John Fisher

“What the Hills Are Alive With:

In Defense of the Sounds of Nature” (JACC 1998)


1.      Main purpose/point of paper

         a.      Sounds of nature are aesthetically rich, important, and aes valuable

                   i.       They are important enough to be part of the defense of nature based on aesthetic grounds

         b.      Although they lack dimensions of objectivity art possesses, the relative freedom in nature appreciation is compatible with responsible criticism and discourse about aes of nature


2.      Soundscape is the appropriate (or primary) object:

         a.      Object of appreciation is a soundscape, not individual sounds

                   i.       What we should appreciate when we appreciate nature’s sounds is a “soundscape” (the ensemble of natural sounds) and not individual sounds (the bugling elk) nor kinds of sounds (bird or cardinal calls)

         b.      Argument: Because aes of nature should be about our aesthetic experience of nature and we do not experience these sounds in isolation from the soundscape

                   i.       Similar move as Carlson’s rejection of the isolated object model

         c.      Also doesn’t make a lot of sense for many natural kinds to ask what they sound like:

                   i.       What is sound of wind? (well depends on what it is blowing against)

                   ii.      What is the sound of waves (well depends where breaking)

         d.      Consider:

                   i.       Does it not make sense to consider sounds specific animals make and not just how they sound on one occasion with all the other sounds

                   ii.      Note he is proposing some norms for appreciating nature’s sounds


3.      That we commonly ignore sounds of nature does not show that such sounds are not aesthetically valuable

         a.      We have developed an inattentive behavior toward environmental sounds in urban setting

                   i.       Because many are irritating

                   ii.      Only pay attention to them when interfere with talking or listening to music

         b.      Native peoples pay attention to and enjoy sounds in their environment and we can too

4.      Mistake to think only musical sounds give aes pleasure and that env sounds can’t or don’t


5.      Rejects idea that natural sounds too trivial, changeable, unimportant to be an important part of an aesthetic defense of nature

         a.      That sounds are changeable and ephemeral is also true of the visual appearance of a landscape.

         b.      Soundscape of an unit of land will be an important part of its aesthetic value

         c.      Consider National Park policies that prohibit airplane crossing so as to preserve “silence” (here)


6.      If aesthetics requires objectivity (“acts of true aes appreciation must be governed by conventions of objectivity”) and nature’s sounds lack that, then there is no aesthetic worth in nature’s sounds

         a.      Idea is that taste of ice cream (chocolate better than vanilla) is not an objective matter so it is not a question of aesthetics

         b.      “Resists claim that to be an aes response something must be modeled on objective judgments of art”

7.      Non-agreement on sounds of nature

         a.      People differ in their aesthetic response to natural sounds

                   i.       Coo-coo of doves

                            (1)    Soothing and harmonious (to one person)

                            (2)    Insistently obtrusive (to another)

                   ii.      John Cage: “what is more angry than the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder? These responses to nature are mine and will not necessarily correspond to another’s”

                   iii.     Cultural relativity of appreciation of nature’s sounds

                            (1)    When people move from rural areas to the city they find the sounds of nature more benign

                            (2)    Jamaicans disliked the sounds of hooting owls, croaking frogs, toads an lizards

8.      Appreciation of sounds of nature do not measure up to requirements of objectivity

         a.      But that does not mean they fail to be aesthetic or worthy of aesthetic attention

         b.      He rejects Carlson’s implicit assumption/claim that to be aesthetic, a response must be modeled on objective judgments in art


9.      Two types of objectivity

         a.      Guidance by object requirement

                   i.       Aesthetic responses/judgments need to be guided by the object and its features

                   ii.      Fisher accepts this

         b.      Agreement requirement (universality requirement)

                   i.       Aesthetic judgments should be potentially universalizable (like our epistemic judgments)

                   ii.      If we make an aesthetic judgment, we ought to demand that others agree with it (if they are appropriately placed perceivers)

                   iii.     Fisher rejects this

10.    False to assume that agreement follows from guidance by the object, for latter under-determines former

         a.      In both art and nature, aesthetic responses/judgments under-determined by characteristics of the object

11.    Agreement on “Tetons are majestic” results from it being a cliched and paradigmatic assertion that teaches us what majestic means

         a.      Most non-stereotyped aes responses not going to be so obvious/universal/agreed upon

12.    Art judgements are relative so some extent

         a.      Notorious that critical judgments in the arts are disputable

         b.      Judgments can be guided by the object and still disagree, because the object’s features are not sufficient to determine only one appropriate judgment

13.    This does not mean that any critical or interpretative judgment about art (and about nature?) is properly assertable

                   i.       Those not guided by the object are not

                   ii.      Rejects anything goes

14.    Does mean that even in art one can have judgments that are aesthetic and not universal

         a.      So even though judgments about natural sounds are not universal, this does not prevent them from being aesthetic

         b.      “Although the agreement requirement may specify a desirable property of some aes judgments, it is not a necessary condition for appreciation to be aesthetic”

         c.      “Different acts of attention to the perceptual qualities of same complex whole could lead to different sorts of aes gratification or note at all”

15.    Fisher goes on to show how different acts of framing and ways of listening lead to non-agreement...


16.    Appreciation of natural sounds are far more under-determined than are musical sounds

17.    What you listen to and how long you listen are not dictated

         a.      By the sounds themselves

         b.      By conventions for listening to natural sounds

         c.      Nor by a creator’s intentions

         d.      I though he argued at beginning that object is the soundscape?

