Initiating ecological change through sound art - a review and short manifesto


In 2002 Hildegard Westerkamp posed the question “Can soundscape composition initiate ecological change?” (Westerkamp, 2002, p.56)

A few years later the editors of Soundscape, The Journal of Acoustic Ecology challenged their readership to go beyond “reflective or idiosyncratic approaches as befits our personalities and predilections towards inwardly creative expressions” (Cummings & Miller, 2007, p.1) and consider how sound art could, in times of global environmental crisis, have additional purpose.  They asked how sound artists might help scientists and activists, work in tandem with them, or even perform these roles themselves. 

Since Hildegard Westerkamp’s original comments, several sound artists including Leah Barclay, Andrea Polli, Matthew Burtner and David Dunn have all made pieces of work with the explicit aim of raising people’s environmental awareness and instigating environmentally-minded action. Gilmurray argues that such work belongs to its own sub-genre: ‘Ecological Sound Art’  - sound art that is not just inspired by the environment in some way, but which is also environmentalist  and “whose content or subject matter actively engages with ecological issues” (Gilmurray, 2018, p.41). 

I like the idea of sound art that is activism – of using creativity to bring about change for the good, but I wonder how possible this is?  Reflecting on Westerkamp’s initial question, can sound art really nudge someone to change the way they behave, and if so, what is the best way to go about this?  Whilst I was studying for my degree I had a chance to think about this in a bit more depth, and wrote a short dissertation titled ‘Can ecological sound art initiate pro-environmental behaviour? (A preliminary study)’. Below I share some of the findings and thoughts arising from my investigations, and pull together some actions ecological sound artists might pursue.

I started my research looking for any examples where there was quantitative evidence that those experiencing a piece of sound art had then gone on to take pro-environmental action. Perhaps unsurprisingly I drew a blank. Leah Barclay (2017, p.154) provides some anecdotal evidence of environmental actions taken by those participating in several of her long-term projects, but I couldn’t find commentary from any other sound artists on behavioural change known to have resulted because of their work, and certainly no quantitative studies.

Having exhausted this avenue I stepped away from sound art to explore instead the more fundamental question of how to persuade people to move to more environmentally friendly behaviour, or ‘pro-environmental’ behaviour. What are the mechanisms at play? The idea being that if I could understand this, I could then consider sound art within this context and gain some insight into what approaches ecological sound artists might take to ensure their work is as impactful as possible.

Understanding how pro-environmental behaviour happens

Behavioural Modelling

I discovered that environmental psychologists have developed behavioural models seeking to explain how pro-environmental behaviour happens. The earliest of these, from the 1970s, proposed a linear relationship with acquisition of environmental knowledge leading to attitude change, which in turn leads to behavioural change (see Figure 1).  

Figure 1. Early models of pro-environmental behaviour (reproduced from Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002, p.241)

Figure 1. Early models of pro-environmental behaviour (reproduced from Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002, p.241)

This model is now considered flawed, since it has subsequently been shown that in most cases an increase in knowledge and awareness does not on its own lead to changes in behaviour. Researchers Kollmuss and Agyeman (2002) suggest that pro-environmental behaviour is the result of a much more complex set of interactions, with their own model (see Figure 2 below) identifying a range of internal (personal) and external (socio-economic, cultural, political) factors, and barriers that must be overcome. “We see environmental knowledge, values, and attitudes, together with emotional involvement as making up a complex we call ‘pro-environmental consciousness’ “ (Kollmuss and Agyeman, 2002, p.256).

Figure 2. Model for pro-environmental behaviour (reproduced from Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002, p.257)

Figure 2. Model for pro-environmental behaviour (reproduced from Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002, p.257)

In relation to their box ‘knowledge’ - which sits within ‘Internal Factors’ the researchers cite three cognitive limitations which prevent people acting in the best interests of the environment. These are:·    

  • The non-immediacy of many environmental problems.  Many forms of environmental degradation such as habitat loss, climate change and depletion of the ozone layer are not immediately tangible and have to be communicated via secondary information such as language or graphs. Whilst this might improve intellectual understanding it fails to make a link emotionally. 

  • Environmental degradation often takes place over timescales which human beings are not good at perceiving.

  • Environmental problems are often complex in their nature.  This complexity serves as a barrier to emotional engagement and therefore willingness to act.

