Urban life is just part of one big symphony

Our emotional response to sound in the urban environment is better understood if we’re more aware of our contribution to it, says Jo Kotas

A sunny London summer is a rarity. But when the sun finally emerges, we dash out en masse to bask in its glory. And in doing so, unwittingly tune the city’s soundscape into a different frequency.

London’s leitmotif might be the sound of 1000 internal combustion engines, humming and rumbling their way through the streets. However, beneath this there’s a multilayered sonic texture that denotes and confirms our location. The rumble of traffic, bursts of sirens, overground trains, pedestrian chatter, heels on pavements, car alarms, radios, planes, bird song and roadworks – among many other sounds – amalgamate to create the sound of the city.

The sounds form sonic patterns throughout the urban environment and could be likened to an orchestral film score in the way they affect perception and emotion. Sound has been proven to make up 70 per cent of a film’s emotional impact, and so it must contribute greatly to our experience of the world. As we ascend the escalators at London’s Oxford Circus, for example, we brace ourselves for the boom of traffic, shoppers, tourists and sirens. Our stress hormones multiply and a sense of discomfort, and perhaps disorientation, greets us as we emerge from the Tube.

Within a film score, this may be a crescendo culminating in a pandemonium of orchestral sounds, and the resulting discomfort may motivate us to turn down the volume. At Oxford Circus, we just wince and rush to our final destination. In either scenario, we feel the need to escape the noise and irritation.

Urban sound patterns are not, however, always negative. They can be positive despite their volume. In a busy market, the sound of market traders, trollies and bustling bargain hunters may be loud, but the sound excites and incites involvement in the scene. Similarly, when passing a school playground the sound of children playing at break may be deafening, but it instills a sense of nostalgia and wholesomeness in the listener. Hence, quality of sound has as much impact upon and importance to the listener as volume.

Amid all the ruckus, be it positive or negative, we seek respite from the sonic tsunami and head to spaces such as canals, parks and commons for relief. Solace is largely experienced due to a sharp contrast to the loud boom of the street. A sigh of relief escapes as the grey turns to green and we’re able to decipher a blackbird’s call from that of a magpie. Meanwhile, the gentle rumble of traffic in the distance reminds us we’re in the city and not the country.

The call of nature and need for contrastdraws us to these quieter spaces. And as we flock, we multiply, then amplify and so change the resting soundscape.

London Fields might be seen as an acute example of sociology affecting sonic ecology. During the winter months the park is much like any other – dog walkers, cyclists and joggers prevail, not making much impact on the sonic environment. However, over summery weekends, it becomes an impromptu festival with barbecues, acoustic guitars, loud giggles, boisterous conversations and the whoops of field games. The jovial sounds wash over us and help move us into a carefree state of mind if that’s what we are after and why we are there.

Although we retreat to quieter spaces to calm cluttered minds, there is never a complete escape, never a complete silence. The closest we can get to shutting out the noise is by switching on our iPods and filling our minds with the music we choose. With this control, we can help direct our emotions and temporarily turn our world into our own personal music video.

London developed organically for the most part, and so its streets appear like the veins of leaves – thick arteries leading to narrower veins, then into fine capillaries. As we go through our day, we construct our own symphony, moving through loud and intense to quiet and soothing, and experience a mirroring set of emotions along the way.

Sound maps (see www.soundsurvey.org.uk/ index.php/survey/grid) visually present how sounds vary in intensity and type, indicating how sound patterns fluctuate across the city and play their part in building the score.

Cities and towns craft their own unique symphonies that we add to and become a part of as soon as we decide to enter that space. The relationship is inseparable – we cannot help but add to them in as much as we have little choice in preventing their soundscape affecting us and our emotions. With greater understanding and consideration we can conduct our lives and minimise irritation and stress. But if that still doesn’t work, we can always turn up our iPods.

Jo Kotas is founding director of Meme Partnership

Latest articles