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The sense of hearing. An account of an interdisciplinary panel

The Union der deutschen Akademien der Wissenschaften (the association of the German academies of science) has organised a new series of events on the senses at the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, with the support of the Schering Foundation. The series is titled, with tongue in cheek, Sind wir noch bei Sinnen? (“Are we still in our senses?”). As the first event focused on the sense of hearing, I thought it would be interesting to listen to what scholars in other fields had to say on this subject, which is of particular interest to our project.

A screenshot from Annika Kahrs’ installation Infra Voice, 2018.

The panel included a psychologist, Claus-Christian Carbon from Bamberg, an animal physiologist, Eckhard Friauf, from Kaiserslautern, and the Berlin- and Hamburg-based video and performance artist Annika Kahrs. The discussion was moderated by the radio journalist Katja Weber. This blog post does not aim to provide a comprehensive account of the evening but will instead highlight the discussions that directly relate to the “sound of nature”. A more exhaustive account, alas in German, is available as a podcast of Deutschlandfunk Kultur.1

Friauf, an expert in animal communication, emphasized that for most animals, hearing is more critical than sight. Hearing is an alarm sense that developed 450 million years ago to continuously monitor changes in the surrounding world. Because of safety reasons, it is impossible to stop listening, and it works in 360 degrees. Hearing is automatic and gives us an immediate impression of our surroundings. However, as Carbon noted, it is rarely registered as central. Furthermore, individual reactions to sound are culturally determined.

Carbon highlighted that even within the same species, sounds are perceived differently by different individuals. There is no inherently good or bad sound; noise is subjective. However, some patterns in sound perception exist, as Friauf suggested. For example, California mice (Peromyscus californicus) communicate at ultrasonic frequencies, inaudible to humans. Researchers slow down recordings to make these vocalizations audible, revealing that the tone—whether expressing affection or anger—can be understood across species boundaries.2

Kahrs introduced her installation Infra Voice, featuring a video recording of a performer playing an octobass, a large string instrument first built in the 1850s, screened in a zoo’s giraffe enclosure.3 This sparked a discussion about the lowest and loudest tones produced in nature. The octobass produces extremely low tones, and giraffes, long thought to be mute, hum at night almost in the infrasound range. A few other extreme sounds were addressed, such as the fact that blue whales are the loudest animals, reaching 188 dB. Also of interest is the auditive impact of the 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in current Indonesia: it deafened people within a 10-mile radius and was heard up to 3,000 miles away.

The discussion also noted how cultural and social contexts shape the way sounds are valued and interpreted. While bass tones are generally appreciated in Western cultures, they are often negatively perceived in Japan, potentially, according to Carbon, due to their cultural association with the risk of earthquakes. It would be interesting to look into how different perceptions of sound types might influence how various national cultures value certain soundscapes. Further exploration into this , part of which we are doing in our project, will yield fascinating insights into the cultural differences in sound perception.

  1. “Welche Rolle spielen Musik und Klänge in unserem Leben,” Deutschlandfunk Kultur, accessed April 18, 2024,↩︎
  2. Leslie Nemo, “Listen: Mice ‘Argue’ about Infidelity in Ultrasound,” National Geographic, December 6, 2018,↩︎
  3. Infra Voice, Video, 2018,; “Octobass,” in Wikipedia, May 5, 2024,↩︎

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