SFU professor explores sound in CBC documentary

Barry Truax has been in SFU’s Department of Communications since 1973. - Photo courtesy of CBC

SFU Communications professor and renowned composer Barry Truax is one of the many experts featured in the upcoming documentary, Sonic Magic: The Wonder and Science of Sound, produced by CBC’s The Nature of Things, which will air on November 12.

The documentary was shot around the world and explores the effects sound can have on people’s well-being, the use of sound in medical treatment for cancer and Alzheimer’s, as well as how sound affects how public spaces are experienced. Currently working in Berlin, Truax sat down for a Skype interview with The Peak to talk about his involvement with the the documentary.

The Peak: Could you tell our readers about your research that was featured in the documentary?

Barry Truax: Well, this is definitely what we would call soundscape research or soundscape analysis, which we have been doing in the School of Communication at SFU for the entire time I’ve been there, which is over 40 years.

Basically, it’s about the science of sound. And of course they are popularizing it with what they call “Sonic Magic” [. . .] but it really has a lot serious science in it. [. . .] Sound as an environmental aspect is included here and we’ve drawn on the World Soundscape Project’s heritage.

In particular, one of the main sequences that they based in Vancouver focused on the Holy Rosary Cathedral bells downtown because it’s just a focal point. [. . .] It was documented by our project back in 1973 with what was called the Vancouver soundscape as a significant ‘sound mark’ of Vancouver.

P: For our readers who don’t know, can you explain what exactly a soundscape is and why it’s important?

BT: Well, it’s the acoustic environment that we live in all the time, and we’ve always put the emphasis in the School of Communication — on the way it’s perceived and understood by people as opposed to for instance how an acoustic engineer would simply just measure it as an objective fact.

It’s important because it affects the quality of life that everyone has 24/7. People use sound, or ignore sound, or are exploited by sound, or rely on sound as part of their daily life and it’s important as a quality of life issue.

P: Referring to quality of life: a lot of the research in this documentary is about how sound can be used for medical purposes. Could you talk about the other ways sound improves quality of life?

BT: We [at the School of Communications] started by simply emphasizing listening and so instead of telling people what’s good and bad, we try to make them more aware of it [themselves] by just basically starting to listen and pay attention, and evaluate and make choices in their lives.

Instead of just saying, ‘Oh this noise is bad for you,’ which it is, and, ‘it’s a stressor on you’. . . And particularly for students, I can argue that it is actually affecting your grades.

If you live in a cheap apartment next to a highway and you can’t sleep at night and you’re subjected to noise through most of your waking hours, this is going to have an effect on your academic life. [. . .] There [are] just so many ways in which sound affects us 24/7, both positively and negatively, and we want to emphasize the positive and have people become aware and make choices for themselves.