Each of these areas seem potentially ripe for exploration by sound artists who make works by ‘sonification’. This is a process by which raw scientific data is translated or mapped to sound. For example, Andrea Polli’s work Heat and the Heartbeat of the City (2004) sonifies real climate data from the summers of the 1990’s together with modelled data for the 2020’s, 2050’s and 2080’s, to create a musical interpretation of rising temperature levels over time. Such an approach allows dry, scientific data on environmental trends to be communicated in a more engaging way.

Within ‘Internal Factors’ Kollmuss and Agyeman’s model also identifies the importance of emotional involvement.  They cite findings from work by Chawla (1998, 1999) showing that an emotional connection seems to be very important in shaping beliefs, values and attitudes towards the environment. As it happens, this emotional aspect is also central to a growing body of work being undertaken on ‘connectedness to nature’ (CNT) – another research area I discovered in the course of this investigation and which I discuss in more detail later.

One more relevant message from Kollmuss and Aygeman’s research (2002, p.256) was a warning that an initial emotional reaction of distress at environmental damage will “lead to secondary psychological responses aimed at relieving us from these negative feelings.”  This may include people going into denial, using rational distancing, getting apathetic, or delegating – all of which mean pro-environmental behaviour does not happen. This is especially likely to be the case where individuals feel their actions are insignificant and outcomes are determined by external factors beyond they control. The researchers noted that if individuals instead have a strong belief that they are not helpless and can bring about change (i.e. an internal locus of control) this can override inactivity. 

Community Based Social Marketing

Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM) is a methodology which combines knowledge from psychology with expertise on social marketing. Advocates of CBSM recommend its use in relation to targeted strategies aimed at instigating particular behavioural changes (e.g. switching to energy efficient light bulbs, using less water). In reviewing results from a range of public campaigns designed to foster more sustainable environmental behaviour CBSM researchers Mackenzie-Mohr (2000), and Mackenzie-Mohr and Schultz (2014) found these campaigns often failed because of an over-emphasis on provision of information, and an assumption that this alone would deliver behavioural change. In this respect their findings align with those of behavioural modellers who have also come to recognise the limited role environmental facts alone can have in influencing an individual’s environmental behaviour.

It’s not useful to describe the whole CBSM methodology here, but in essence it requires the identification and mitigation of barriers that will prevent the desired behaviour change, whilst simultaneously increasing the behaviour’s perceived benefits.  The methodology lists eight ‘behaviour change tools’ which can be used to overcome barriers.  None of these tools cite use of artistic methods, but thinking a little tangentially two of the eight areas potentially offer scope for the use of sound art:

  • Social Diffusion: People are more likely to change to a new sustainable behaviour if it is already being undertaken by friends and colleagues and is visible in the community.  

  •  Social Norms: People are more likely to conform to the common and accepted behaviours within a group.  “A social norm strategy would involve highlighting the large number of people who already do and / or approve of the behavior.” (Mackenzie-Mohr and Schultz, 2014, p.40)

For both these areas it is envisaged sound art could potentially be used within a community to promote and advertise a behaviour in a more engaging way than traditional techniques could achieve.  This might be most effective if community members themselves had a role in making and performing the work, as this would demonstrate a level of community endorsement. 

Connectedness to Nature (CNT)

CNT is the last of three areas I explored for insights into how one might encourage pro-environmental behaviour. Over the last decade there has been rapid growth in CNT research (Richardson, 2018), both in relation to it's role in promoting pro-environmental behaviour, and in improving people’s mental health and well-being.  The research identifies that an emotional relationship with nature can lead to an expanded sense of self, whereby people see themselves as part of nature, as opposed to separate from it (Shultz, 2001).  This invokes a greater appreciation of nature, higher concern for its protection, and higher likelihood of pro-environmental behaviour.  Restall and Conrad (2015) provide a good review of the work in this area and call for more multi-disciplinary research to explore how findings from CNT could be better exploited within environmental management, including “more social and affective strategies to promote conservation behaviour” (Restall & Conrad, 2015, p.264).

