This weekend’s warm weather enticed many people to head to the coast — some to dip toes in the water or even get in it, some to get out on it in something that floats and others to just enjoy being by its edge. Something I noticed in one of the quieter moments of a busy weekend was the familiar sounds that water makes — except that water doesn’t actually make any sound, rather it is its interaction with many other elements that produces a great variety of sounds. From burbles to whooshes to clatters with stones, the sounds can vary from gentle to nearly violent. But all of them tell the observer something about what is happening amidst the natural forces before them.

I have written in the past about Tristan Gooley’s book, “How to Read Water: Clues, Signs and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea.” When thinking about the sounds that water makes, I discovered a whole chapter that I don’t remember reading before, titled “The Sound of Water.” In it, Gooley describes the idea of sound mapping. It is essentially the concept that sounds inform us not only about what is happening in the natural world but also help to tell us where we are. An experiment with a group of hikers revealed that when the sound of a waterfall was heard, they felt much more confident about the direction they were hiking than without one. This technique is often used in orienteering courses where you are instructed to listen for the sound of water and follow a particular direction up or downstream depending on your destination.

Aside from the sound of water’s ability to guide us, it can also have a comforting impact. While I sometimes wish I weren’t so reliant on artificial “white noise” produced by an app or a sound machine, I feel a little better about it when I realize that my favorite sound sounds like water — a gentle consistent wave noise. Other people might prefer the sound of rain or a waterfall, but regardless, water sounds can be very soothing. Perhaps part of this effect of water sounds is somewhat related to its ability to make us feel oriented — another aspect of feeling comforted.

Water, of course, can also produce some terrifying and violent sounds when it is whipped up by wind or tossed up on the rocks. Those who spend many hours on the water know this well. In addition to watching for ripples on the water or changes in the light on its surface, fishermen, sailors and other seafarers can judge what far away ocean conditions are through careful listening.

Many musicians have tried to both imitate the sounds of water and to write about our emotional response to water. From classical pieces like Handel’s “Water Music,” which King George I apparently commissioned to be performed on the River Thames on a barge that floated upriver with the rising tide, to more recent songs like “Under the Sea,” made popular all over again with the recently released live-action version of “The Little Mermaid,” there is as great a variety in the music that water’s sounds inspire as in the sounds themselves. Whatever the type or mood of music, it is clear that humans respond strongly to water and struggle to replicate its complexity.

Most of the time, there are many other sounds along the waterfront, including those of working boats, people’s voices and other activities along the shore — all of which carry long distances and are amplified as they cross the water. But in the moments of quiet, a careful observer can notice that it isn’t really quiet at all, but that what you are hearing are the sounds that the unique combination of physical elements produces through water’s instrument.

Susan Olcott is the director of operations at Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

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