The world’s sounds: muezzins, halyards, woodpeckers


By Caitlin Kelly

Close your eyes.

And just…listen.

Birdsong (which ones?)


Someone’s footsteps (what sort of shoes are they wearing? Are they young or old? Thin or heavy?)

The distant echoing whistle of a passing train.

The hum of the refrigerator.

Your dog’s whimper as he naps.

Your children, laughing (or crying!)

Blessed with sight, we often forget how much we hear, or could hear, in any given moment if we stopped to pay closer attention. If you live in a noisy, crowded city — car horns, engine sounds, cellphones, sirens, the beeping of a truck backing up, bus brakes sighing — it seems counter-intuitive as we we’re always trying to block it out.

But stand somewhere quieter, eyes closed, and you’ll be amazed how many sounds you’ll pick up.


Some of my favorites include:

Street singers, walking and clapping their hands, in Andalusia

The clanging of metal halyards against metal sailboat masts

A bird in Kenya whose call sounded just like a beeping alarm clock

The muezzin’s chant from a tower in Istanbul

The chatter of coins dropped onto a small china dish, change returned in Paris

The click of my husband’s key in the front door as he returns from  work


Wind soughing through tall, fragrant pines

The gurgle of a canoe paddle pushing water

The specific thwack of  a well-hit golf ball

The specific clang of a well-hit softball off of a metal bat

A coyote howling beneath our (suburban New York!?) windows

A baby’s giggle

The crunching of car tires on gravel

Tea being poured into a bone china teacup

A woodpecker

Jet engines revving — a trip about to start!

That odd sing-song-y noise before the subway doors close in Paris

I love this recent book idea, a sort of catalog of global sounds:

But you do not need to be an acoustic engineer armed with a stun gun and sophisticated measuring tools to be awed by the singing sands of the Kelso Dunes in the Californian Mojave Desert (caused by an avalanche of very dry sand down a steep slope) or by the cascading roar of the sea inside Fingal’s Cave in Scotland, which inspired Mendelssohn to compose his “Hebrides” overture…

Mr. Cox also plays with, and explains, the acoustics of whispering galleries like that of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London or the one by the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, in which sound is guided along the tiled archway.

And I wish I were in England at the end of May for this amazing outdoor concert.

(I added the bold/italics as I think this is so cool!)

Two pioneering composers are turning forest plants and animals of Thetford Forest into virtual conductors this summer, creating ‘Living Symphonies’ where visitors will be able to hear the sounds of the forest in musical form from 24-30 May.

The artists, James Bulley and Daniel Jones, have been working with Forestry Commission ecologists to map the true extent of woodland wildlife and plantlife in one of the East’s most beautiful forests, reacting to all that is alive within a forest. The composers have then created a musical motif for each organism living in the forest, then, with speakers hidden amongst the trees, digital technology generates the full symphony in real time – when an animal moves, so does their music.

If a flock of birds moves across the canopy the visitor may hear a cluster of clarinets move with them. When rain causes some animals to emerge while others hide away; it will also trigger moisture sensors causing their musical counterparts to do the same. The animals and plants become the conductors.

Together they hope to create a remarkable new way for audiences to explore forests with their ears as well as their eyes. As the visitor explores the music they will also become aware of just how complex an eco-system a forest is.

I really like it when songs include sounds — whether the croaking in Frogs’ Lullaby by Canadian band Blue Rodeo or the rattling and squeaking of a carriage ride in Katell Keinig’s Waiting for You to Smile or the match striking at the very end of Shawn Colvin’s murder ballad Sunny Came Home or the whining jet plane sounds at the start of the Beatles’ 1968 classic, Back in the USSR.

What sounds do you love to hear?

34 thoughts on “The world’s sounds: muezzins, halyards, woodpeckers

  1. Hi Caitlin, The sounds I love to hear are the sounds I’m listening to right now as I sit here in Paris and read your blog. Today’s a holiday and I’m at home listening to a Bach piano concerto on the hifi. It’s pouring with rain outside and I love the sound of it splashing onto the street and rooftops. I can even hear the faint gurgle of water as it sluices down both sides of my street and into the gutter.

    I love the sound of my espresso machine flowing out my next fix. And I love the sound of silence during a holiday in France when everything is closed and there’s a lot less traffic on my street.

    bonne journée, Juliet

  2. Wonderful post. I will second the Adhan, sung by the muezzins in Istanbul. That was perhaps the first sound that I can think of hearing that was truly transcendent to me–meaning–that I didn’t need to be a Muslim to appreciate the way the Adhan set the day, from the early morning, low chat to the melismatic midday chant, to the quieting dawn chant. Each call was different, but the words are the same. And depending on where you are in Istanbul, you hear not one muezzin, but hundreds, all at the same time.

    Unrelated, I’d add a rooster’s morning crow. I have had neighbors in suburban DC, college towns and farm country who have kept chickens, and the morning cock-a-doodle doo is a welcome natural alarm clock, well, as welcoming as an alarm clock can be. Even the feral gamecocks of Key West add to the vacation, even if you have a mild hangover when the cock crows.

    1. Thanks…I had no such sophistication about the differences. Trust you! 🙂

      When we were in Nicaragua, that was a sound we heard as well. It’s very soothing (and seems much more normal) to awaken to the sounds of nature and animals and birds.

