With urbanization comes a proliferation in sounds. Sound can have positive connotations in the context of music, but more is less with the increased roar of noise in the city. It becomes less differentiated and variegated. Put simply, there are more decibels from more sources.
Yet many sounds attract people: the busy hum of a commercial district, the twang of a guitar from a busker, the murmuring of human voices in a tranquil park offset from the hubbub of the city, the shouts of market traders, the hurly-burly of the morning rush hour. If you like a sound, it can trigger pleasurable emotions. If you don't:
Adrenaline ... is released into your bloodstream. Your heart beats faster, your muscles tense, and your blood pressure rises. Sudden spasms occur in your stomach and intestines ... thoughts are interrupted and the digestion of food halts.17
Noise created by humans can be harmful to health or welfare: headaches, fatigue, irritability, sleeplessness, lack of concentration and other symptoms where the body screams for help. Not forgetting the most obvious problem - loss of hearing. Noises loud enough to cause hearing loss are almost everywhere in larger cities. Or, as one writer put it, 'New Yorkers (or Londoners, Tokyoites, Shanghai citizens, Romans) are expected to work and live in an aural state of siege.'18
Most city-dwellers experience the barrage of noise as a soundwall which prevents us from hearing distance, space and the more subtle exchanges among humans or animals. Transport vehicles are the worst: large trucks, buses, cars, aircraft, trains and motorcycles all produce excessive noise. As does construction equipment such as jackhammers, bulldozers, drills, grinding machines, dumper trucks, piledrivers and cranes. Air conditioning provides a constant background whirr and computers an electrical hum. So the noise of global transactions is a broadband hum. Shops have foreground and background music. Even in the suburbs we have lost the art of silence; gardening equipment grinds, grates and whirrs. Overwhelming everything is the big petrochemical roar of the car, but we do not notice it anymore. We cannot afford to. We must adapt as a function of self-protection. We are selectively attentive -we try to hear what we want to hear and we filter out noise. This is white noise, the total sum of all noise, the noise we take for granted. If we didn't, we would go mad. Look at people in the noisy city. They knit their brows, they squint their eyes and pucker their lips in a fixed position to shield themselves from and to ward off the sounds of the city.
To make matters worse, the sounds of the city are amplified by the physical structures that hug our street. Concrete, glass and steel create a 'canyon effect' that loudens the growls and honks of traffic, sirens and exhaust from big buildings. The sound artist and urban observer Hildegard Westerkamp sums up parallel developments in modern architecture, as exemplified by the Bauhaus movement, and sound. She points out that the new international architecture that is homogenizing our visual urban environment is also homogenizing our soundscape:
Although most likely not anticipated by Bauhaus designers, functionalism and efficiency in building design have been developed to great extremes during the twentieth century as banks and corporations have been erecting their tall towers. Artificial control of air and light has become an integral aspect of this type of building design, where no windows can be opened and natural light does not find access. Sonically this translates into electrical hums from artificial lighting and broadband sounds from air conditioning inside, and powerful broadband sounds from the buildings' exhaust systems outside. Modern cities are not only throbbing with amplified and reflected traffic sounds, but also with the 'bad breath', as Schafer calls it, of high-rise buildings... So, the internationalism in urban design has resulted not only in visual but also in aural sameness: same materials, same structures, same sounds.19
The original impetus for sound awareness came from composers and musicians. As professional listeners and makers of sound, they are acutely aware of the sonic environment and its acoustic ecology, the discipline that explores the ecological health and balance of our acoustic environment and all living beings within.20 It is in large part artists who have been at the forefront of sensory searching.
R. Murray Schafer introduced the concept of soundscape in the mid-1970s and, later, that of acoustic ecology.21 Westerkamp defines soundscape as 'the sum total of all sounds within any defined area, and an intimate reflection of, among others, the social, political, technological, and natural conditions of the area. Change in these conditions means change in the sonic environ-ment'.22 Schafer noted too that 'to grasp what I understand by acoustic aesthetics, we should consider the world as a vast musical composition which is constantly unfolding before us'.
The goal of acoustic ecology is to raise listening awareness and to preserve acoustically balanced soundscapes. Westerkamp again:
Soundscape Studies and Acoustic Design want to strip the soundscape of its sonic overload, its noise and all the acoustic 'perfume' that the Muzak Corporation, for example, has introduced into urban environments... Wanting to care for the acoustic environment in the deepest sense creates the desire to listen to it and vice versa, listening to it creates a desire, or, perhaps beyond that, it highlights the urgent need to care for it - just as caring for our children creates desire to listen to them and vice versa.23
In fact, in Western Europe, muzak has declined in influence, but wander around any shopping mall and you can hear the muffled cacophony of MTV culture and dance music, in place to energize consumerism. Hence there remains, at least in some quarters, the desire to remove background aural clutter so as to enjoy varied, distinct sounds from place to place.
