Our response to sound and noise are influenced heavily by the psychological associations we have with them. Hospitals and their internal soundscapes obviously carry very negative connotations and in the case of young children these negative associations can lead to increased levels of distress and fear. However the reverse of this is also true, certain sounds can have very positive associations and the effect of listening to these sounds can be very positive and powerful.
Several weeks ago, I was walking down the central corridor of Liverpool’s Alder Hey children’s hospital when I became aware of the sound of birdsong. As I continued down I could hear quite clearly the sound of a single blackbird gracefully chirping through the din of the chaotic hospital. As I focused on the sound I found that it brought with it a sense of calm and I begun to lose the feeling of unease that I tend to experience inside hospitals. However, there was no sign of this little bird or any other wildlife inside the hospital, save from the colourful murals adorned across the corridor walls. I quickly realised that what I was listening to was a very special sound installation; playing out the wonderful recordings made by BAFTA award winning sound artist Chris Watson.
I’d come to Alder Hey specifically to talk with their Arts Coordinator Vicky Charnock to find out how the hospital had been experimenting with sound to improve the experiences of their young patients. I also got chance to speak with Chris Watson, the creative talent behind the installation and he explained to me why he chose to bring the sounds of a local park within the walls of this hospital.
The Dawn Chorus installation forms part of the larger Sonicstreams project which is a creative collaboration between Alder Hey and the Foundation for Arts and Creative Technology (FACT); the project aims to creatively explore the impact of sound on the human body.
In this Episode I visit Dr Kate Jones at the Zoological Society of London to find out about a bat call reference library they’re developing called ‘Echobank’ which is being used in conjunction with the iBats monitoring program. Scientists at the Zoological Society of London are using Echobank to teach a neural network to identify specific bat species from the acoustic properties of their calls.
Although this may sound pretty niche, it’s really cool stuff because the technology has much wider applications. Firstly the team are using it in combination with a smart phone app which can be used by anyone to take bat call recordings. In doing this the team hope to collect global distribution data for bat populations, which Dr Jones is hoping to use to determine whether bats can be used as a ‘heart monitor’ for the state of the environment. As bats represent one fifth of all mammalian species and exist in a huge range of habitats (from your local park to the tropics), changes in their global distribution could be used to monitor the impact of climate change on the natural world.
Secondly, the team are doing a lot of really important science engagement, working with ‘citizen science’ networks across Europe to gather data on bat populations. The team have been helping groups across Europe to develop and carry out their own monitoring programs, which feed data back to the iBats program. What’s great about this work is that it’s not only efficiently collecting distribution data, but also getting people interested in the state of their local environment. Standardisation is obviously an important factor when collecting data from multiple sources and with this in mind the team have developed the smartphone apps which can be used easily to take recordings and GPS data.
Finally (and what really excited me) was the suggestion that this ‘digital infrastructure’ could one day be adapted to identify any sound producing species from a recording taken on a smartphone. So imagine going out to your local park, taking a recording of a bird on your iPhone and getting probability results back on the identification of the species!