Soundscape Ecologist

Almo Farina Uses Sound to Interpret the Environment.

Most scientists can sense the health of the environment by observing animal behavior, crumbling soil in their hands or breathing the scent of the air.

Almo Farina hears it.

“Nature has a voice,” said the University of Urbino ecology professor and researcher. “To be a friend of nature, you have to communicate with nature. You have to understand the voice of nature.”

Farina places a recording device in a hillside field

Farina places a recording device in a hillside field south of the city of Urbino.

Farina is a founder of the emerging field of soundscape ecology, a science that uses the sounds of an environment to measure the location’s health. Soundscape ecology analyzes the effects of sound on the well-being of animals and people within that ecosystem. It also studies the sounds produced by animals and humans in order to determine the holistic health of the environment.

Farina spent 37 years establishing an impressive career in landscape ecology, which examines the interaction between ecological processes and ecosystems. But six years ago he began dedicating his work to establishing soundscape ecology as a scientific field.

The soundscape of any place, Farina explained, consists of three classifications of sound: biophonies, or non-human animal sounds; geophonies, earth- and weather-related sounds; and anthrophonies, the sounds of human activity.

These auditory cues collectively make up an environment’s soundscape, just as forests, hills, and cities create a specific landscape.

“It’s possible to interpret these sounds in terms of quality of life,” Farina said.

Farina explained that these auditory cues communicate the health or harm of the environment in much the same way as the tone of a human voice indicates the well-being of that person.

When you are happy, your voice is more fresh. When you are tired or annoyed, it changes.

“When you are happy, your voice is more fresh,” he said. “When you are tired or annoyed, it changes.”

Farina applies this same concept to the environment. If an ecosystem suffers from a shortage of food, for example, Farina will notice weaker, less frequent biophonies, as animals enduring a lack of food, shelter or breeding grounds are less capable of reproduction and therefore do not sound mating calls or socialization cues.

Similarly, an increase in anthrophonies typically corresponds with a drop in biophonies. For example, modern agriculture relies on heavy machinery and man-made toxins,which upset natural habitats and reduce biodiversity. Furthermore, mechanical sounds are simply louder than wildlife voices. These factors combine to cause a significant reduction in biophony levels, Farina has found.

Farina checks a recording device

Farina checks a recording device placed in a hay field near the University of Urbino’s scientific campus.

Sixty-three-year-old Farina lives with his family the northern Tuscany town of Fivizzano, but has held a teaching position at the University of Urbino for twelve years. In order to both maintain his roots and expand his career, Farina drives the four-hour route between home and work a couple times each week. His presence in both locations allows him to research the health of the environment in both central Italian regions of Tuscany and le Marche.

While most landscape ecologists examine the environment visually, Farina collects urban and natural sounds around the Italian landscape using a miniature microphone embedded in a pen drive. He has several collection sites across Tuscany and Urbino, including an area near his office at the university’s scientific campus.

The campus is ideally located between busy roadways, dense hillside vegetation, fields of hay and row crops and student housing, providing 45 locations that allow Farina to listen to the full range of the area’s voice.

Farina places the devices by twisting a clothes pin to the top of a thin metal rod, driving the rod into the soil, and lodging the pen drive into the pin. He protects the microphones from the elements with a layer of plastic wrap and marks the contraption with a strip of red-and-white-striped plastic tape.

The rudimentary equipment at each location costs less than ten dollars and compromises the sound quality, but Farina credits these low-cost devices with his ability to extensively study Urbino’s soundscape.

He then analyzes the audio clips using the Acoustic Complexity Index, an algorithm he developed. This allows him to identify the prevalence of a variety of sounds including bird songs, running water, traffic noises, and human voices. Based on the frequency and intensity of these sounds, Farina can determine the health of the surrounding landscape.

Farina packs his pen drive microphones

Farina packs his pen drive microphones into Tupperware boxes for distribution in the research area.

Bird calls make up a significant part of Urbino’s soundscape, but Farina adds that traffic sounds outside of Urbino often overpower biophonies. In the sections of the city where traffic is restricted, geophonies like water splashing in a fountain and anthrophonies like people conversing are more prevalent.

For tourists in Urbino, sound plays a vital, yet often unnoticed, role in their perception of the medieval city. “People expect in old historical areas old sounds,” he said. “You can maintain old buildings, but not old sounds, because the old sounds are the results of animal and human interaction.”

One option city planners and urbanites have to minimize the impact of modern sounds is to create green space in urban areas. “Canopies create reduced noise,” said Farina. In addition, psychological studies have proven that seeing natural vegetation makes anthrophonies more tolerable.

For Farina, the best way to appreciate nature is to listen. Keeping an ear open for a birdsong over the hum of a computer or a fountain splashing over the hum of a lunchtime crowd makes these anthrophonies less stressful.

Soundscape ecologists continue to study the relationship between soundscape and environment health, hoping to ensure that everyone has a chance to converse with nature.



About Kelly Sebetka

As a creative nonfiction writer, Kelly has spent her college career explaining to folks how her work differs from journalism. The Urbino Project was her first experience in photography, videography, and journalism. She never expected to discover that the roots of photojournalism and creative writing are the same: find the human element, cast your subject in an interesting light, tell their story from a unique angle. The Urbino Project has strengthened Kelly’s storytelling skills and increased her photography capabilities beyond knowing how to press the shutter button.