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A Review of Miami University’s Ambient Sound, by Henri Robbins

Miami University's campus consists of all the same ebbs and flows of sound that any other campus does: rustling leaves, passing cars, the murmur of conversation and roar of tuned-out exhausts. There's a rhythm and balance to the noises that fill the space; birds chirp from trees in the spring, tower bells call across campus and students migrate from class to class. But stopping to listen, there's something special about these fluctuations. They are engaging; they compel listening and are well-worth attention. These sounds, and the space around them, exist and persist in a way that is nearly-silent, easy to ignore, yet entirely enthralling once acknowledged.

In looking at the university as a space for sounds to exist, I hope to create a greater awareness for the value of natural spaces and ambient sounds, along with the value of meditative practices and observation throughout our day-to-day lives.

This observation is done through a passive lens, similar to the one used for listening to ambient music. Instead of picking apart individual sounds, it is better to look at how they form and evolve over time, what they indicate and how they sound to a passive, yet attentive, listener.

There's an elegance to Miami's rhythms, a timed dance of ambient sounds that rocks back and forth over the hours, finding itself in consistent structures and patterns. These, in turn, create an encompassing feeling of calm: a sensation that perfectly blends with the greenery of campus spaces and allows a sense of tranquility to wash over.

But what is it that creates this impression?

The typical sources are, of course, omnipresent. Soft footsteps of sneakers blend with more active jogs. The hum of cars cruising down roads fills the lower ranges and sits as a backdrop to the rustling of leaves, which constitutes the highs. Bird calls float through the air, and the bell tower intermittently sprawls across campus.

And with all of that, there are dozens of other sounds that break through: traces of music from just-too-loud headphones, whirring of electric skateboards, the odd sound from a deer, and the bustling of tour groups tinged by both excitement and, admittedly, a bit of anxiety.

To make a more bold statement, even some louder sounds can be appreciated — certain sports cars have surprisingly nice rumbles, and construction sites are often the source of unexpected metronomes that can help to stabilize what would be a space in disarray.

Yet, often, it feels there are discordant notes in the composition — a diesel truck that impatiently revs at a crosswalk; a gaggle of frat members whose jeers and japes cut through the soft murmurs of insulated conversation; religious fanatics and conspiracy theorists who spread loud objections through a neutral, relaxed environment.

There seems to be a lack of respect for the common place, a lack of consideration for those going about their day, for the sanctity of quiet and of contemplation. Because of this, it becomes increasingly obvious why many choose to wear headphones and block out the sounds of their day-to-day lives: The world, sonically, can be deeply inhospitable. Our ears are under constant assault, and it would seem the only real solution to this is a rejection of natural sounds as a whole. We're forced to throw out the baby with the bathwater, in a sense.

But because of this, it becomes all the more important to appreciate these spaces when we can. Natural sounds are becoming endangered, covered up by the artificial noise of the post-digitization world. It is harder to engage with those around us and to immerse ourselves into a world that tells us to stay separate from one another.

Ignoring the passive sounds of the world will push the world to be louder and less enjoyable, and it will push us further away from reality and into fake digital soundscapes. And as wonderful as music is, I don’t think anybody wants that.

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