Sound classifications obviously come from music. The main qualities cover pitch, the location of a note between high and low; timbre, the tone colour or quality of the tone that distinguishes it from other tones on the same pitch or volume; intensity, the loud-ness or magnitude; and duration, the length of a tone. Some have enriched the descriptive vocabulary further to portray subtler detail within a sound.24 Yet it is difficult to articulate the urban soundscape with these categories alone - its noises ranging from hum to hubbub, from din to honking, beeping and the whoosh and swoosh of cars.
So we have a low whirr, brrrrrm, brrrhh, with changing volume from a rumble to a roar, but always a continuous soft echo of rubber on the road. The more continuous backdrop of motorized sound is interspersed with sporadic interruptions: a staccato screech, whine, beep or honk, the straining sounds of cars going uphill or changing gear, and blaring, thumping car stereos. The occasional unmuffled motorbike exhausts make your ears boil. Sometimes there is a siren or a car alarm, designed to irk and annoy with its high-pitch, unrelentingly piercing whining or wailing. When these sounds cumulate, they crescendo to a roar. There is often an aeroplane above, rumbling with a gravelly roar, and on occasion it rasps with a gruffness as it flies directly overhead.
Cities are always on the move with accompanying construction and demolition: whirring, whining, clanking, drilling, banging, grinding; or the sound of swooshing or noisy crumbling as things fall down. The vibrations even reverberate within your chest if you are near enough.
Extract the car, the plane and construction and listen to the sounds of buildings in isolation, if you ever can - they breathe a steady, long, drawn out hummmmmm. The air conditioning and electrical gadgetry give out a coated, dulled whirr. If you listen closely, they alert rather than relax your ears.
The sound on the streets is the faint sound of people brushing against each other, a rustle, the patter of feet, the odd intermittent cough or loud exhalation of breath. Some voices break through, though commuters are rarely vocal. Then open the door of a bar, pub or restaurant, and you are hit by a soundwave. Voices can burst out as if the sound had been condensed in a fizzy bottle. A mix of pitches high to low, distinct voices in the foreground, the words nearly clear, sound in the background more like a rhythm of noise. A giggle or a laugh might break through and someone always has that unpleasant, piercing, whiny, nasal voice. Walking the streets at night and there will be a repetitive beat, lots of bass, faster today than yesterday - a basement bar or record shop, again you feel the vibrations. If you want to hear a thousand voices chattering, move out from Europe or North America to the bazaars of the East or the souks of the Middle East.
Really, it is noise not sound that you hear in the city. Sounds are mushed together and it is difficult to pick out individual ones. Rhythm is rare - and a comforting relief when it comes. Moving trains provide some rhythm, the dadumdadum dadumdadum as wheels click the joints on the tracks. Usually, though, the noise is random, a hubbub all around. Traffic throws a blanket over the soundscape so you lose the subtle sounds. Rarely is there a clear note. Discrete and continuous sounds simply coalesce. You would have to shut down electricity to hear silence without the hummmmm and it is difficult to experience pure sound.
Remind yourself of times gone: what sounds did you hear that you will never hear again with such pristine clarity? Sounds disappear like species: the hooves of horses clopping that you now only encounter in the military parade or TV period dramas; the clink of glass milk bottles on the front doorstep; the clack of typewriters keys on carbon paper; the pop of flashbulbs; the slamming of telephone handsets. You don't hear church bells often and when you do they are not crystal clear, masked as they are by the noise wall. You rarely hear the varying wind sounds in the city. Long gone is the tweet of urban sparrows or starlings, unless you are in Rome, where you might see a hundred thousand starlings in the evening light.25 Normally you have to concentrate hard and get rid of the noise in your head to pick out a poor miserable bird. While some sounds have gone, others have evolved: think of police and ambulance sirens, car engines and, of course, the styles of music you hear on the streets.
The sound of commerce is the sound of movement: packing, unpacking boxes, plonking crates on top of each other, shouts, self-advertising, the rustling of paper, trolleys, forklift trucks and their high-pitched whining. Markets are a sound and smell cliché, but compelling and ubiquitous. They have a rich sound colour and variations coming more from people than machines, with those from the latter often monotone. While the precise texture of market sounds across continents is different, its general tone is similar.