18.    With music we have conventions for appreciating it

         a.      Music produced in integrated whole units by intentions of composer

         b.      Clear boundaries around musical units that exclude ambient/environmental sounds

19.    With nature do not have such sound event packages

20.    Framing natural sounds is partially arbitrary (even if seems natural in one respect or another)

         a.      Framing is more significant a problem for sounds than for sights.

         b.      Listen to the birds, or wind in trees, or ventilator fans, buzz of insects

                   i.       Suppose you are sitting in a hot tub in a city in the Arizona desert listening to the sounds around you. Do you just listen to the Western Warblers and the wind in the fruit and palm trees or do you (should you) notice the sounds of the hot tub jets and the popping bubbles making a pleasant hissing on the water? Do you add or ignore the sounds of ventilator fan spinning hot air from attics and occasional jet planes overhead? At Niagara Falls do I strain to hear birds in the forest over the constant roar of the water? In the Tuscan countryside do I ignore the high pitched whining of mosquitoes? Shall! just focus on the loons from across the lake in Minnesota or shall I strain to hear others from more distant parts, and do they go together with the chattering of squirrels and the buzzing of flies?

         c.      Nature does not dictate an intrinsically correct way to frame sounds (what to foreground and what to background) like composer does

21.    Temporal framing problem:

         a.      When to begin and when to end? How long to listen? (For repetition)

         b.      Example: Silence of wind ceasing and sounds during this interlude only striking if we had been listening to sound of wind beforehand for quite sometime

         c.      Way of framing here might be “natural” but that does not mean it is universal nor that it was dictated by intrinsic nature of sound events themselves

                   i.       Quiet night: Wolf howling event. Seems to me that temporal framing of even dictated by nature of sounds themselves; if listen to only first wolf and not pack together or other wolves answering, you’ve missed something, like only listening to first movement in a symphony

22.    For frames to get a status that makes my judgments objective need conventions for listening to nature sounds

         a.      Not just typical or understandable ways of listening

         b.      We have no such conventions in our society


23.    Fisher rejects Carlson’s claim that knowledge of sounds themselves will give us the appropriate boundaries of appreciation and foci of aesthetic significance and relevant ways of appreciating (FN 31)

         a.      Knowledge will affect our experience and bring out features missed but it can’t dictate frame or significance

24.    Consider: Noel Carroll’s natural frames?


25.    Uniqueness of natural sound events is another reason to doubt we have conventions for objective framing of sound events

         a.      Music is repeatable, many performances of same piece over time

         b.      This allows conventions to arise due to repeatable encounters with same sounds

         c.      But with natural sounds, though we hear the same bird call or elk bugle, we do not repeatedly hear sound events: this bird calling on this hill in this weather on this morning....

         d.      It is doubtful we could establish conventions for how to frame such sounds even if we wanted to. (174)

         e.      This assumes it is sound events as a whole that we appreciate

         f.       Why not just appreciate the cardinal’s call (another)? Or the elk’s bugle. Or the call of a loon (another)

                   i.       These are not unique


26.    Unlike music, there is no nature sound culture

         a.      Sounds of nature not composed, performed, notated, studied or taught

                   i.       Lots of folks study bird sounds

         b.      No set of conventions that determine significant relations to sounds of nature

27.    Appreciation of natural sound events not governed by conventions that organize a grouping of sounds into a salient whole (as with music)


28.    Objectivity (agreement) can’t be secured by relativising to a certain frame

29.    Because there are a plurality of ways of listening to natural sounds

         a.      Relativising our aesthetic judgments to particular sound events, framed a particular way, won’t work to secure objectivity

         b.      Because there are different ways of listening

         c.      It is not true that anyone who listens to that sound event, in that situation, with the same attention, would agree about how it sounded

         d.      For there is no way to rule out plurality of ways of listening

30.    There are multiple relations and structures we might hear and all are equally legitimate

31.    Different cultures listen to sounds in different ways

32.    Example: “In Indian music one does not concentrate on melodies but rather on the drone in order to hear melodies as through a veil”


33.    Limits on relativism of natural sounds for Fisher

         a.      “There are few constraints on appreciation of natural sound”

                   i.       It follows that there are some

         b.      Not saying all sounds events of equal aesthetic value

                   i.       He argues in another paper that we value natural sounds more greatly than sounds of culture (excluding music)

         c.      Not claiming anyway to listen to nature’s sounds is okay

                   i.       It is a mistake to listen to nature in the way we listen to music as expressing emotions or symbolizing ideas



35.    Few constraints on appreciating natural sounds, even with guidance by object

36.    Such freedom is disquieting and may appear to make responsible criticism and discourse impossible

         a.      But it does not

         b.      Given our ability to discuss natural sounds it does not have this devastating effect

                   i.       Walton’s view that aes judge about nature are relative to way perceiver happens to perceive nature, allows for communication between similarly placed listeners

         c.      But talking about natural sounds not the same as existence of responsible criticism

37.    People who listen to natural sounds are free of criteria that guide music appreciation and rule out many ways of listening

38.    This gives special freedom to listen to natural sounds

39.    In listening to natural sounds, we must give up much of universality we experience in aes appreciation of art

40.    But this is balanced by enlivening effect of subjective freedom can have on our auditory imagination

41.    Nature’s sounds merit serious aesthetic attention, both theoretical and experientially