The Sound of Schools: to Catch the Light

An article on* by Brandon Keim, “Decoding Nature’s Soundtrack,” introduces us to a fascinating new area of ecological study called biophony—the soundscapes of living organisms. Bernie Krause introduced scientists to the field through his recordings of ecosystems.

You can listen to one of Krause’s soothing recordings as you read this post:

In each spectrogram, Krause points something out: No matter how sonically dense they become, sounds don’t tend to overlap. Each animal occupies a unique frequency bandwidth, fitting into available auditory space like pieces in an exquisitely precise puzzle. It’s a simple but striking phenomenon, and Krause was the first to notice it. He named it biophony, the sound of living organisms, and to him it wasn’t merely aesthetic. It signified a coevolution of species across deep biological time and in a particular place. As life becomes richer, the symphony’s players find a sonic niche to play without interference.

“The biophony is the pure expression of life, of the given organisms in a habitat,” he says. “When you’re in a healthy habitat, all the species are able to find bandwidth where their voices fit.” He puts an ancient Borneo rain forest onto the speakers. At the top of the spectrogram are bats, their echolocation a bare hint of a sound to human ears; below them are cicadas, a plenitude of insects, one chestnut-winged babbler and nightjars and the booms of gibbons, each in its own place [bold added].

The mathematically spaced variation of leaves to capture the light.

Diversity & Structure

This passage struck me because it connects to a quality I love observing in nature—the way leaves so economically layer, space, and position themselves so as to maximize the capturing of sunlight. They don’t overzealously overlap so much as lushly occupy niches. How beautiful that this same vibrant variation may occur in the sounds of living organisms.

This suggests two ecological principles that also make sense in terms of a school ecosystem. Healthy ecosystems can be said to have these two main qualities: they are diverse, and they are structured.

One area of biophony research is to test if the health of an ecosystem can be measured by its sound. This area holds promise, though there’s not yet enough research to apply it.

Imagine if we could measure the health of a school ecosystem via sound! Though the so-called Losado ratio of positive to negative language has been debunked, I imagine that the sound of a healthy school would trend towards greater positive language use. I also think that you’d hear greater instances of the use of precise academic language.

Rapacity Results in Silence

Another interesting—and disquieting—facet of biophony research is the detrimental impact of human activity on natural soundscapes.

When the patterns of birdsong in those forests are analyzed and turned into mathematical measures of complexity, says Pieretti, the symphonies of communities subject to road-building and intrusion indeed seem to be less structured. Birds call louder and repeat themselves, perhaps to be heard above vehicular din; there’s more noise, but not more information [bold added].

More noise, but not more information. Again, think about a school in which the conditions are toxic. There’s less structure. You’ll hear kids bullying one another in the hallways and classrooms. You’ll hear adults complaining in the teacher’s lounge and office.

Let’s continue with the metaphor. Think of this healthy ecosystem that is both structured and diverse, then think about the policy and political clime of public education. Then think of the voices of parents, children, and teachers being drowned out and silenced.

Although sound indexes of ecological health may be years away, pending rigorous testing, calibration, and codification, Krause says he doesn’t need to wait for the results. He estimates that nearly half of the habitats he’s recorded are now compromised or rendered silent, primarily by human development and insatiable appetites that relegate most non-human interests to irrelevance. Krause requires no scientifically validated tools to hear that feedback. “If you know how to listen to it, then it’s really clear what’s happening,” he says. “As the natural world becomes more silent over time, the question is: Is that what we want?” [bold added]

Indeed. As we attempt to shape school systems into the ideal image of what we value, what other voices do we attempt to silence? And is their silence really what we want?

Barrenness is the end result of a lack of diversity and structure. We all want to catch a piece of the light.

Perhaps we need a new area of study. Eduphony. You heard it hear here first, folks.


* I find the pieces put out by so fascinating that I’ve subscribed to their print magazine—something I haven’t done for any other publication in years. I’m looking for an education research journal to subscribe to, but haven’t yet found one I find compelling (if you have any suggestions, especially one on special education, please let me know).

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