Lumber, Richardson and Sheffield (2017) have explored the specific routes to connectedness with the aim that if these can be identified they can then be ‘operationalised’ to improve people’s connectedness.  They note that large conservation bodies have traditionally sought to engage people through provision of knowledge (e.g. environmental facts and identification guides) whilst theirs and other’s research (Roczen, Kaiser, Bogner and Wilson (2014), and Otto and Pensini (2017)) all indicate that although knowledge might be a precursor to performing pro-environmental behaviour, there is no strong relationship between knowledge and attitudes towards nature or connectedness to it.  

Several CNT studies indicate that creative activities are particularly powerful in forging connectedness. Lumber et al (2017) measured study participants’ connectedness, finding that whilst a walk in nature did not improve connectedness, when this walk was enhanced by sensory and emotional activities connectedness increased significantly. They concluded that connectedness can best be forged through “engaging with contact-based activities themed around emotion, meaning, compassion and beauty” (Lumber et al, 2017 p.21).  Additionally in a connectedness study by Bruni, Winter, Schultz, Omaoto and Tabanico (2017) children were tested before and after three activities; (i) an online virtual hike, (ii) a part online, part outdoor treasure trail adventure, and (iii) a nature-based creative arts contest.  They found that connectedness increased with the creative arts activity, whilst showing no significant increase after the other two activities.  The arts undertaken included written narratives, photographs, paintings, drawings, collages, and sculptures.  

Although no CNT research has yet cited ecological sound art as an example activity there seems no reason why it might not also, alongside other creative arts, be a useful way of connecting people with nature, particularly where there is a chance for the public to have a participatory role, rather than act as passive consumers. 

Thoughts on how to make ecological sound art that has the best chance of promoting pro-environmental behaviour

Bearing in mind the above research from the fields of behavioural modelling, CBSM and CNT, where does this leave the ecological sound artist who wants to use their work as a form of activism…..who hopes that maybe those experiencing it might go away and live a life that’s a bit kinder to the planet, and become everyday small scale activists themselves?

On a positive note it seems a fundamental pre-requisite to individuals taking up pro-environmental behaviour is a sense of caring for nature, and research shows that the creative arts have a valuable, possibly essential (and currently under-rated?) role to play in this respect because of their ability to facilitate this emotional connection.  From this initial standpoint therefore, it is valid for ecological sound artists to aspire to make work that seeks to bring about pro-environmental behaviour.  However, getting people to take-up pro-environmental behaviour is clearly complex, involving many interacting internal and external factors and barriers, most of which will be beyond the influence of an individual artist.  In this respect the ecological sound artist faces a challenge.  

My own thoughts are as follows:


I surmise that the more ‘connectedness’ a piece of ecological sound art can generate in an individual, the greater the chance of that person then deciding to take pro-environmental action. I think this connectedness is more likely to happen when a person is more intimately involved in a work. On this basis it would seem a good idea for ecological sound artists to focus on work where the public have direct involvement in making and performing it. Community-based projects such as sound-walks, field-recording exercises and compositional activities involving field-recordings and / or sonification of collected environmental data would all be good examples.  Here the artist acts as a facilitator for other’s creativity, handing the role of ‘maker’ to participants so they gain the most immersive experience possible. Furthermore, I suggest that activities which relate to local issues are also likely to engender more connectedness since participants may already be invested emotionally in these issues.

Some good examples of sound-art projects I’ve come across which involve the public as collectors and makers of sound-based material include Rainforest Listening (2015-present) and River Listening (2014- present) by Leah Barclay, and the multidisciplinary River Holme 2017 community art project. The website associated with Rainforest Listening explains “you are composing your own experience and sculpting your own soundscape, your phone will act as a sonic compass guiding you” (Rainforest Partnership, 2019).    As people walk around iconic locations in the city geo-located sounds from the Amazon rainforest including dawn and night choruses, thunderstorms, howler monkeys, river dolphins and river frogs are triggered.

If it’s not possible to incorporate the direct involvement of the public as makers in this way, then an alternative option may be to make work that explicitly invites audience interaction. My thoughts here are that this might also result in an enhanced experience and greater levels of connectedness than could be achieved through the conventional modes of passive consumption (e.g. sitting in an audience as a listener). To my mind Holly Owen and Kristina Pulejkova’s Switching Heads: Sound Mapping the Artic (2015) is a good example of such a work. This audio-visual piece from 2015 involved both artists dressing up as polar explorers and their audience following them around the streets of Paris to experience the work. Graciela Muñoz Farida’s 2014 work El Sonido Recobrado: el paisaje sonoro del Río Baker en el lecho seco del Río Petorca takes place within a dry river bed. The listener must be on-location, where the river used to run, to hear the work.  This experience must surely be more visceral and affecting than works which are listened to or interacted with in a gallery or other conventional performance / viewing space?   