      1. Awesome.

        Oh, there’s another sound I really like: a good song that I really enjoy. In fact, I’ve been listening to the album of new favorite band a lot these past couple days. Not a bad song among them.

      2. It’s called Babymetal. It’s this J-Pop/metal band fronted by three teenage girls in Gothic Lolita and crinolines. They’ve been making a splash all over the Internet, and even some famous American rockers have become fans of them.

  3. Gerri

    When I lived in North Vancouver, I would walk my dogs along a park-strip. After the winter rain and during the spring showers, upon entering, a bird orchestra would commence playing. Making my way through the park, my favourite tree would appear, sometimes by it’s beauty and sometimes by it’s intoxicating perfume. Just one of my choice memories. Nature at its best, within a bustling city.
    Love your writing.

  4. I love birdsong, which I can hear right now as I sit typing this. It’s the end of a busy day and everything else is quiet, other than birdsong and the squeaky sounds that grilled halloumi cheese makes when I’m chewing it!

    Other sounds I like which leap to mind are the sound of a stream (or creek, as you would probably say) flowing, the ocean, bouzouki music and the purring of my cat, especially her adorable purring and little sounds she makes in the morning when she is always very pleased to see me, presumably because I am the breakfast-provider!

      1. It’s going well, thanks. 🙂 But exams are looming and my stress level is creeping up! I have a Spanish oral next week and then the rest of my exams are at the beginning of next month. After that, I can breathe…..

      2. Good luck! Better, buena suerte.

        I still recall (TWAUMA!) having to write a French and Spanish final on the same damn day. It almost killed me — two totally different vocabularies and grammars. And because I am a nerd, I still recall, decades later, writing (instead of umbrella) “I would like to buy a thunderstorm.” 🙂

      3. Gracias! 🙂

        Oh, two different exams on the same day….that’s horrible! Thankfully all of my exams are on different days. I only speak English and Spanish (I’d like to learn French) but when I’m working when I’m tired, I sometimes find myself blending English words with Spanish or vice versa. Switching between three languages would be even harder!

      4. I sort of enjoy being multi-lingually unintelligible!

        I once stayed in a household in Barcelona where one parent was German, the other British and the nanny Spanish; the conversation — with two young daughters switching back and forth in all three — was fast and quite hard to follow.

  5. Caitlin, you have exactly captured the joy of sitting on the screen porch for breakfast on summer mornings. (I’d love to have those outdoor convert speakers hidden in our trees!)

    The birds are arriving just after sunrise for food the four feeders scattered throughout the trees. The finches and wrens like the caged ball- protected from squirrels and the jays. the Jays and cardinals like the long cylinder feeder back up near the plum tree. The 4 different varieties of woodpeckers seem to like the house feeder best.

    The sounds? I can close my eyes and tell my husband when the cardinal calls, “pe-ter, pe-ter, pe-ter” and his mate responds in kind somewhere off in the trees. Or how, when the squirrels are agitated, you can tell by their tsck,tsck, tsck- and their tails flicking wildly. The Blue Jays announce with be-dep, as opposed to the mockers who use only one tone.

    You have to listen carefully to hear those subtle differences, but you’re right. We lie on the patio sectional, eyes closed, just enjoying all the activity going on, making up imaginary conversations the wildlife might be having (Honey, I’m home, where are you? Over here in the Hemlock making up the new nursery…). That’s when life is good.

    Thanks for asking this question and making us think about these pleasantries again.

    1. How great to have a place you can sit and enjoy it! I am dying to be back out on our balcony — waiting (always) for the co-op to repaint it.

      Cornell, which is an ornithology center, apparently has a birdsong website where you can hear different ones and learn to identify them. I know the sound of a robin and jay, but would love the learn the others.

      1. Absolutely! We are fortunate to have both a deck and a screen room from which to watch and listen. I don’t know how high up you are, but it must be lovely to look out over the trees and have a unique vantage point.

        I love the Cornell center- we participate in their backyard bird count. It’s one of my go to sites for questions and identifying new songs. I cannot imagine the countless hours of listening, recording, and editing that goes into their birdsong library. Truly a labor of love!

      2. So cool that you know their library…

        We are on the top (6th) floor of our building and have a fantastic view of the Hudson River and Palisades (cliffs) opposite. The trees are barely 15 feet off our balcony, so we have a very close-up view of the birds.

      3. We are about to lose about 50% of that view as the trees fill in again. But we love it in every season and we hold parties and dinners there the minute it’s warm enough. It also becomes my outdoor office (since I have none) as well.

  6. The whisper of sheets as I wake up in the morning (and inevitably shift in bed).

    The smile in voices.

    The swish of trees.

    I’ve just left Singapore, where I’ve spent six months. It’s indescribably noisy, even when a local says “it’s so quiet.” There is too much background noise. When the day gets swinging, you cannot hear yourself think.

    I find it hard to believe I grew up, and spent the first 18 years of my life there.

    There are sounds, and there is noise.

    I can’t remember when all this urban chaos became one and not the other. I guess I’ve been out of Asia for a looooooong time.

      1. I bet they do. It took me a while to get used to the dead silence of suburban Perth when I first got there. But it was certainly very pleasant after the adjustment period. Quiet was something I was always after and never got in the motherland!

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