If you are near a port, sounds seem to emerge from the bowels of the hulls of ships. Add to this the deeply pitched vibrations of heavy containers clanging and juddering on to the ground. The sound is paced and measured in ports; heavy machines don't zip about, although the agile forklifts can dart about like ants. The sense of slow movement is inflected by our knowledge of port activities. The noise of industry has largely left cities whose economies are now based more on service industries and at whose edges the noise is trapped in large industrial sheds. This is especially true of cities in the Far East. But in the former Soviet Union you can encounter industry in its classic industrial revolution incarnation. Often it is silent as the massive centralized plants have gone bankrupt, with rusting debris lying forlorn, the wind on occasion whipping through the landscape causing irregular clangs. I remember a section of the shipyards in Gdansk, the rusting hulks in the port of Murmansk, the steel works in Elbasan, Albania. Then there are the still active plants like Nova Huta near Krakow or the Mittal steelworks in Iasi, Romania. The noise rings, booms and echoes as it hits the metal structures of the factory.
Nearing the city core there is the silent commerce behind the humming buildings' façades. You'll be lucky to see white-collar workers in the cheaper buildings, whose reflective glass returns your image. Yet transparency is all the rage now and behind see-through glass they go about their silent business. They, in turn, will be hearing sounds coming off the streets, muffled and less distinct though they are because of the double glazing. Inside their offices is the sound of static and hum coming from computers mixed in with voices. If the phone is used a lot, the workers hear the private sounds of other voices. More frequently than not, they will be on hold as they wait to be connected. How many times have they heard Vivaldi's Four Seasons, which has taken over from Albinoni's Adagio as the new muzak for calls on hold?
The sound of shops is chart music pumped out mainly by fashion and record stores. Usually more discreet in the West, there is a kind of social noise contract for which regulations are notoriously flexible. Thresholds of acceptable noise differ from country to country. The loudest street sounds I have ever heard were in Taipei's Hsimenting, a district popular with the young. Full of teeny-bopper boutiques, six-storey high-rises cram in up to 50 shops. They sell every kind of the latest that is bizarre, self-made and imported. On the ground floor the music thumps out from each of the competing stores, colliding with each other. The sounds vibrate underneath your feet as if you were balancing on a lilo and at head level your ears are assaulted. No wonder the sound of silence was too loud for the Taiwanese woman I met in Inari in northern Finland. She could hear her blood pumping and this frightened her. Calmer variations on the Taipei theme can be found in Tokyo's Harajuku, Electric City in Akihabara or Hong Kong's Nathan Road. But the new Eastern Europe is competing on the noise front. Think of Deybasovskaya in Odessa, Durresi Street and Boulevard 'Zogu I' in Tirana or even Arbat in Moscow, with sounds coming mostly from cafés. Evidently, being modern is being noisy.
The dominant department store and supermarket noises are more curtailed, in the first a discreet hush, in the later the pings of items being scanned at the checkout or the squeak of a trolley.
Places to escape from noise increasingly play significant roles: museums, galleries, libraries and places of religious worship are sanctuaries of quiet. Their silence wafts over the brow, easing tension along the way. Uninvited noises take energy away; silence can revivify and recharge. With time, relaxation sets in. Often people use these spaces as mental cleansing rooms.
Every city has its own sound atmospherics, even if too many are alike. Yet the sound of elsewhere can be enticing, even though it is largely the same. The combination with other impressions makes us hear sounds unlike those we have heard before. Also, if you listen intently, the sound palette of the roars is subtly dissimilar. The honk in one place says 'look, I am here', in another 'get out of the way'. In one, the honk is a quick beep, in another it is more drawn out.
It is rare for the sound of the city to come up at you at once, encapsulating all the fragments, but from vantage points around the world you can appreciate different sound panoramas: the din looking out from Zócalo Square in Mexico City, the children, birds and hooting from the panoramic view of Jodhpur's blue city from Mehrangarhin, or the more discreet noises from the castle in Salzburg. East Berlin once had a special high-pitched, two-stroke engine noise from the Trabants. In Los Angeles the horns and sirens pierce more sharply because the motors there are now quieter. In Italian cities there was far more hooting and beeping from motori-nos and Apes, the tiny three-wheeled vans, until the government raised noise as an issue. One of my most memorable sound experiences was in Sarajevo, where three global religions meet at a point. The main mosque and orthodox and catholic churches are a few hundred metres from each other. Within a few minutes of each other, there was the tinny call to prayers through a megaphone from the muezzin, bells ringing first to a catholic service and shortly afterwards to an orthodox one - all competing for attention. Only a few years before, practitioners of these religions had been slaughtering one another.