Across each of the three areas of research I looked at there was clear consensus that cognitive understanding of an environmental issue is not adequate in itself  to bring about behavioural change. However, information and facts should not be disregarded completely.  ‘Knowledge’ features as a factor in Kollmuss and Agyeman’s behavioural model and is described by Otto and Pensini (2017) as an important component within environmental education:

“The promotion of environmental knowledge is viewed as a fundamental component of environmental education and a necessary prerequisite to ecological behaviour; however, it has little effect on actual behaviour. Nature-based environmental education, which combines the acquisition of environmental knowledge with the promotion of an intrinsic driver, namely connectedness to nature, is proposed as a holistic approach to increase ecological behaviour” (Otto and Pensini 2017, p.88).

Soundscape composer Hildegard Westerkamp also advocates that ecological sound artists provide contextual information for listeners (for example, soundscape compositions that name the place, environmental conditions and species heard), fearing that without this there is a danger of “simply creating yet another product, one more CD with yet more amazing sounds” (Westerkamp cited in Rothenberg & Ulvaeus, 2009 p.149).  

It would seem important then that ecological sound artists provide information on the environmental context for a work. In many of the examples of ecological sound art I have come across this is the case, especially for those where the artists are also scientists themselves, or working in an interdisciplinary way with scientists or scientific information. Examples include David Dunn’s The Sound of Light in Trees (2006), David Monachhi’s Fragments of Extinction (2000-2015), and Krista Caballero and Frank Ekeberg’s Birding the Future (2013-present) . Contextual scientific and environmental information is communicated in a variety of ways such as alongside or integral to an installation, on a CD booklet, or as supplementary information on a website or phone app.   

As discussed earlier having achieved connectedness with nature, potential for adopting pro-environmental behaviour can then be cancelled out by feelings of helplessness and a perception that the actions needed to rectify the situation are beyond one’s control. Mikel R. Nieto’s soundscape composition Dark Sound (2016) takes the listener on a journey from the sounds of a healthy and vibrant rainforest ecosystem to one where human machinery and oil refining activities have displaced wildlife.  Whilst I find the work and supplementary online material deeply affecting, it is also hard not to come away with a dreadful sense of loss, and sadness at the destructive nature of humans.  My own inclination is that ecological sound art which explores the potential for positive future scenarios or gives messages of hope may be better able to mitigate against negative feelings and set up a stronger psychological basis for individual action.

I’d also suggest that artists provide information on simple ‘acts of activism’ people can take in response to the issues raised by the work.  These might be small practical measures, or sign-posting to relevant environmental groups.

Mikel R. Nieto’s  Dark Sounds (2016) is sold with a book and varies in price depending on the current value of crude oil. He advises: “By buying this book you are contributing to the destruction of the planet.”  On the one hand, buy the goods to find out more about rainforests, enjoy the work and support the artist making a living.  On the other hand, do not consume any more stuff, as this will help save the planet.  His statement potentially leads an individual to engage in their own internal dialogue on environmental ethics.    

Leah Barclay’s Rainforest Listening was made in collaboration with and supported by an NGO promoting rainforest preservation.  This provides a way for participants to gain further knowledge about rainforests and donate: “By connecting this installation directly to a conservation organization, we are exploring ways of translating this awareness into direct action.  Listeners can donate directly to Amazon communities while walking through the installation” (Rainforest Partnership, 2019).

Maya Lin’s sound sculpture Listening Cone (2009) is one of several works forming part of a larger art project - What is Missing? - dealing with species extinction.  The What is Missing? website has a dedicated ‘What You Can Do’ page with comprehensive information on simple measures people can take to protect biodiversity.  

