If a tree falls in the forest, and there's no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?

If a Tree Falls in the Forest, and There’s No One Around to Hear It, Does It Make a Sound?

The age-old question of whether a falling tree makes a sound when there’s no one around to hear it exploits the tension between perception and reality. This article explores possible answers and their consequences.

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  September 2022


If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, if by ‘sound’ we mean vibrating air, then yes, when the tree falls, it vibrates the air around it.

However, if by ‘sound’ we mean the conscious noise we hear when our sensory apparatus interacts with the vibrating air, then if no one is around to hear the tree when it falls, there’d be no sensory apparatus for the vibrating air to interact with, and thus no conscious noise would be heard.

So, the answer to this age-old question seems to be simple: it depends on how we define ‘sound’. If we define it as ‘vibrating air’, the falling tree makes a sound. If we define it as a conscious experience, the lonesome falling tree does not make a sound.

There, problem solved.

The point of asking this question, however, is not so that it can be answered quickly and put aside.

Rather, its point is to draw out the rather strange tension between our two very different definitions of the word ‘sound’.

On the one hand, we classify sound as a mechanistic process that exists without us, ‘out there’ in the world. On the other, we regard it as a private conscious experience, its existence entirely dependent on us.

And when you dwell on this latter definition, you realize it doesn’t just extend to sounds. Everything we experience — everything we see, hear, smell, touch, taste — all of it depends on our sensory apparatus, on us. Without us, our experiences would not exist.

As the great 16th-century astronomer Galileo Galilei put it:

Tastes, odors, colors, and so on... reside only in consciousness. If the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated.

Take away our senses, and the world of our experience would be replaced by a colorless, soundless, odorless, tasteless nothingness. Without us, what remains?

The reason our original question — When a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? — is such a teaser, is because it hits on a deeper question. Namely:

If there was no conscious life, would the physical universe exist?

Our kneejerk reaction to this question might be, ‘of course it would’. But let’s think about it again: if there was nothing conscious, then nothing would be experienced. There would be nothing resembling anything we call ‘existence’. No colors, no sounds, no smells, no tastes, no touch, no sense of time, no sense of space.

Is consciousness more fundamental than matter?

Reflecting on this strange state of affairs, numerous great thinkers have concluded that consciousness must be more fundamental than the ‘stuff’ that consciousness experiences.

For instance, in his 1710 work, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, the philosopher George Berkeley discusses the absurdity of a world existing independently of our conscious minds:

It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst people that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects, have an existence natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding… for what are the forementioned objects but things we perceive by sense? And what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations? And is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these or any combination of them should exist unperceived?

On this view, it is absurd to say a lonesome falling tree makes a sound. For Berkeley, it is absurd to say the tree, without a conscious mind there perceiving it, even exists. (You can learn more about his mind-bending arguments for this position in our short explainer piece on Berkeley’s subjective idealism, his theory that the world is in our minds).

But to conclude this brief reflection on the tension between perception and reality, consider a comment from the Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist Max Planck in a 1931 interview (italics added):

I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.

What do you think? Can we get behind consciousness?

This is a short exploration of themes covered in our celebrated 5-day introduction to philosophy course, Life’s Big Questions, in which you can learn thousands of years of philosophy with just 30 minutes of thought-provoking reading per day. Learn more and see if it’s for you now.

Philosophy Break

Discover exactly what philosophy is and how it can improve your life with just 1 email per day for 3 days

Philosophy Basics

What is philosophy? Why is it important? How can it improve your life? Discover the answers to all these questions and more with our free, 3-lesson introductory email course:

1 email per day for 3 days. Join 50,000+ thinkers. No spam. Unsubscribe any time.

Philosophy Basics





Your Myth-Busting Guide to Nietzsche & His 5 Greatest Ideas

Introduction to Nietzsche

Learn everything you need to know about Nietzsche in just six 30-minute daily chapters. This course distills his best and most misunderstood ideas, from God is dead to the Übermensch.

★★★★★ (12 reviews)

Learn More about Course
Introduction to Nietzsche

Latest Course Reviews:

★★★★★  Amazing

This course is amazing! You can agree or not with Nietzsche’s views, but the professionalism, the methodology, the clarity, and deepness of the investigation is really comprehensive. I totally advise philosophy fans to do this course.


  Elsa V. on 6 December 2022

★★★★★  Very informative

Very good and informative. Written with easy and comprehensible language. Enjoyed throughout - every line of the course was a delight. Keep doing what you're doing!


  Milad A. on 24 November 2022

★★★★★  Excellent

The course was interesting and challenging and exceeded my expectations. The content was excellent, stimulating, and well written. A lot of depth was shared on each topic. There is much to learn from this great thinker. Thank you for the opportunities.


  Robert J. on 19 July 2022

See All Course Reviews

Life's Big Questions

Latest Course Reviews:

★★★★★  Wonderful introduction

Easy to understand, entertaining and thought-provoking and has given me some new approaches that I’ll continue to think about. The first and last chapters were my favorites. I find the question 'why is there anything at all?' is a mind blower. And the last chapter (especially about absurdity) relates to that. Thanks!


  Mario H. on 26 November 2022

★★★★★  Wonderful introduction

Wonderful, clear, concise, and very informative. This is a great introductory course, exactly what I was looking for in general and enough depth to inspire further investigations. I also really enjoy the reading lists at the end of the chapters and have taken up a few suggestions. Thanks!


  Matt J. on 16 September 2022

★★★★★  Brilliant primers

Brilliant primers on all the major topics of philosophy. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect but the content provides a ton of value, it's all brilliantly written and delivered and covers so much. Highly recommend if you're at all interested in philosophy.


  Rebecca L. on 7 August 2022

See All Course Reviews

Take Another Break

Each break takes only a few minutes to read, and is crafted to expand your mind and spark your philosophical curiosity.

Aristotle On Why Leisure Defines Us More than Work
Life is Hard, by Kieran Setiya
Epicurus Principal Doctrines
eternal recurrence nietzsche

View All Breaks