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The urban soundtrack fascinates through the ages

January 13, 2023

reading time: 6 minutes

by Andrea Valentino (guest author)

Woman in the middle of a city street: The urban soundtrack fascinates through the ages

If you live in a city, what do you hear as you open your front door? Maybe the animal growl of traffic and the bleating of sirens - but what else?

Can you hear the chatter of passersby, or the ringing of church bells, or the whisper of the wind down the avenues? These might be sounds you rarely notice: only 10% of us actually listen effectively, hardly surprising on a planet filled with podcasts and cordless earbuds. Yet if you do, you wouldn't be the first. 

Metro Klangkulisse
Does the "Métro" sound different from the "tube"? © GettyImages/Moment/Busà Photography

At the start of the 17th century, composer Orlando Gibbons listened closely too. In his Cries of London, a choral piece for five voices, he recorded the calls he heard in the lanes of Shakespeare's city, from a man hawking tobacco to a woman selling oysters for "threepence a peck".

City sounds have since changed, yet for some, the fascination with urban noise remains – and today's enthusiasts are using modern recording equipment to capture it. Apart from affording us the joy of decompressing as life hurtles by, listening to the sound of our cities can tell us much about their current state and future plans.

Pitter patter of rain, church bells ring

In 2012, a podcast offered listeners snippets of sound from across London. In one clip, trains squeak and clatter. In another, children howl on their morning break. Elsewhere, a pair of Egyptians have recorded the sounds of Cairo, from the Muslim call to prayer to a horse and carriage. 

"Cities have grown too fast for us to ever recover those lost aural worlds," says Aimée Boutin, professor at Florida State University.

While these schemes focus on a single city, British artist Steve Tanza, known professionally as Stanza, developed Soundcities. This global database includes hundreds of entries of urban noise collected by the man himself and a cohort of eager volunteers. Stanza compares his project to music: "You start to get this bigger cacophony of sound as it builds up."

When exploring the Soundcities site, the musical analogy feels apt. Because the platform lets you layer recordings from across a certain town, you can conduct a kind of urban fugue as an interactive map grounds each sound to a particular location. In Brussels, for example, the grumble of a train announcement at the Zuidstation jostles for space with a crying baby on the Boulevard Poincaré. Further east, in Hamburg, rain taps on metal on Max-Brauer-Allee while an ambulance flaps beneath the Sternbrücke.

Just like with real music, Stanza is convinced that these disparate noises can transport you. In a world obsessed with mindfulness – even as our focus is pulled in a hundred directions at once – he argues that learning to control what we hear can help fight the distractions of modern life. Given the findings of one study, which found that the average human attention span has slumped to less than that of a goldfish, this is promising news.

Meal clatter, quiet traffic

Some cities are inconceivable without their sounds, from the tolling of Big Ben in London to the foghorns in the Bosporus of Istanbul. But according to Trevor Cox, the distinguishing sounds of a city may not be as famous. The professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford notes that high-pitched female voices mingling with the clatter of food and drink are the sounds of Hong Kong – specifically when women leave their homes and fill the city's shopping malls for their regular picnics. 

Bangkok
Fly your ears to Bangkok and they'll hear the throb of cheap motorcycles - or crowded markets. © GettyImages/Moment/Ranulph Mackenzie Thorpe

As Cox says, that precise combination of noises is unique to the Fragrant Harbour. "It's not heard anywhere else," he stresses, "because that gathering doesn't happen anywhere else." Put another way, modern soundscapes reveal the subtleties of modern urban centres.

Stanza, for his part, offers the example of Kolkata. Though local drivers beep constantly while driving, the racket stops when the traffic piles up. That's the opposite of most Western countries – and precisely the point. Rather than honking as a sign of anger, Kolkotans instead speak a kind of wordless language, warning cars and pedestrians that they're nearby. Once things slow down, the need for noise vanishes. "You've got the same sound being experienced in a completely different way to different cities," Stanza says. "It's wonderful". 

Green urbanism feeds silence

You can learn just as much about other places by browsing Soundcities. On the Trieste page, you can hear the iconic bora wind gusting up Via Guglielmo Marconi, appropriate for a coastal city at the top of the Adriatic. Fly your ears to Bangkok and they'll hear the throb of cheap motorcycles, a reminder of how overcrowding and humidity have made Thailand the scooter capital of the world. In Tallinn, you can hear singing in Russian, unsurprising for a city that has long hosted native Estonians and their Slavic neighbours.

In a similar vein, you can listen to how soundscapes change. Though the sounds of Cairo have been safely preserved, the government has cracked down on horses and carts. Visit Pontevedra or Ljubljana, meanwhile, and the hum of combustion engines will largely be absent, a vivid evocation of a new green urbanism.

India
Cities might have grown too fast for us to ever recover those lost aural worlds. © GettyImages/Yukinori Hasumi

This last example raises one further question. If cars are being prodded away from urban centres, could we finally revive the soundscapes of our ancestors? Aimée Boutin, an expert in urban soundscapes at Florida State University, isn't so sure. If nothing else, she says cities have grown too fast for us to ever recover those lost aural worlds.

But know where to go, Boutin continues, and you can surely get close. She brings up the heart of London, with its medieval lanes and courts, and suggests that the dense buildings might yet "capture something of what things sounded like in the past." A lovely thought, and one that would have probably made composer Orlando Gibbons prick up his ears and smile. 

Aural Impressions

Street in Mumbai, India

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Metro in Paris, France

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Market in Bangkok, Thailand

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Street in New York, USA

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Traffic in Tokio, Japan

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Park in London, England

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Street in Bologna, Italy

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Harbor in Essaouira, Morocco

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Copyright Header Visual: GettyImages / The Image Bank / Yiu Yu Hoi.

Additional photos: India: Photo © Getty Images / Stone / Peter Adams. Paris: Photo © Getty Images / Moment / Busà Photography. Thailand: Photo © Getty Images / Moment / Ranulph Mackenzie Thorpe. New York: Photo © Getty Images / Yukinori Hasumi. Tokio: Photo © Getty Images / Stone / Alexander Spatari. London: Photo © Getty Images / Image Bank / Pawel Libera. Italy: Photo © Getty Images / Vlad Eugen Nistor / Eye Em. Harbor: Photo © Getty Images / E+ / Nicola Margaret.

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