Between science and art, eco-acoustics: “Animals are not musicians but they can become so to our ears”

GEO.fr: When exactly did we start recording the sounds of nature?

Jérôme Sueur: It started during the Second World War, more or less. At first, it was mainly marine, because we were trying to understand the sounds we heard under the sea – and which potentially corresponded to enemy submarines. What followed was shaped by the equipment and the evolution of recording techniques: it accelerated quite a bit after the war, in the 1950s, with the tape recorder. It was huge and very heavy, but we could start recording outside! This marked the beginning of bioacoustics.

What is bio-acoustics, and what is the difference with eco-acoustics?

Bioacoustics is the study of animal sound behavior. We are trying to find out why and how animals produce sounds, how they receive them, what role these sounds have in their lives… Much more recently, in the 2010s, eco-acoustics was born. This discipline seeks to deal with questions of ecology through sound.

Who were the pioneers of this new discipline?

In fact, there are two worlds that mix: on the one hand, a very scientific world, with universities and research institutes, and then on the other hand, the world of “audio-naturalists”, i.e. that is to say people who will record animals mainly for the aesthetics of the sound, and also to document. In the beginning, many people recorded animals in isolation, for example the blackbird, the toad or the cricket, and nothing else around, a bit like when you do wildlife photography. But Bernie Krause (musician born in 1938 in the United States, Editor’s note) changed that, by recording “soundscapes”. It was he who widened the angle of listening, and in this he is a pioneer.

General knowledge quiz: do you know the name of these animal sounds?

What are soundscapes made of?

In a soundscape, there is what is called “biophony”, the set of sounds produced by non-human animals, “geophony” which is the set of natural sounds but not of biological origin – the sound of rain, wind, flowing water, surf… – and then there is “anthropophony”, all human sounds.

What are the major questions that eco-acoustics researchers want to answer?

There are still many technical questions, in particular on the analysis of the sounds that we collect: how can we correctly estimate the biodiversity in these recordings, and this, in a global way, without going to see in detail what there is in it, but based on the degree of complexity of the sounds – a simple approach, inexpensive in calculation and energy. And now, we are trying to go further and recognize the species present, with artificial intelligence techniques. It’s difficult, because all the sounds are mixed. There are phone apps that try to do this, although we are still far from what is possible with voice or music recognition.

These applications allow you to identify the species of a bird thanks to its song

Can we also estimate the state of environments, ecosystems, using sounds?

There is currently a lot of work on this issue. It can be the coral reef, the tropical forest… It’s about seeing how these ecosystems are disturbed, simply by listening to them.

And what does the sound aspect bring to, in a way, “take the pulse” of an ecosystem?

The advantage of sound is to be able to “observe” in a totally passive way, that is to say that we go into the environment, we put down the sound recorders, and then we leave, without disturbing the animals. . The second important thing is that we don’t just come once or twice a year (to make a visual observation, editor’s note), we record over very long periods. This is called “sampling power”, and it is strong. It also allows you to be “present” in several places at the same time. Finally, we can create historical archives, which we can come back to later. We are still working on sounds that we recorded 10 years ago! Data can also be shared very easily, because everything is digital.

Can we listen to the whole ecosystem, or only a part?

This is another advantage of recording: it is not selective, but on the contrary generalist, that is to say that we record everything that manifests itself acoustically: birds, insects, mammals, or again, with hydrophones (underwater microphones, editor’s note), crustaceans, etc. All this, in the same recording. We have been criticized for only recording species that “sing”. Certainly … but there are many things that “sing”! So we still have a very wide angle of observation.

These singing lemurs have a sense of rhythm similar to humans

Does it make sense to speak of “animal music” (the exhibition to be discovered at the Philharmonie de Paris until January 29, 2023 is entitled “Musicanimale”)?

So that is the big question of the exhibition (laughter). In scientific terms, animals are not musicians. They produce sounds for communication, for exchanging information. To feed, to avoid a predator, to reproduce, to feed their young… In other words, for life and for survival. It’s very functional! Singing requires energy, and it also means taking risks by revealing oneself (to predators). In any case, it is not leisure.

And yet…

And yet, it turns out that these sounds, especially those of birds, we find pleasant, they give us pleasure. They allow you to recharge your batteries, to reconnect with nature. From that moment on, why not consider them as music? Perhaps not music in the usual sense, which is written (in the form of scores, editor’s note) and which follows precepts. Rather than classical music, animal sounds would be closer to “concrete music”, formed of sound units which are not necessarily notes – and which do not always follow a predefined rhythm. As long as these sounds give us the same sensations as music, we can consider them as such! Birds are not “musicians” strictly speaking, but they can become so to our ears.

Precisely, what are the animals that are most often considered as “musicians”?

The most “successful” ones are basically the birds. First, because their songs are accessible, even in town. Very intense, very fluty, rhythmic… and right in our auditory spectrum (the human ear perceives frequencies between 20 Hertz and 20,000 Hz, editor’s note), so we hear them well. And it is true that for the most part, they are harmonic and harmonious! Afterwards, there was a strong craze for whale song, which has a slightly melancholic side. It was in the 70s that this musical value was revealed. It also fits into our auditory spectrum, it’s soft, it’s calm. Often we hear the echo of their habitat. Hence the fact that it is sometimes used for relaxation.

How Humpback Whales Sing the Same Song Thousands of Miles Apart

We’re not talking about music for insects, then?

Well it’s true that the sounds of insects – yet very diverse and very interesting scientifically, just as much as birds or whales – apparently provide less pleasure. Unfortunately, the fall in insect biodiversity is accompanied by a sound impoverishment of forests and especially grasslands. If you went to the mountain pastures and there were no more insect sounds, I think you would feel the difference. And that wouldn’t be fun.

Can we, moreover, document the decline of insects through sounds?

Yes, but it hasn’t been done yet! The heart of the research is done on birds. It’s a real perceptual bias, linked to the fact that we are attracted to these animals. There’s a compassion for birds that clearly doesn’t exist for insects. Most people see them as enemies. An insect kills itself, crushes itself like a spider. If research on insects is very marginal, our team is starting to do it. We installed automatic tape recorders this summer in the Haut-Jura and in the Pyrenees especially for this.

Why do the cicadas hardly ever sing anymore in August?

What results do you expect?

Our tape recorders are still recording, we don’t have the data at all. But in the Jura, it was extremely hot – like everywhere in France this summer – and apparently there is not a single insect left. And so unfortunately, I think we’re going to hear it! It will be sad, but it will allow us to correlate with the weather to determine when it had an effect. Moreover, by transforming the sound into a graphic to visualize it, I hope that it will help us to communicate, to raise awareness. To not just say “I went there and I didn’t see any insects”, but to be able to quantify it. At that time, no one will be able to say that it is marginal. No, this problem exists, and it is serious.

Raising awareness of the decline of biodiversity, is it the role of science, but also that of art?

Precisely, I think that the “Musicanimale” exhibition is a superb opportunity to bring science and art closer together, and to say that artists work to raise awareness as much as we (researchers), or even more. Moreover, in the exhibition, there is not only music, far from it: there are plastic works, videos, and lots of different media. It’s artistic diversity for biological diversity, and that’s quite stimulating! And – I can say this because I was “only” scientific adviser – really successful.

The exhibition “Musicanimale” is to be discovered at the Philharmonie de Paris until January 29, 2023. To find out more, see also “The Sound of the Earth: Radio Chronicles” by Jérôme Sueur, published in March 2022 by Actes Sud.

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Between science and art, eco-acoustics: “Animals are not musicians but they can become so to our ears”


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