Consider what you can see right now. The letters on this page. A cup of tea, coffee or water. A room framed by the limits of your peripheral vision. The detail is rich, vibrant and immediate.
Now close your eyes and simply listen. What do you hear? In a city like London it might be a plane’s laconic drone overhead. The beat of your neighbour’s music, half-conversations spoken into mobile phones. Lift your lids and the cacophony of the city subsides.
Stop, look and listen
“We have a primate brain that devotes a lot of resource to vision,” explains Ian Rawes, who has built up an archive of city sounds for the London Sound Survey. “We love the informational sugar-rush. The brain throws a lot of computing power into building a simulation from a 2D monochrome image. Sound isn’t reconstructed in quite that way; it demands patience.”
Our sense of sound not only perceives the same objects in a different way; it extends perception beyond our field of vision.
“Sound is all around you; images only point in one direction,” explains Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision at the British Library. “We can hear in the dark and around corners, but our hearing tends to be overwhelmed by visual information.”
Sounds can become closely intertwined with strong emotions, so that hearing similar noises can evoke the same feelings even if they are completely out of context. It’s a phenomenon commonly seen in war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, where harrowing memories are triggered by a piece of music, a helicopter or thunder.
“Sound comes to us and hits our emotional brain, causing immediate nostalgia. It’s a more subtle and infinite presence that we take for granted,” says Stephan Crasneanscki, founder of New York collective Soundwalk, which curates unusual audio tours.
Despite the emotive power of sound, humans ‒ particularly in urban settings ‒ often consider it to be more of a nuisance than a wistful memory gateway. Even the language we use is negative: it’s noise, not sound. Noise is something unwanted that must be minimised. It’s an uninvited guest that interrupts sleep and concentration. It’s often described as a disturbance.
But noise is not a new predicament for city dwellers. The poet Juvenal wrote of Rome in the late first century AD: “The waggons thundering past through those narrow twisting streets, the oaths of draymen caught in a traffic jam, would rouse a dozing seal – or an emperor.”
However, before the invention of the phonograph in the late 19th century, our documentation of cities was eerily quiet, tucked away in text and images in hushed libraries. With a little digging, it’s possible to find many references to urban noise, from the medieval cities that banned horses and carts from cobblestones during the night, to Samuel Pepys bemoaning the volume of animal traders and neighbours in London. But it’s hard for words to adequately capture sonic history.
“Sound has been rather neglected,” says Museum of London curator Francis Marshall. “We simply don’t have a history of collecting sound in the same way as we do printed ephemera.”
That being said, advancements in recording technology ‒ including the rise in smartphones with recording applications ‒ and the arrival of the internet have made it much easier and cheaper to record and share sounds.
Turn up the volume
Of course, just because people have complained about urban din for centuries, that’s not to say ambient noise hasn’t increased in recent times. The industrial revolution brought with it rising urban populations, belching factories, the combustion engine and, later, the burgeoning aerospace industry. In 1959 the Noise Abatement Society was launched to deal with “the forgotten pollutant”. This led to the development of the Noise Abatement Act a year later.
Noise is now widely acknowledged to have an impact on human health by increasing stress levels and disturbing sleep. In Europe, at least 100 million people are exposed to damaging levels of noise from road traffic. The World Health Organisation goes as far as to estimate that each year Europeans lose at least one million healthy life years due to traffic-related din.
But in our quest to reduce noise, it’s often easy to forget about the positive impact sound has on human experience.
“Noise is measurable in a quantitative way. It’s so much easier to codify and create standards for noise than it is for sound more broadly,” explains Dr Mags Adams, a geography lecturer at the University of Salford who has studied soundscapes and acoustics in cities.
Artist and musician Peter Cusack agrees. “Sound studies tend to look at the volume of sounds, but have nothing to say about the quality,” he says.
It was Canadian composer and environmentalist Raymond Murray Schafer who first coined the term ‘soundscape’ in the 1960s in Vancouver. He talked about “the music of the environment” and began documenting the sound of the city through field recordings that he called the Vancouver Soundscape. As part of his work, he divided sounds into three broad categories: keynote sounds, sound signals and soundmarks.
Keynote sounds are those subtle background sounds that identify a place. In cities, this tends to be traffic.
Sound signals are foreground sounds which are listened to consciously, such as horns, sirens and warning devices.
Finally, soundmarks, much like landmarks, are unique to an area: the bongs of Big Ben; the one o’clock gun at Edinburgh castle; Tokyo’s train jingles; the Vancouver foghorns.
Music to our ears
In 1998, Cusack launched The Favourite Sound Project to encourage city dwellers to find positive, pleasing elements of their city’s soundscape. London now has more than 1,000 sounds catalogued, including ‘mind the gap’ announcements, bus airbrakes and the hubbub of Brixton station. Similar maps have launched in Beijing, Chicago and Manchester.
But for Cusack it’s not just about documenting and appreciating sounds. He believes that it’s possible to shape the acoustics of urban environments, and that city planners should do more to create positive sonic experiences for local inhabitants. This might involve orienting buildings in a way that reduces traffic noise, or planting certain types of trees that rustle or hiss in the wind. He cites a project in Berlin where Nauener Platz was redesigned to improve the soundscape.
Devices were installed in sculptures and benches that played the recorded sound of birds and water. This was boosted by a 1.5 metre stone wall around the perimeter, which acted as a sound barrier to cut out traffic noise. Benches were positioned directly behind the wall, and playgrounds were improved in order to encourage lively sounds from human activities.
In contrast, Soundwalk founder Crasneanscki believes that trying to sculpt city soundscapes is futile. “The beauty of a city is the chaos and fun that can come out of it. The city is a beast under no-one’s control,” he says. He goes as far as to describe the haphazard way that sounds clash into each other in New York as creating “very unexpected modern poetry”.
To Crasneanscki, a soundless city is a dead city. “Think of Switzerland ‒ the cities have no more blood, no more sound. It’s depressed. But you go to Bombay, Mexico City or Tangiers and they’re so alive, so present.”
UK artist Stanza, who created the open source Soundcities database, agrees. “The city is the orchestra, and we are just conductors whose interactive actions compose this music as we walk around,” he says.
We could stop sending postcards and start sending audio bites of cities, he suggests. “Just record one minute of the city. It’s the most evocative memory of a place.”
Soundwalk has developed a wide range of soundworks designed to play like the soundtrack of a film, with voiceovers and music that act as your guide. They were inspired by Crasneancki’s early experience of New York in the 1980s, where he would be listening to music on his Sony Walkman and “suddenly the city would transform”.
“Sound has the ability to alternate our perception of reality. Music in your ears creates a new type of narrative. Ten different types of music create ten different types of the same city,” he says.
The hear and now
Just as the industrial era brought with it a plethora of new sounds and personal audio devices enabling us to reinterpret cities with alternative soundtracks, further innovation may take away many of what are considered to be the authentic sounds of the modern urban environment. Take the electric car, for example. If we eliminate combustion engines, cities will become much quieter places.
“In the modern era, many sounds are here today and gone tomorrow,” adds Ranft. He mentions the sound of dial-up modems, cassette tapes and other fleeting historical sounds that are characteristic of their time. “If we don’t document them, they’ll be gone forever.”
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could hear the sounds of the French Revolution, a street scene in Georgian London or Oliver Cromwell speaking?” asks Rawes, wistfully. “Sadly the history of mobile sound recording isn’t very long.”
But by spending 20 to 30 hours every week on field recordings, he’s doing his bit to make sure future generations will have a sense of what early 21st century London really sounded like.