Sound and the Vibrant Vitality of Embodied Relationality

Listening is immersive. As one begins to practice attentive listening, one begins to notice more and more how sound roots and orients us to a place. For this research group, by listening to an amplified version of our surroundings using a microphone and headphones, a hyper-awareness of that orientation began to emerge.

If we practice this kind of attention [to sound] in different contexts, we become more and more aware of the fields of relationship and interconnection that constitute our world. We also notice how we are ourselves ever-changing streams of sensations, thoughts, memories and feelings interacting with everything that is about us. (Danvers, 2009, p. 190)

Noticing how the confluence of sounds provokes and orients a person to their surroundings, our group reflected on how meaningful an experience it can be to facilitate this practice of aural awareness with a group of students. Deans, Brown, & Dilkes (2005) detail several strategies for working with learners to listen in on the sounds of place and acoustic ecologies.

One aspect of this auditory immersion that can be examined through facilitated listening exercises is the development of a spatial awareness that can connect learners in a profound way to a place, and to a sense of themselves within that place.

While the eye works with a visual cone, the ear perceives everything that is above, below, and all around us. What the ear perceives is thus not the unified and perspective space of the eye, but multidimensional space-time which is dominated by simultaneity and movement. (Ceppi & Zini 1999, p. 92)

When learners engage with the space around them through listening, they can experience a depth of perception that is otherwise absent, particularly in modern urban and suburban landscapes where people train their ears to shut out background noise.

Sound is an expression and gesture of movement, and contained within this movement, if we listen acutely, is an emotion. Aural sensing connects the learner to inner and outer information from the complex living systems within which the researchers and learners are immersed, and which they themselves are co-generating. Often, the first nature sound that students engaged in a listening exercise will hear is the sound of birds. The aural practice of learning bird language demonstrates sound and emotion’s interconnections. “Paying attention to the birds will tell you many things about what’s going on in the world, and about your own state of being” (Starhawk, 2004, p. 88). As educators, if we facilitate a reflective practice of listening, we have found that an internal resilience begins to build in students. From what we observed in modeling reflective practices like those described below, close awareness to sound allows the listener to retain what is passing away, and to shape, in a way, their stream of awareness. What we choose to give our attention to is both powerful and fragile. To this end, we have outlined a few suggested exercises to inspire ways of interacting with sound to help inspire and awaken a sense of wonder and connection to the natural world.

Exercise 1: Soundscaping a Place


  • Microphone
  • Headphones
  • Audio recorder (or phone/device with audio recording app)

Lead the class into a natural setting- even just the schoolyard if that’s what’s available. Wear audio recorders with headphones if possible, if not, have the students carry notebooks to jot down what they hear. If one student carries the microphone, have another one wearing the headphones as you walk together. Let the silence sink in – this should be at least a fifteen-minute slow walk to try to note whatever sounds they can hear.

After the walk, back in the classroom or outside, have a reflection circle, where students share what they heard while walking in silence. If possible, try to draw a sound map of the space you have just walked through. Play back the recording and have the students identify the locations of the different sounds. Mark these sounds on a map.

Exercise 2: A Ceremony of Sound: Rainstick Construction

Originally, rainsticks were built from a dried cactus, with spines that thread into the center of the plant. But students can construct one from cardboard which has a similar effect. According to Laczko (2006) of the Heard Museum, there are accounts of rainsticks originating in a number of different indigenous cultures, including the Cuna of Panama; the Colorado of Ecuador; the Macushí, Uachmiri, and Yauapery of northern Amazonia; and the Huichol of northern Mexico. There is also speculation that the addition of nails or thorns to bring about the sound of a rainstick may have been a practice in West Africa that was brought to Central and South America by enslaved Africans (Laczko, 2006).


  • Rice
  • Cardboard tubing that is solid enough to stand up without bending
  • Toothpicks
  • Nails (to poke holes through the tubing)
  • Duct tape or other thick tape

Using cardboard tubing (paper-towels or toilet paper) about a yard long, tape and seal one end using paper. Use nails to poke into the tube, following the spiral connecting point of the cardboard to make it easier to push through. Pour rice into the tube and seal the top. Experiment using this stick in different acoustic environments, inside, outside, large rooms and small and notice how our environment relates and changes the experience of this listening ceremony.

Exercise 3: Audio Environment Mapping Over Time

Visit one particular place over the course of a year, once a month or more where you can sit for 10-20 minutes of time. Listen and observe how the soundscape changes throughout the seasons. The idea is to build a rapport with this space, whether it be your backyard or near a public fountain. What patterns do you notice? How might you represent the different sounds on a map? What emotions arise in relation to different sounds?

Compose interviews about other people’s experiences with their sense of sound.

Questions for an observation of place using the sense of sound:

  1. What sounds do you hear in your microclimate: School, home, street, public park?
  2. Do you hear birds? Can you identify the type of bird or from where they are singing?
  3. What do the sounds tell you about this particular place?
  4. How do you respond to the sounds? How do they make you feel about this place, yourself?
  5. How do the birds or other sounds respond to your presence?

