John Fisher

“What the Hills Are Alive With:

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


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

          a.       The are important enough to be part of the defense of nature based on aesthetic grounds

2.       Soundscape is the object: What we should appreciate when we appreciate nature’s sounds is a “soundscape” (the ensemble of natural sounds) and not individual sounds or kinds of sounds (elk’s bugle)


3.       People differ in their aesthetic response to natural sounds

          a.       Coo-coo of doves

                    i.        Soothing and harmonious (to one person)

                    ii.       Insistently obtrusive (to another)

          b.       John Cage: “what is mor 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”

          c.       When people move from rural areas to the city they find the sounds of nature more benign

4.       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 worth 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.

5.       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; if we make an aesthetic judgment, we ought to demand that others agree with it (if they are appropriately placed perceives)


6.       False to assume that agreement follows from guidance by the object

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

7.       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

8.       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

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

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


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

10.     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.       Bor by a creator’s intentions.

11.     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

12.     With nature do not have such sound event packages

13.     Framing natural sounds is partially arbitrary

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

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

14.     Temporal framing problem: When to begin and when to end? How long to listen? (For repetition)

          a.       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


15.     For frames to get an objective status, need conventions for listening to nature sounds (not just typical or understandable ways of listening)

          a.       We have no such conventions in our society

16.     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


17.     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)


18.     Unlike music, there is no nature sound culture

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

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


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


20.     Relativising our aesthetic judgments to particular sound events, framed a particular way won’t work to secure objectivity because there are a plurality of ways of listening to natural sounds

          a.       Idea he rejects is objectivity relativized to particular act of framing

                    i.        Anyone who listens to that sound event, in that situation with the same attention would agree about how it sounded

          b.       But there is no way to rule out plurality of ways of listening

21.     Different cultures listen to sounds in different ways

22.     There are multiple relations and strictures we might hear and all are equally legitimate


23.     Limits on relativism of natural sounds for Fisher

          a.       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)

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



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

26.     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

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

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

28.     This gives special freedom to listen to natural sounds

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

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

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