Urban Noise Generation

The Observer this week takes a look at the sounds of cities.
“For some,” we read, “living in a city is a loud, unpleasant babble of intrusive noise. For others it is a soundscape of calming tones that lift the spirits and brighten the day. Now a £1m, three-year research project is building a database of noises that people say improve their environment. It will translate those findings into design principles to help architects create sweeter-sounding cities.”
Wonderfully, the leader of the study “is looking for members of the public to take part in mass ‘sound walks’ through cities or in laboratory listening tests, where the team will use MRI scanners to measure participants’ brain activity as they are played a variety of urban noises.”
They will thus develop an artificial soundtrack for the urban future.

Some of the “surprisingly agreeable” sounds discovered thus far include “car tyres on wet, bumpy asphalt, the distant roar of a motorway flyover, the rumble of an overground train and the thud of heavy bass heard on the street outside a nightclub.”
We even read that the sounds of “skateboarders practising in underground car parks” are considered “kind to the ear.”
As part of his auditory interest in urban design, then, the leader of the study wants “to see more water features and sound-generating sculptures next to busy roads,” and he wants to use buildings and trees “to scatter, deaden or reflect sound.”
The entirety of city space could thus be instrumentalized – literally made more musical.
However, I’m curious how this study will deal with different moral and/or cultural expectations for urban noise. The sounds of neighbors having sex, for instance, and those who voyeuristically listen-in: should you play copulatory noises through hidden speakers in the downtown park? Thus calming a certain segment of the population?
What about the Muslim call to prayer?
And could your city someday start a season-long program, inviting sonic grandmasters to come in once a month and play new sounds for the whole metropolis, resoundtracking highways and civic infrastructure, giving the sewers a tune, adding audio to everything?
Or is that just called a radio DJ?

(Thanks, Nicolai! Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Audio Architecture and New York City in Sound).

7 thoughts on “Urban Noise Generation”

  1. not quite the same thing, but the idea of “remixing a city” reminds me of the website Soundtransit, in which you can download/upload field recordings from around the world–most recent uploads include insects in Hokkaido and sounds from a celebration at a monastery in Ukraine. You “book a flight”–select a city-by-city itinerary–and then the site creates a mix of the field recordings from those locations.

  2. you seem to post a lot about sound… yet, everywhere I’ve lived (Ireland, London, various parts of Europe, Japan) scant regard seems to have been given to this sense by the developers of any of the properties I’ve lived in… I’m in Tokyo now, and it’s by far the worst, yes, literally paper-thin walls…

    where lies the missing link between property development and an auditorially pleasing domicile?

    Erik Satie also used to eat and drink only white items… if he had “remixed” a city, would he have simply painted the town of the same colour and removed all the furniture?

  3. “they like the sound of a highway fly-over? I live above the 580 and literally woke up this morning and said, “I hate you cars.””

    After reading about here, I posted about this article yesterday. I thought the interesting thing about it, in re Marisa’s quote above, was that people found those noises pleasant–and more pleasant than the sound of rushing water, too–only when the sounds were not explicitly identified. Once they were told “that’s traffic,” it didn’t light up the same part of their brain any more. There’s a paradox there that I find really interesting.

  4. Speaking as somebody who has an odd tendency to move into apartments right next to major traffic – I lived with all the train traffic heading into Hamburg’s central station whooshing by me at eye level for a year and a half, and now I live next to a major arterial – I do not get the whole noise pollution issue. It’s always bugged me that when planners think about sound at all, we usually want places to be quiet. So we shouldn’t hear our neighbors laughing and talking? Or hear music when we open our windows? It’s silly and narrow-minded. Wonder which of the sounds I would find calming…

  5. Urban ambient noise has made its impact on art – there’s the song “The Lullaby of Broadway” and its fondness for “the rumble of the subway cars/the rattle of the taxis” (in 1935, when this would have been a lot more distinct from surburban quiet!) and Langston Hughes’ poem “Juke Box Love Song”:

    I could take the Harlem night
    and wrap around you,
    Take the neon lights and make a crown,
    Take the Lenox Avenue busses,
    Taxis, subways,
    And for your love song tone their rumble down.
    Take Harlem’s heartbeat,
    Make a drumbeat….

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