Personal Reflections on How Sound Influenced Their Sense of Wonder

Educator J. Soderberg:

My forays into nature as a child were often full of bright chatter, the little girls in my scout troop giggling nervously as we navigated past spider webs and stepped gingerly past patches of poison ivy. But as we hiked on, at a certain point a silence would fall over the group, and those brief respites from the continuous internal and external verbosity of our lives were moments I remember as deep and personal, in which the immensity of the ecosystem around me spoke a quiet but constant message of connectedness. The sounds that became easily apparent during those lapses into silence included distant woodpeckers, the rustling of the leaves in the trees by a breeze that itself was somehow audible, creeks gurgling and churning their way downhill and insects buzzing by. And occasionally a larger animal, a rabbit, groundhog or deer as it hurried away from us humans into the wild unseen.

As I think about how the sense of sound can be used to awaken the innate wonder that we all have (or had at one point in our lives) about the natural world that surrounds and supports us, I think about wave patterns surrounding us in the aether, vibrations that echo throughout ecosystems while tiny filaments on tiny leaves pick up the sound and pass along the message to roots and rhizomes and water sources which vibrate along down below. The sounds that surround us in the silence of the woods, if we can re-learn how to listen, are sounds that can return us to a sense of place on this planet. We can learn from teachers like the Huaorani people of the Amazon rainforest who have developed an acute sense of hearing, even at great distances. Sound is everywhere, and our ears in the cities are deafened to the intricacies of it all, as we have become so accustomed to blocking so much of the ‘background noise’ out of our heads. Reawakening our sense of sound provides an opening to the wonders of the world around us.

Educator M. Zimdars:

To feel at home I can escape into the dry backcountry where the purple wild flowers grow across rolling hills of dry grasses; Oh California–you dreamscape of memory. My younger brother and I would go gathering these wild flowers amid the grasses. As soon as you bent down to pick one, you’d disappear from sight. Sometimes I would fully lie down and stare up at that big blue yonder. My sense of play would shift from my eyes to my ears. The grasses waving above me swaying to warm breeze; the birds–gnatcatcher, quail, morning-dove, and the black-birds caw; the trill of that familiar bug whose sight I wouldn’t recognize and whose name I didn’t know, but whose sound was synonymous with this space. A plane would pass overhead, unseen intermittent patterns. The power lines’ incessant humming acted as a compass point orienting my sense of place.

That whole area, except the power lines, are tract-homes now. And returning there, many years later, I feel as though I can’t find my home, that there is no where left to hide. Still, I must try. I close my eyes and let my ears orient me. The birds seem different, the bugs too, but there are still children at play in the streets and in the yards weaving their growth into place beneath the distant hum of power lines. Languages, like geography, evolve – as must the song of soundscapes.

Educator H. Schmidgall:

My sense of sound is most alive while walking in the woods, the crushing of pine cones under my feet, the different songs and calls of birds as I begin the trail, the slow trickling of water as it cascades over rocks, the elegant wisping of leaves in the wind. Recently, while in the woods, the sound of the water invited me to sit on top of a log crossing the stream. While laying on the large, moss covered tree, my attention was quickly drawn to the song of a particular bird. I decided to sing back to its beautiful call. It ceased its song, but after a short break, it continued again with a different pattern. I am not sure what this difference was, but every time I sang, it responded to my sound vibrations and it felt like we were all of a sudden in a woodland duet. It was the first time I recognized a bird’s response to my energy in the forest. I reflected on the idea that we are all interconnected through our consciousness and awareness. My sense of wonder is piqued by how we all subconsciously respond to one another – not only in wild, natural settings, but in urban environments as well.

While living in the city, I have experienced the soothing sounds of bird language as a form of sanctuary. Birds have created a sound for me that brings me back to the calm and grounded feelings I experience while in the woods or at the ocean. The sound of cars, planes, constant buzzing occasionally distracts me and can lead to feelings of isolation. In those moments, I remind myself to come back to the wild, natural, telling songs of the birds and/or other sounds of the environment in which we inhabit. Listening to the birds while walking down the concrete sidewalks has reconnected me to the ecological patterns and rhythms that exist in busy urban areas. The birds of the city, as well as those of the forests, jungles, and sea, have a story to tell about their place and the environment in which they live. Listening to the different calls of the birds brings awareness, mindfulness, and attention to the interconnection we share with other beings, revealing a vast amount of information regarding our places.

Synthesis for the Sense of Sound

These reflections exemplify the immersive quality of sound, and point to how many emotions, memories and connections to the world around us can emerge by simply listening in silence. The activities outlined above can help educators trying to open students up to such experiences. Soundmapping the area, creating sound instruments, journaling, and simply listening deeply can connect learners to a sense of place and a sense of themselves within their environment. As our experiences as educators carrying out these exercises demonstrate, reflecting back on one’s memories of sound in the landscape can bring back a sense of wonder that has, in some cases, been latent or dormant for years.


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