dollars in revenue, these technologies include not just noise-canceling headphones, but also white noise machines, smartphone apps designed to make a noisy office or bedroom sound like the seashore or a rainy country field, wearable sound generators to suppress the sound of tinnitus, and new in-ear smart devices (‘hearables’) that filter, alter, and hush the sounds of the world. (Hagood 2019:12)
When these sounds are played back, they contribute to creating an individualized auditory experience for the listener, involving what Hagood describes as “sonic self-control.” Other scholars have in turn discussed parallel situations where individuals perform “acoustic cocooning” and create “sensory privacy” (Bijsterveld 2010) or similarly define their “personal sound space” (Flügge 2011).
Today, the growing use of headphones and speaker systems also makes it possible to individualize sonic environments in cars, in working environments, while riding the bus, while outdoors, etc. In our study, based on the user descriptions, we have found that recorded and mediated geophonic sounds are generally played back at a domestic location. The sounds have not been played back as part of a survey set up by the authors but at the user’s own initiative, and our analysis is based on this user-initiated listening and commenting. The large number of available comments in response to the seven videos, in this case 3894 first-level comments, opens up space for discussing questions regarding the experience, such as: How uniform is the experience for the users, and what kinds of variations are reported with regard to motivation, intentions, and result? Do the users express their experience as clearly pleasant or unpleasant, or is the experience connected to a certain ambivalence? Does listening to recorded geophonic sounds involve some of the same “powers” as playing back music or experiencing nature sounds from the physical environment in which the listener is situated?