Listening to the city

Soundscape refers to how we perceive our acoustic environment, with and without instruments other than our ears. City soundscapes are of interest to Science and Technology or Sound Studies scholars, historians, geographers and sociologists; a matter of public health and road safety; regulated by laws; shaped by urban planners and architects.

What can we hear? When should we listen? How do we sound? A selection of open tabs.

« For months, the Covid-19 virus has passed from body to body around the world. Its corporeal work is silent, but it reshapes the soundscape wherever it goes. Coughs and sneezes turn paranoid heads; ventilators whoosh in hospital rooms; streets go suddenly quiet, as people shelter inside. Kids home from school create a new daytime soundtrack, and neighbors gather on balconies in the evening, to sing together or applaud health workers. As physicians monitor the rattle of afflicted lungs, the rest of us listen for acoustic cues that our city is convalescing, that we’ve turned inward to prevent transmission. »

Shannon Mattern, Urban Auscultation; or, Perceiving the Action of the Heart
Visiting Paris in the XVIIIth century

The Grand Châtelet district […] « concentrates 80% of the background sound environments of Paris in that era, whether through familiar trades—shopkeepers, craftsmen, boatmen, washerwomen on the banks of the Seine, etc.—or the diversity of acoustic possibilities, like the echo heard under a bridge orin a covered passageway,” Pardoen explains. While historical videos with soundtracks are nothing new, this is the first 3D reconstitution based solely on a sonic background: the quality of the sounds (muffled, amplified…) takes into account the heights of the buildings and their construction materials (stone, cob etc.).

Mylène Pardoen, The Sound of 18th-Century Paris

On a quiet residential street, I can just wait until I don’t hear any traffic, and then cross. If there’s a simple stop sign, then I wait until I hear either no traffic, or cars idling (standing still) in front of me, indicating that they have stopped. Finally, in the case of a lighted intersection, the traffic movement will alternate between the traffic in front of me getting to go, and the parallel traffic (cars on the intersecting street to my side) getting to go. When the parallel traffic has a green light, the perpendicular traffic has a red, so when I hear the parallel traffic move on my side, I know it’s my turn to cross.

Arielle Silverman, Blind in the City: Demystifying the Eyes-Free Street Crossing

When you hear a place, you hear a specific social organization of sound as well as the way in which people interact and relate to each other. […] while vision tends to implement too great a distance betweenthe perceiver and the perceived, and while olfaction tends to produce overly diffuse and volatile phenomena, audition can mix the affective with the cognitive, the universal with the singular in a very balanced way.

Jean-Paul Thibaud, A sonic paradigm of urban ambiances

There is no universal approach to listening: every individual, every group, every culture listens in its own way.

Augoyard and Torgue, Sonic Experience

Tracking and anticipating sound patterns in the city can have positive consequences, such as reducing noise pollution to help improve the wellbeing of citizens. Sound patterns and parameters such as loudness can be modified and controlled in manifold ways and for different purposes. The use of legislation and the media establishes a regime of restrictions and deploys an array of social attitudes and opinions. Thus, sound mapping and control both create and depend on a system of values through which vulnerable sensitivities may be protected.

Samuel Llano, Mapping street sounds in the nineteenth-century
city: a listener’s guide to social engineering

He walked without a sound to the corner about twenty feet away and sat down on a covered garbage can in the alley where he could look out and watch Nelson wake up alone.

The boy was dozing fitfully, half conscious of vague noises and black forms moving up from some dark part of him into the light His face worked in his sleep and he had pulled his knees up under his chin. The sun shed a dull dry light on the narrow street; everything looked like exactly what it was. After a while Mr. Head, hunched like an old monkey on the garbage can lid, decided that if Nelson didn’t wake up soon, he would make a loud noise by bamming his foot against the can.

Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories
A deer is looking at New York through an apartment window, which has been invaded by tree. Although the city must certainly be noisy, the image feels very calm.
Shaun Tan, Tales from the Inner City. Some artist can convey a rich sonic ambiance in one image. Shaun Tan is one of them.

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