Explore the BBC
Radio 4
Radio 4 Tickets
Radio 4 Help

About the BBC

Contact Us


Like this page?
Send it to a friend!

BBC Radio 4 - 92 to 94 FM and 198 Long WaveListen to Digital Radio, Digital TV and OnlineListen on Digital Radio, Digital TV and Online

Go to the Listen Again page
Tuesdays 11.00-11.30am 8 & 15 July 2003

Beginning inside the mother’s womb, with the very first sounds we hear, this series is an evocative, absorbing and often surprising journey through a world of rhythms, noise and silence, in search of a small slice of tranquillity.

Bluebell Wood
Natural Tranquillity: Bluebell Wood, Northumberland

Even before we are born, whilst still a foetus, we are bombarded by sound... and from the moment we are born, we are surrounded by sound; wanted and unwanted sounds that make up the rhythms of our lives, from traffic noise to mobile phones.

For many years now, wildlife sound recordist, Chris Watson, has become increasingly aware of just how difficult it is to escape man-made noise and find a small slice of tranquillity amongst the din. But just what do we mean by tranquillity? Is it simply an aesthetic pleasure or does it have a much more fundamental role in our lives?

In this two part series, Chris goes in search of some answers and finds himself in some very unlikely places, including a floatarium, a moat, an anechoic chamber (ie. a completely silent chamber) and a village just south of London, which is one of a handful of areas which has been officially designated as a tranquil area by the Council for the Protection of Rural England. He meets a composer who describes the importance of listening, hears about a technique to map sounds, experiences sensory deprivation in a room that is absolutely silent; and explores the link between our earliest experiences in our mother’s womb and the search for tranquillity.

Chris Watson
Presenter and sound recordist Chris Watson

Programme 1

The series starts by examining what tranquillity is; and what it means for different people;

“For me, tranquillity is half way down my garden, just listening to the wind” says a quaker. Other people describe tranquillity as “a state of mind”, or “a state of mind, born of landscape” but “not silence”. Tranquillity, for many people is associated with particular sounds or rhythms “rain drumming on my roof” “waves”, “wind in the trees”.

The presenter and sound recordist, Chris Watson, can readily empathise with this association of natural rhythms of sound and tranquillity. But escaping the din of everyday life to find tranquillity is not easy, as he discovers. We spend our lives bombarded by sound. Most of us, most of the time, just block out the background noise that pervades our everyday lives. So how can we possibly find tranquillity if we don’t even listen properly?

If you learn how to listen, the rich environment of sound which surrounds us can be a revelation, as composer Hildegard Westerkamp, discovered. The ability to not just hear the world, but to really listen to the sounds around her, has brought about a fundamental change in her life and her compositions. She incorporates the sounds of the environment into her music. In addition, she leads Sound Walks in which she leads groups on walks, lasting about an hour, through the city, or along a beach etc and encourages them to really listen to the world around them. For many, for the first time in their lives, they hear and appreciate the sounds around them; the natural sounds and the effects of man-made noise pollution.

In Japan, Dr Teruyo Oba, (based at the Natural History Museum and Institute in Chiba), has taken this practice of listening one step further and encourages people to draw Sound Maps; pictorial representations of what they hear in a particular location at any one time. These maps not only make people much more aware of the sounds around them, but are a language by which people can compare their experiences. Like the sound walks, the maps also highlight how a tranquil landscape can be disturbed by traffic, industry and man-made sounds.

The idea of mapping environmental sounds has been adopted in this country by the Council for the Protection of Rural England. They have identified several areas of rural tranquillity in England. Chris visits one such site, in the company of Gregor Hutcheon, (Head of Rural Policy for C.P.R.E.) near Dunsfold, but discovers that what was once a tranquil place is now subjected to air traffic noise and light pollution.

Does tranquillity matter? The programme ends by considering the importance of tranquillity for our health and well-being, a theme which is picked up in Programme 2.

Listen again to programme 1 Listen again to programme 1

Chris Watson and Steve Nevard
Inside an anechoic chamber: Chris Watson and Steve Nevard

Programme 2

Having discovered that man-made noise pollution so often disturbs what little tranquillity is left in the rural countryside, Chris tries to escape the din of everyday life, and explores artificial environments in his search for tranquillity.

He begins in London, visiting an anechoic chamber at University College London. These chambers are specially designed to absorb sound and be absolutely silent. Far from being a tranquil experience, Chris experiences enormous discomfort, when away from the sounds of everyday life, he becomes aware of the sounds of his own body, and in a room with no echo, experiences a mild form of sensory deprivation.

Charles Spence, a cognitive psychologist at Oxford University discusses how a balanced stimulation of all the senses is essential to achieve tranquillity. For many of us, much of lives are spent in offices at computers. Here, we receive intense stimulation of our vision and hearing, but very little stimulation of our sense of touch or smell.

Author and naturalist, Roger Deakin, achieves a sense of tranquillity through swimming. Not only does the environment of his garden moat provide stimulation of all the senses, but the rhythm of swimming also instils a calming effect.

Robin Philipp, a consultant Occupational and Public Health Physician at Bristol Royal Infirmary describes how natural rhythms, such as the sounds of lapping water and drumming rain are not only aesthetic but a very real physiological effect on us.

But you don’t need you own garden moat to swim in to achieve tranquillity, as Chris discovers when he accepts an invitation to visit a Floatarium. The experience of peace and tranquillity he achieved, floating on very salty water inside an egg-shaped chamber in the dark was enormously surprising to Chris.

Chris Watson in the Floatarium
Chris Watson in the Floatarium

Had the search for tranquillity brought him full circle: starting in the womb (at the beginning of his quest in programme 1), and ending with a womb-like experience?
The programme ends with a provocative thought, also suggested by Robin Philipp - could it be that in searching for tranquillity we seek some commonality with some primitive association with our earliest sensations even before we are born?

Listen again to programme 2 Listen again to programme 2
Listen Live
Audio Help
Leading Edge
Science, Nature & Environment Programmes
Current Programmes
Archived Programmes

News & Current Affairs | Arts & Drama | Comedy & Quizzes | Science | Religion & Ethics | History | Factual

Back to top

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy