Take a Closer Listen

It was a beautiful, sunny day in July, and I was lying in a park in Geneva. My iPod was out of batteries, but I still had my headphones on. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds surrounding me. Having the headphones on somehow gave me the sense that I was more actively listening than I normally would be—as if these environmental sounds were playing on my iPod. A world was slowly unfolding to me. I could hear people talking, cycling, walking, and roller-skating. A dog barking. A truck passing. Behind me, there was the rhythmic sputter of a sprinkler, and kids laughing and fooling around. I could hear a wine bottle being uncorked, and a box of crackers being opened. But most enjoyable were the sparrows, flying around nervously, trying to get hold of bread crumbs. They were flying from tree to tree, from my left ear to my right. A chirp here and there. Sometimes they would burst out in an excited chirping laughter, as if they were watching a ballgame and someone had just scored. It felt like listening to a great radio drama. I just had to do something with this. A project on environmental sound. A book, perhaps?

THE REST OF THIS article appeared as a booklet bound into the print edition of the March/April Orion. Add your favorite sounds in the discussion.

Rutger Zuydervelt is a musician and freelance graphic designer based in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.


  1. …clacking keys forming a sentence on my 1935 L.C. Smith & Corona ribbon-fed, portable typewriter.

  2. The trains passing through Putney, VT, with unique whistle sounds as they pass through the RR crossing. One is “the Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowland,” another is “the Anxious One.” The daily train to and from Washington DC and New York marks the lunch hour and the cocktail hour.
    Freight trains’ passing whistles are sporadic.
    The notes are as distinct as the chickadees’ calls for birdseed in the morning. The raspy one, the confident one, the sweet, timid one.

  3. The squeak of fingers sliding from fret to fret on an acoustic guitar

  4. The sounds of the honey bee. Often I hear them before I see them when they come to check me out as a possible food source. The sound of the hive relaxes me and lifts my spirit.

  5. We, as a culture, need to have a serious “ear cleaning,” in the sense intended by soundscape studies. So many are unaware of how polluted the soundscape is and how much we lose as a result, never mind how stressful ever-present noise is. When I stop to listen attentively, and often when I am only inattentively hearing, I am saddened by the inescapable drone of highways, airplanes, subwoofers, and so on. Hopefully if more people do exercises like this, more will appreciate the soundscape more and abuse it less. I am hopeful that the number of books on noise pollution published in the past couple of years indicate an awakening.

  6. The slow rythmic “Whoosh” from the wings of the black vulture pair taking off close overhead reminds me of a certain night and a certain dance and the satin gown I wore.

  7. From my perch on the sea wall, I hear the bubbling gurgle of waves washing over oyster beds at low tide, an intricate ensemble of wet snaps, crackles, and pops. Water filters through their interlocked shells as the oysters take last gulps of brackish nourishment. With a muted clap, they squeeze shut against sunny air.

  8. On this quiet day, I hear only the occasional seabird cry and the low hum of a boat engine over the sound of waves lapping against the shoreline. I press my face against my warm towel and listen to the tide stumble as it rolls to shore. It plops and trips over shells and crabs, stretching as far as its watery tendrils can reach. Just as it extends to clutch a weathered stone, the tide is dragged back into the channel. It bids adieu in a breathy sigh. Just as it seems to slip past the shore farther out of my sight, the tide coils again, turning and splashing, scrambling once more for the unreachable.

  9. Wind in the Trees

    It starts softly. You feel the hint of a breeze on your skin. The faintest rustling tickles your eardrums. A waxen whisper trickles downward from treetops overhead. The wind picks up; you feel it racing against your skin, tugging wildly at your hair, flooding your ears. You can hear it loudly now, this undulating, musical murmur. The trees call voicelessly to you as their branches wave madly on the draught of the wind. They call to you to stay.

  10. Spurts of water leap into the air. Tuh. Tuh. Tuh. Tuh. Chhhhhh. Tuh. Tuh. Tuh. Tuh. Chhhhhh. The sound of turrets from the black-and-white war films arises. Water shoots into the air. Unnecessary. Jarring. Endless loop. Please shut up. I want to strangle it. But there’s nothing to strangle. I would only become soaked. The firing of water ceases, the spout retreats into the grass, and tranquility is restored on the campus.

  11. Take the top right corner of a book. Place the tip of your right pointer finger at the end of the book and then your right thumb pressed hard on the cover. Now, pull your pointer finger back. Listen and hear fanning: the sound of pages yet to be read.

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