What is Soundscape Literacy?

// late 2020 //

I know literacy is a word that is generally meant for language… But I think we can apply it to other abilities too.

Literacy is the ability to read things that are written.

So if we’re going to talk about soundscape literacy (as distinct from deep listening), we need to dig into the way we’re using that word. So let’s clean up the qualifiers and get to its root.

Literacy is the ability to read things (that are written).

Soundscapes aren’t written. But maybe they can be read! You can read a crime scene. Detectives do it all the time… And there’s a learned faculty for that kind of awareness. You can definitely be in a crime scene and not be thinking about it the way that a detective would be. That could be “crime scene literacy” which is probably an extension of “situational awareness” - it’s something that can probably be taught. Think, “children are probably less situationally aware.” Anyway, we can call Sherlock Holmes “situationally literate” but not necessarily “emotionally literate” - like there are people who experience emotions, but might not be able to word them, there are people who hear things, but might not be able to word them.

You can be in a space, be hearing the sounds, but maybe you haven’t been taught yet how to read the sounds.

Soundscape literacy is the ability to read environments/cities/buildings/conversations/music - things that are written in sound. An ability to not just hear the sounds, but process them in the way that someone processes those little markings on a page that are meant to mimic spoken language. We hear sounds, but there’s also scope to read, write, and understand in that different way, too.

Being in a space is maybe like listening to someone speak. It could be in a language you don’t speak… But let’s say it is a language you speak - you're definitely processing the things that help you understand what they're saying, things like syntax, vocabulary. But you're also getting tone of voice, their accent, clues to their feelings about the subject, whether it's a joke or not. Things that come through regardless of your understanding of the language. Experiencing what they’re saying in person is actually vastly different than if you were to read a transcript of the conversation. I think that’s why podcasts are maybe so valuable - they compliment articles. Maybe like news radio versus newspapers.

Using the term “literacy” brings along with it some connotations - things about “language is absorbed, literacy is taught,” even though thats kind of black and white. But it shows that deep listening has value like reading. There is maybe a prime “language” to listening, which, for the conservative definition of literacy is usually "heard language." For the deaf I think there’s definitely an analogy in sign language with the importance of facial expressions and body language.

So how does this extend to soundscapes? Spatial recognition? Field recording?

Part of it comes from our evolution as a species. We instinctually scan a room when we walk in - I bet the same thing happens with sound. Probably as a way to locate predators. I know that birdsong is calming because when birds go silent, it's a signal that they're worried about a predator - it's something our ancestors picked up on and learned to listen for.

Listening is about allowing all the many different sounds around us in, noticing them, where they're coming from - it feels meditative, to me. Soundscape literacy speaks to what the mind does with those sounds. Answering questions in a split second, things like, "how close is the freeway? the river?" or "how big is this room? where is the best place to sit?" or "how hard is it raining outside? do I need to grab a coat?" - developing soundscape literacy feels active, it suggests involvement in your surroundings.

Literacy is just as much about writing as it is about reading!