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Children have a particular talent for focusing on environmental sound, but as we mature we gradually focus more on functional audio like speech, music, and media.
During the first pandemic lockdown when we were mostly confined to our homes, I spent time ‘sound walking’ and listening to our local environment. Enjoying a local wood with our dog Poppy, I noticed a drop in ambient background motorway sound and noticed more birdsong.
Using a portable recording device I made a 20 minute recording. I then used a sound visualisation software (similar to the free Sonic Visualiser) to explore the recording visually.
This is a stereo screen capture showing frequency (low at the bottom, high at the top), time (from left to right) and volume (black means no sound, red means medium volume and yellow means louder). You can really see melody repetition and even the low hum of the motorway.
Listen to my recording and watch the image together here.
Sound is a constant. Even for audio-impaired learners there is often something being perceived and experienced. As we can’t close our ears or focus in the same way that we can with our eyes, our brain acts like a filter.
Start with the following exercises to help pupils to switch their sonic awareness back on. They are inspired by A Sound Education by Murray Schafer and Hildegard Westerkamp’s ‘Soundwalking’ activities.
Head outside and encourage pupils to sit and listen for one minute. Record what you hear on a phone or other device. Listen to the low, middle and high sounds. What did the children hear?
Now do it again, this time listening out for close sounds (like your breathing and clothes), sounds coming from very close by and sounds from further away.
Repeat the exercise for a third time, this time paying attention to rhythmic, repetitive sounds (like birds), long sounds (like a distant motorway) and irregular sounds that vary lots.
Back in the classroom, watch my example again with the children. Can pupils see the bird song in the video and follow it like a musical score?
Choose ten seconds of your audio recording from earlier and see if pupils can draw the sounds, using my film as a guide. If getting outside to record is difficult, Minute of Listening has some free recordings that would be suitable.
Help pupils to create drawings that use lines and spots to show repetition and different pitches. Explain to the children that the pictures can be ‘read’ from left to right, and that the shapes they use should represent the sounds they hear.
If they’re finding it tricky, create a set of paper shapes and encourage children to organise them in a way that feels similar to the soundscape. When creating their drawings to represent their soundscape, encourage children to think about:
Once pupils have created individual scores, invite children to find a way to perform theirs. If children are learning at home at the moment, encourage them to develop a system and undertake their own minute of listening in their environment, then ask them to create their own original score to send to you.
Once the children’s pictures are ready, post them on social media using the hashtag #covidsoundscore and tag me at @lizdobsonuoh, or email them to me at email@example.com – I’d love to see them!
Kate Halsall, creative engagement officer at arts organisation Highlights Rural Touring Scheme tried this project with children in the north east. See two examples below and listen to the accompanying recordings here.
William Graham, Year 2, Whitehaven, Cumbria
I love the frequency matching of the regular digging sound, and the wispy wind background that runs throughout, presented alongside representations of William’s garden.
Bertie Dickinson, Year 2, Tirril, Cumbria
This circular score is stunning, with holes, texture, text and pictures of footsteps and birds.
Search the hashtag #covidsoundscore on Twitter and Facebook for more inspiration.
Dr Elizabeth Dobson is a composer, a director of the Yorkshire Sound Women Network and a senior lecturer in music technology at The University of Huddersfield. Follow her on Twitter at @lizdobsonuoh.
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