Put on your headphones. From the comfort of your desk, subway pole, or couch, Anne Guthrie is going to take you on a soundwalk of the city.
As an acoustician and a composer, Guthrie is keenly attuned to the sonic landscape — the soundscape — of New York. She makes a practice of pounding the pavement to listen to and collect the interesting sounds that we so often tune out, either with headphones like you’re wearing now or inattention to what seems to be annoying noise. And while Guthrie rightly acknowledges the very real effects of noise pollution, she argues that active listening can lead to improved soundscapes, encouraging us to reduce damaging sounds and preserve or create enriching ones. Here, Guthrie explores our fraught relationship with urban sounds and breaks down the elements of twelve soundscapes she finds particularly interesting. Listen in, and when you’re through, leave those headphones to the side, take a walk, and let us know what you hear. –J.T.
Living in the city has always involved a love-hate relationship with its often-fatiguing barrage of noise, smells, and visual stimuli. New York has periodically been called the noisiest city in the world since at least the turn of the century. Public response vacillates between attempts to quiet this noise at the source and finding ways to tune it out. Themed articles often point to quiet places, where individuals can relax and work free of auditory fatigue, typically spaces separated from the city’s main thoroughfares, requiring trips to gardens and parks on the outskirts or seclusion indoors. The more common approach to tuning out draws on personal audio libraries and noise-canceling headphones that turn any location into a private soundscape at any time.
Considering the documented effects of noise pollution on health, concentration levels, and productivity, the requirement for quiet at certain times and the ability to create a focused acoustic space is not to be ignored. But what constitutes noise often comes down to taste — in addition to lengthy municipal complaint logs, city sounds also inspire poetry and music. To turn away from the noise of New York at all possible moments is to miss unique and interesting sounds, to flatten and homogenize the city, and perhaps to encourage the continuing loss of a varied and meaningful soundscape.
A cursory listen while walking through any borough might indicate that the only sonic differences between neighborhoods are changes in overall loudness. The day brings a constant flat-spectrum wash of cars, buses, sirens, airplanes, and construction sites. Commutes are often marked by the sounds of crowds and the subway train pulling into the station. Union Square’s platforms are some of loudest, clocking maximum levels of 106 db(A) — loud enough to cause hearing damage after less than five minutes of continuous sound without hearing protection. At night, depending on the season and the age of your building, you’ll hear radiators, pipes, air conditioners, garbage trucks, and loud neighbors. On the weekends, shouts of children, barking dogs, and ice cream trucks.
Despite countless noise abatement procedures and city codes, these sounds remain top causes of noise complaints today just as they’ve been since 1930, when the city’s first noise abatement commission undertook a survey of noise pollution. Their volumes haven’t changed much either: the subway today registers at 95 dB(A) on average, matching levels recorded in 1930. Some sounds are less of an issue today (ash can collection, doorman whistles, factory operations), but new irritants have arisen — the choppy whir of helicopters among them.
Study of environmental noise in major urban areas is important work, not least because development and refinement of noise codes is vital to our health. Aside from the productivity and comfort of neurotypical, healthy adults, there are more pressing concerns for effects of noise on children, especially those with developmental delays or sensory processing difficulties, and long-term patients in hospitals. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets guidelines for maximum noise exposure at different sound levels, which address interior noise levels in work environments. The NYC Noise Code, like most environmental noise codes in the US, focuses on monitoring and controlling exterior noise through specified maximum levels. International organizations such as the World Health Organization and the European Commission have implemented guidelines that focus more on the relationship between the noise source and the ambient sound levels in the surrounding environment, seeking to prevent the steady increase of noise levels over time by keeping the sources below existing ambient levels.
Beyond the physical effects of noise, which can be measured and controlled, the psychological effects can be more complex. Humans have a psychoacoustic ability to tune out certain unchanging noise sources in order to focus on others, a skill which is often called the cocktail-party effect. The ability to do this successfully is determined by the spatial separation between sounds, loudness, temporal variation, frequency or pitch, and informational content. But depending on levels of fatigue and stress, tuning out any sound can be impossible, causing almost obsessive focus on the annoyance rather than the task at hand. This explains why noise complaints are often difficult to regulate.
Rather than relying on tuning out or retreating to spaces of quiet, one solution to issues of noise in the city might be more intimate engagement with it. R. Murray Schafer, in his landmark 1977 work The Tuning of the World, proposes that one reason our urban soundscapes have become so intolerable, and in some respects dangerous, is that we have stopped listening. The essence of Schafer’s theory is this: humans did not become enveloped by a blanket of industrial noise because they liked the sound, but because they ignored it. Keeping noise levels under control is good for health, but it doesn’t discriminate pleasant sounds from harsh ones. Humans need a varied soundscape to give them a sense of place, to enrich their auditory systems, and to enhance social interactions. Once they are more aware of these sounds, they are more inclined to push for a decrease in other, less pleasing ones. They even have direct control over some of these sounds and may find themselves turning these down or off in order to hear something else. They may encourage new public works of sound sculpture or sound design to enrich the environment and preserve fading activities in order to prevent sounds from disappearing. Even if this kind of sonic activism doesn’t catch on citywide, it can at least improve our personal experiences of navigating the streets of New York.