When we think about space, not just in terms of the physical structures that delimit it, but also as occupied by sounds and noise which are wittingly and unwittingly propagated, we begin to realize we are far more enclosed than we care to acknowledge. Hildegard Westerkamp describes Brasilia's soundscape:
As much as the Monumental Axis and the Residential Highway Axis may connect people between sectors or between home and work, acoustically speaking they form two enormous soundwalls that divide the city... The acoustic space traffic on these arteries occupies is much more extensive than their geographical dimensions. The traffic noise travels right across the expansive green spaces into hotel rooms, offices, churches, even schools, and many living areas. The eyes can see far but the ear cannot hear beyond the acoustic immediacy of the car motor . because everything looks wide open one gets the illusion of space. Acoustically, however, one is closed in.26
As an exercise, try to imagine your own city in similar, auditory terms. What noises would you rather not have? Which are an unnecessary, unpleasant imposition? What would you like to hear more of? How can sounds - especially those that grate - be better contained? As sounds occupy space beyond the geographical purview of their origins, we need to think of sound territorially.
Imagine music that you like: orderly chamber music, stirring Romanticism, catchy pop, exploratory jazz, whatever. Contrast this with the sounds of your city. How far is one from the other? Imagine yourself as a sound engineer. Reconstruct the sounds of the London of 1660, Cairo of 1350 and Baghdad of 1100. What sounds do you need to add to and subtract from today's noise? Imagine reconstructing the sounds of the city in a way that feels good to you. What would you foreground? Would the sounds be, as in nature, more distinguishable and identifiable, even the intrusive aircraft?
But we also have to be cognizant of the cultural contingency of sound. Sounds mean different things and have different weightings across cultures and territories. Our conditioning determines our response to noise, though it is risky to generalize too strongly. Scandinavians, it is said, prefer less cluttered, quieter sound environments; the Chinese need some noise to ward off the chasing ghosts of the dead; and Americans have become too used to fractured soundscapes typified by the constant advertising interruptions in their media. People hear, listen to, make and want sounds differently. A church bell might evoke a warm feeling even if you are not religious, but it might irk a Muslim. The sound of a police siren may provoke comfort, fear, anxiety or even excitement, depending on context. As travel and migration increase, there is greater awareness of soundscapes, but we accept too passively what we have at home.
As cultures interpret sounds differently, so they also make sounds differently. North American cites have less vocal sound unless in a shopping mall; Indian urban sounds reflect a greater human intricacy - they are more expressive; and Japanese cities have a more focused, hectic feel. Or is that too simple? Everywhere a low motorized rumble threatens. How many decibels are OK? It depends; the sound of a baby crying has more decibels in it than a pneumatic drill. But the baby induces the emotion to help; the drill you want to destroy. Westerkamp describes bemusement at Delhi's car horns. But she realizes there is an intricate system behind the seemingly chaotic noise:
I realize quickly that car-horns 'speak' differently here. They talk. 'hallo', 'watch out, I am beside you', 'leave me some space', 'I want to move over to your side', 'don't bump into me', 'hallo', 'I want to pass'. What seemed like chaos initially starts to feel like an organic flow, like water. There is an undercurrent of rules.27
Sounds engender emotions, they have meaning, and they reflect the cultures from within which they stem.
We could change the soundscape dramatically; it is in our capacity. Electric cars are already pretty silent. We could challenge our innovators to invent the silent computer or air conditioner. We could ask what would a public space sound like.
Did you ask for your soundscape? Is auditory trespassing part of the landscape of planning? Clearly not. Acoustic sensitivity is not designed in. It is hardly part of urban planning and development. It is an unplanned sideshow. Unsurprisingly, noise is now on many other agendas, such as those of the 'right to silence' and 'sound rights' campaigners: The Right to Quiet Society for Soundscape Awareness and Protection.28 The World Federation of Acoustic Ecology, inspired by Murray Schafer, is based in Vancouver, which perhaps makes British Columbia and Vancouver the urban sound awareness capital of the world.
Awareness of noise pollution is rising fast. In New York, London, Delhi and Chennai to name but a few. New York's Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, put forward legislation in 2005 which will provide the first comprehensive overhaul of the New York City Noise Code in over 30 years.29
In New York, noise is the number one complaint to the city's citizen hotlines, currently averaging nearly 1000 calls a day. The city is developing a new noise code, focused on construction, music and other nuisance but not the general din of traffic. This will augment the successful anti-noise initiative, Operation Silent Night. Silent Night targeted 24 high-noise neighbourhoods throughout the city with intensive enforcement measures. From its inception in late 2002 to early 2005, using sound meters, towing of vehicles, seizure of audio equipment, summonses, fines and arrests, the initiative issued 3706 noise summonses, 80,056 parking violations, 40,779 moving violations and 33,996 criminal court summonses. The City Police Department is now identifying new neighbourhoods to be targeted for noise control.30
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