Despite the above examples I haven’t commonly come across ecological sound art that also provides supplementary environmental advice. The reasons for this absence are not clear.  Is it that artists do not readily, because of traditional constructs, see this as a role for themselves?  Or is the idea more actively rejected, maybe because it is felt such advice will dilute the artistic purity of a work, pollute it with politics, or come across as ‘preaching’ to the public?  Having sparked someone’s connection with an ecological issue and potentially ‘won them over’, giving practical advice, or sign-posting to a body that can provide such advice seems a sensible thing to offer. As stated by Cummings and Miller (2007, p.1) in their original call for action, ecological sound artists need to go beyond “reflective or idiosyncratic approaches as befits our personalities and predilections towards inwardly creative expressions.”

Structural Support

It was notable during my research that whilst creative activities were cited in several academic papers as an important way for people to connect with nature, all examples of such activities came from more traditional art forms. A fundamental barrier preventing ecological sound art from potentially fulfilling its role may be down to its low visibility within the arts.  Gilmurray (2016) identifies that:

“this new movement of ecological sound art is yet to achieve widespread recognition: all current literature on contemporary eco-art is restricted to the visual arts, while ecomusicological scholarship remains largely confined to studies of popular, classical, and folk music, with ecologically engaged works of sound art unacknowledged by either field” (Gilmurray, 2016, p.77) . 

He also makes the point that sound art has, through its sub-set of ecological artists who deal with issues of global importance, a “prime opportunity…to impact upon public concerns and agendas outside academic institutions and specialist circles to which it is still largely confined” Gilmurray (2018, p.40).   In other words, the potential to make a difference is not being fully exploited and opportunities are being missed. 

So as to boost the profile of ecological sound art it seems important that new works should not exist as isolated entities, but be embedded within or supported by other frameworks or bodies that serve to aid their creation, public performance, dissemination, discussion and existence.  ·     All of the works I reviewed did appear to have some level of support in place to aid their making and /or dissemination even if this was limited.  This came from academic institutes, public arts and science bodies, charities and sometimes the artists’ own wider initiatives. This is not to say however the works were easy to find out about and it is only through the benefit Gilmurray’s doctorate thesis (2018) I was able to learn of some of these works’ existence. 


Can ecological sound art initiate pro-environment behaviour? I think there are ways you can improve your chances! Maybe the easiest way to sum things up is this simple model (Figure 3) in which I’ve identified three key elements that I suggest should be present (Connectedness, Knowledge and Structural Support), and for each, some individual attributes based on the above discussion. All would no doubt benefit from being tested and refined, and other attributes must surely be identifiable.

Figure 3. A proposed model for ecological sound art, suggesting elements needed if pro-enviornmental behaviour is to be initiated in audiences

Figure 3. A proposed model for ecological sound art, suggesting elements needed if pro-enviornmental behaviour is to be initiated in audiences

From the body of ecological sound art I could access online, my observations were that whilst collaborations between scientists and artists are common, and elements of ‘knowledge’ are often strong in works, much less collaboration happens between artists and the public, suggesting opportunities to engender ‘connectedness to nature’ are being missed.  This mirrors observations from those researching communication of science through the arts (see Lesen, Rogan & Blum, 2016, p. 659). I think Leah Barclay’s approaches currently provide some of the best examples of work likely to instil pro-environmental behaviour, and her Sonic Ecologies Framework (Barclay, 2013) has much in common with the conclusions I arrived at. In summary, these are my suggestions for those wishing to make ecological sound art that moves people to act:

  • Seek out collaborative opportunities with community arts bodies and pursue activities at a community level, with community members as participants and creators. 

  • Seek collaboration with bodies such as nature and wildlife conservation trusts, environmental groups and any socially responsible organisation (e.g. supermarkets, utility companies) who are finding their traditional knowledge-based approaches are failing to connect people with environmental issues (e.g. food waste, energy conservation, water conservation) and failing to activate necessary behavioural change.  Some innovative and impactful pieces of ecological sound art would surely result. 

  • Supplement your work with suggestions of small acts of activism for audiences to pursue.

  • Start documenting, or enlisting others to document the impact of your work in terms of behavioural change outcomes, so more can be learnt on what works best (Lesen et al, 2016 provide thoughts on effective evaluation techniques).    

Listening-in to the Upper Calder Valley. A group soundwalk undertaken whilst composing  Rewilding (2019)

Listening-in to the Upper Calder Valley. A group soundwalk undertaken whilst composing Rewilding (2019)


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