Schafer recommends “ear cleaning” techniques for individuals who wish to redevelop this kind of relationship with their sonic environment. These exercises often begin with meditations on silence and are followed by listening sessions that include identifying isolated sounds in a busy soundscape and describing their characteristics in different ways. Recording sounds in a diary or with an audio recorder is encouraged, as is soundwalking. Soundwalks consist of active listening while traveling along a planned route and stopping at certain locations to focus on sonic events. They can be undertaken in groups with a guide, or they can be self-guided.
began utilizing field recordings in my compositions and electronic music almost ten years ago, influenced by sound artists like Steve Roden, Stephen Vitiello, and Akio Suzuki who inventively use such sounds in their work. I typically think of this recording process as material gathering rather than the kind of soundwalking that Schafer described, but it puts me in the same mindset of active listening. I ultimately discover sounds I might otherwise have missed and nuance in soundscapes that I didn’t know existed.
Like landscapes, soundscapes can be broken down in many ways. They often have a background and foreground, perspective and movement. Some sounds are shaped by the listener’s distance from the source, losing high frequencies as that distance increases; others are modulated by reflections from building facades or transmission through windows and walls. Sounds can be defined by their temporal contour — there are underlying rhythms, sudden blips, and constant drones. They can be broadband (the white noise of mechanical equipment and cars) or narrow-band (electrical hums, pitched horns, and whistles). The source of the sound can be industrial, human, or animal. Some sounds, termed soundmarks, might sonically define a neighborhood or community.
Through my music and work as an acoustical consultant at Arup — measuring noise levels and making spatial audio recordings for the 3D reproduction of existing and virtual sonic environments — I’ve gradually realized that my understanding of location within the city relates more to gestural sounds created above base textures than the textures themselves or overall loudness. I feel more connected to New York every time I find a new soundmark that enhances a specific location. More ephemeral sounds like singing make me feel closer to the people who share this city, and when I happen on natural sounds in the urban environment, I feel calmer.
You can experience soundscapes in numerous ways. By sitting and listening actively in a single location — whether you are recording to listen later, writing down impressions, or just taking it all in — you can discover how a place measures time. Some sounds occur at only one part of the day or night, and some sounds are modified depending on the season. Unique sonic events might only occur on specific weekdays or on holidays from parades and festivals. Some events only occur once, ever, at random, and if you are not listening carefully, you will completely miss them.
Soundwalking allows you to take a cross-section of a wide area and experience the unique, coexisting elements of adjacent microenvironments. You can observe how sounds generated by your body integrate with the environment (the rolling of your bike or your footsteps on different surfaces). These sounds stand out more on a recording, as in the moment our auditory processing system typically filters them to focus on external stimuli. I often plan a soundwalk based on events I expect to witness, such as parades or sound sculptures, or based on neighborhoods I want to explore. Some of my destinations are based on tips from colleagues and fellow musicians or historical descriptions. I find that my expectations are often quite unrelated to my actual experience, which is part of the excitement. Depending on the destination, I may only bring a small digital recorder (easier for quick or mobile recordings) or a tripod with high-end microphones (easier for recording at fixed locations), but recording equipment is not a requirement for active listening.
Through my recorded explorations of this city, I have captured several incredible sounds. The twelve recordings below give a taste of what you might find if and when you tune in to soundscapes across the five boroughs: soundmarks, human sounds, animal sounds, special occasions, and sounds of industry, all standing out above the typical noisescape of New York.
(1) Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn | April 2012
Background: traffic, people, outdoor bar, wind
Foreground: rhythmic clanking of boats against each other and the dock
The sonic rhythms of wind and water have a strong effect on people, and although the white noise of surf often falls into the background category of a soundscape, the sounds of boats clanking in light wake or slow waves lapping against a structure can imply location while rising as gestures above the other flat-spectrum sounds. This is a good example of a soundmark, which can clearly identify location and can be heard at most times of the day and year.
(2) Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn | April 2015
Background: traffic, people
Foreground: music from stores, cars, conversations, hair salons
This is an example of a soundwalk and the unique composition it generates. At the beginning, I paused outside a hair salon (you can hear the clippers), but I soon realized that I could listen to the soundscape better by walking through with a shifting focus, as many of the varied sonic elements were generated locally by storefronts. You can also hear the sound of my bike wheel, which provides an interesting accompaniment indicating motion and chronology that I didn’t hear while recording.
(3) Pratt Institute, Brooklyn | January 2015
Foreground: steam whistle
This was the last year that the Pratt steam whistle was played to ring in the new year, an annual tradition that Pratt’s Chief Engineer Conrad Milster began in 1965. It is an example of a unique soundmark — in this case, a disappearing one. In his book, Schafer notes the important application of recording technology for capturing disappearing or endangered sounds. WNYC has an ongoing series on sounds of New York City, originally captured by an audio recording studio in the 1960s, that are no longer heard today.
