City Sounds: Perhaps My All-Time Favorite News Article Ever?

This is, perhaps probably, I kid you not, perhaps my all-time favorite news article ever.

It's a London Observer bit on a recent study about city sounds and research on people's enjoyment of different acoustic environs.
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.


Davies 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.

There's even a wonderful, though not comprehensive, list of urban sounds people apparently like.

Among the urban sounds researchers have found to be surprisingly agreeable are 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.

Other sounds that are apparently kind to the ear include a baby laughing, skateboarders practising in underground car parks and orchestras tuning up.

I would add to this list such obviously wonderful sounds as:

  • Church or clock bells chiming
  • Wind blowing through trees
  • Bicycle bells
  • Ice cream truck songs (though not at great length*)
  • The unintelligible din of cafe conversations
  • Crows cawing
  • Most any kind of music, played at an echo-y distance (esp. a tenor saxaphone, of course)
  • Boat horns
  • Boats in general
  • Water in general, waterfalls in particular
  • The bell sound train gate arms make when they lower
  • Saws that cut wood
  • The sound of a pelican street sweeper
  • Pigeons taking off / cooing

On the other hand, I would add this to the list of sounds I find distasteful, along with airplanes passing by, jackhammers, the beeping noise of backing up trucks, pile drivers (!), leaf blowers, garbage truck hydraulics, and the honking of car horns:
'In the laboratory, many listeners prefer distant motorway noise to rushing water, until they are told what the sounds are.'

I hate, absolutely hate, the sound of a distant motorway noise, almost (but not quite) as much as I hate, absolutely hate, the sound a very close motorway noise. In fact, my hatred is proportional to proximity, I'd imagine. Freeway noise is such a constant, flat, high-pitched whine... it's got zero acoustical value.

I'd also be curious, re: this study, about the mixture of these various sounds, and how their periods of intermittency affected people's ratings of their aesthetic value.

(I'm kind of ambivalent about lawn mowers and lawn sprinklers. They're not found often in cities, anyway. Also neutral-to-slightly-positive on the sounds of subways passing underground.)


*When I lived in an old industrial loft building in a deserted part of Bushwick, Brooklyn, an ice cream truck would basically circle our block for hours and hours on certain summer days, playing over and again the song Turkey in the Straw (I think). This, for obvious reasons, might have driven me insane. Also at that apartment: being only two blocks away from a city-owned facility which cleaned empty Pennsylvania-bound NYC-garbage-hauling semis from the hours of 12am to 4am, I enjoyed the constant idling of large diesel engines directly outside my 4th floor window, to which, after no little period of adjustment, and due to the necessities of sleep, I resigned myself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For me, it is the boat horns from the Mississippi River. :) I miss them in the winter. I even enjoy the sounds of workers talking to each other over PA systems on the barges.