Finding Reality through Soundscapes

DISCLAIMER: Views expressed in this article are those of the author and they do not necessarily represent the position of UNM IGNITE.

The fire alarm in my room has been chirping every one minute for the past month. I know, without a doubt, that it is because the battery needs changing. Fortunately, the chirping only lasts about an hour or so, and every other day instead of every single day. Well, it depends–it has chirped almost every day. It’s not that I don’t want to change the battery. But, I have tried to take off the body of the fire alarm myself, but to no avail. Excuses given – I’m not planning to waste a small amount of money to buy the right tools (specifically, the screwdriver) in order to just change the battery, on top of planning to go back in about a month. So, I’m living with the fact that the alarm will not stop bothering me until I go back to Malaysia from my exchange year in the UK. 

However, I found comfort with the constant chirping in my room. The alarm noise has created a soundscape that made me realise the ever-changing conditions that I’m currently in. 

A backstory

Ever since the outbreak of COVID-19 became severe in the UK which led the whole country to be on lockdown including the university, I was stuck in an overwhelming situation. It was bad enough that I felt as if I was by myself ever since I came here, having no one to rely on until at a later time. But, after the situation got out of hand and mass hysteria started to prevail, everyone was in a constant state of panic including me. 

I have always been a firm and stable person, someone who is grounded in reality. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t affected by the situation. Imagine being in another country halfway across the globe with a pandemic going on, travel ban has been imposed, uncertain on whether the university will resume as normal before the severity of the outbreak, having to consider every possibility of the outcomes that result from your action with no definite knowledge on it. There are more to it, of course – financial stability, health and safety, academics, etc. 

How did the fire alarm chirping help?

As I am currently stuck inside, my mental health has been fluctuating – more in deteriorating. However, the fire alarm chirps at a consistent beat, instead of it being annoying, it was more therapeutic to my advantage. On top of that, it was loud enough for it to captivate my auditory sensation. Similar to the natural sound of the environment, although there was no direct association to mental health, it may help some people to stay calm and feel relaxed such as with the sound of rain and the sea.

Audio-visual of a soundscape

Whenever I feel as if I started to spiral down, I tend to dwell in my negative thoughts and overthink. At that moment, everything would be in deep silence, pure nothingness except for the voices that are in my head. But, suddenly, I started to hear the chirps… a single beat every one minute. It disrupted my train of thought. I couldn’t focus back on what I was initially overthinking about, I mean they are always at the back of my head. The chirps stopped me. It brought me back to reality, essentially forcing me to snap out of my breakdown. 

Something to realise is that the sound of the fire alarm isn’t entirely natural. I believe that’s what made it work. A sound that is not chosen, something unfamiliar, beyond control over rhythm, amplitude and tone. A sound with an initial function to create an alarm, ironically is used as a soundscape for a situation that was alarming for myself. As this has worked for me, it might prove for a good use to someone else, someone who is in a similar situation as I am. Finding grounded reality from a breakdown through soundscapes, it helps. 

Written by Ungku ‘Arifin