(4) Arverne, Queens | April 2014
Background: elevated subway, motorcycle, airplanes, surf
Foreground: piping plovers
The endangered piping plovers’ nesting period is short, and the birds are very vulnerable during this time. A sanctuary is roped off every spring in Arverne, Far Rockaway. Between April and June, the birds can be observed from outside the designated area, providing a rare occasion for wildlife sounds in New York. Some base-level white noise (about 45-50 dB(A)) is still present from the surf and the subway, but the sanctuary’s distance from the city noise make these birds more audible than most wildlife sounds in New York.
(5) 7 Train Overpass, Queens | October 2011
Background: traffic, subway
Foreground: self-generated sound
The overpass at the 33rd Street 7 train subway station in Queens is a legend among sound enthusiasts. This unassuming area has no intrinsic soundmarks unless you choose to engage the space yourself. On shouting or stamping your feet, the double-curved concrete soffit of the overpass creates a series of focused echoes that, in the absence of the reverberance created by a typical enclosed space, sounds almost synthetic. People may think you are crazy for doing so, but making sound here is a fascinating experience.
(6) Grand Concourse, The Bronx | April 2015
Foreground: live chickens in a Halal poultry market
This short recording was made outside a warehouse selling live poultry. This sound has a distinct, rhythmic quality. It is a good example of a unique sound that, while not identifying a place, reminds the listener that supposedly non-urban sounds can still be heard in this city.
(7) Joseph Yancey Field, The Bronx | April 2015
Foreground: elevated train, soccer game, kids playing
This recording demonstrates the value of spatial separation and perspective in creating an interesting soundscape. In this case, I found the train noise to be pleasant. Due to the shift in distance and stereo transition of the train, the sound had shape and didn’t become a constant wash of noise. The soccer game has a great spatial element, because the main source of noise shifts from left to right as the opposing team gains possession of the ball. As the game shifts further away, closer sounds become clearer, like those of kids playing nearby.
(8) Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan | August 2012
Background: traffic, people, dogs barking
Musicians in parks and on subways are some of the most immediate examples of foreground sounds in the city. Whether they are pleasant or intolerable is a matter of taste. This drummer may not be heard every time you visit the park, but the sound helps identify the location as a city park, and in context with the background, could be considered a soundmark of Tompkins Square.
(9) Columbus Park, Manhattan | August 2012
Background: traffic, people
Foreground: amplified speech/music, mahjongg game
This is an example of both a soundmark and a unique sonic event. The amplified music and speech was coming from a demonstration, likely a singular, non-recurring event. The sound of the mahjongg tiles clicking on the stone tables, on the other hand, is a sound that could be heard at most times of the day and year in this location. Without the context of the demonstration and other background park sounds, however, it might not have been recognizable as mahjongg, as opposed to other tabletop games taking place in other parks around the city.
(10) Pier 66, Manhattan | May 2014
Background: open-air bar, water, traffic, boats
Foreground: water wheel sculpture (Long Time by Paul Ramirez Jonas)
This recording shows the importance of sound art and soundscape design. In spite of its incredibly noisy location, the presence of this artwork provides a unique sound to focus on (pleasant or otherwise) that has a relationship to natural events (wind speed, water sounds, rust). This recording also highlights the discrepancy between personal listening experience and microphone recording. When I was seated in front of the wheel, it held a central position in my soundscape, and the dripping water and slow whine of the turning wheel were all I could hear. In the recording, on the other hand, the sounds of the background dominate.
(11) Midtown East, Manhattan | May 2014
Background: traffic, people
Foreground: Norwegian Constitution Day Festival (organized by the Norwegian Seamen’s Church on East 52nd Street)
This recording was a very unexpected find. I chanced on this block-long celebration on an otherwise fruitless recording excursion and recorded amplified speech, music, hymns, and cheering crowds. This is an example of an event that occurs infrequently and requires either patience or luck to find. The beauty of living in New York is, however, that you can likely find a parade or block party somewhere with equally interesting sonic environments on every weekend from May to September.
(12) Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard, Harlem | April 2015
Background: traffic, tour buses, and crowds
Foreground: transmitted music from Sunday church services at three Baptist churches (collage)
This set of recordings is an example of a human-generated soundmark. Through open doors and windows, the amplified speech and music from church services filter into the street, making both the location and day of the week distinctly recognizable. Additionally, the sounds of the Baptist church services in this neighborhood represent a unique phenomenon in the world of soundscapes. Over the past few years, visiting church services in Harlem has become extremely popular with tourist groups from Europe. As a result, a large crowd of tourists with cameras waits outside almost every church on Adam Clayton Boulevard on Sunday mornings. The sounds of the tourists have become part of the sonic environment as a result.
All recordings by Anne Guthrie.
Decibel (dB) is a unit of loudness. A-weighted decibels (dB(A)) are an expression of the relative loudness of sounds as perceived by the human ear. For more details and some typical sound levels, visit the OSHA website.
Thompson, Emily. The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933. MIT Press : Cambridge, 2002.
Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Destiny Books: Rochester, 1994.