“What is your favourite sound of Berlin, and why?” is the question at the heart of the Berlin Favourite Sounds Project. It is simple to ask, but not so straightforward to answer. It is an attempt to discover what we find positive about, and how we interact with, the sounds of the cities and neighbourhoods where we live and work. The replies have been fascinating, both individually and through the overall patterns that emerge from seeing them as a whole. They reveal the city of the ear, rather than that of the eye, and emphasise the roles that sound plays in everyday life, triggering memories, associating with other thoughts, prompting actions, providing enjoyment and constantly informing us of the events happening around us.
The Favourite Sounds Project began in London in 1998 and has since taken place in cities as different as Beijing, Prague, Birmingham, Chicago, Manchester, Southend on Sea. Many of the sounds suggested have been recorded and are available on CDs, played on radio shows and used to illustrate talks or encourage discussions. On the sound mapping site favouritesounds.org they can be heard in conjunction with Google map or satellite images of the places where the recordings were made.
People continue to suggest their Berlin favourite sounds. Here is a short selection. The reasons ‘why’ are in italics.
The S-Bahn plus atmosphere (6am summer) at particular spot on Kopenhagener Straße. (I like the specific sound of the Berlin S-Bahn with all its overtones – calming, sometimes changes internally like the sound of the sea – and the combination with the atmosphere at sunrise; footsteps, birds singing, church bells.)
I like the sound of the clock in my kitchen. (Berlin is so quiet that I can hear it from my bedroom, that’s why I like it – day or night, doesn’t matter. It reminds me how silent Berlin can be. I come from a very loud country, Brazil, where silence is maybe impossible.)
The sound of a very old bicycle on the street or pavement. It’s quite ‘tinny’ and you think the bike might fall apart. You can hear it at all times and it’s immediately noticeable. It stops you. Metal grinding, rattling, clinking. (It sounds like an old friend, not perfect, but dependable, but the bike itself is completely utilitarian – stripped of all flourishes. Its age is its glory, which it announces to the streets.)
When a house being renovated has large tarpaulins covering it, which blow in the wind. The canvas has a stiff surface that crackles easily. The wind moves the surface in many different ways. (I like wind in general, particularly storms when the canvas becomes an orchestra that blows through it. The Berlin street facades and rows of buildings are a wonderful concert hall for these sounds and for the possibilities offered to the wind.)
I like the sounds of Berlin streets in the morning but especially afternoon/night (more in summer), when I open my window and hear the sounds of the bars and restaurants where musicians play on the streets and people are talking. (It’s a really calm, intimate and homely atmosphere for me. It’s somehow the sound of my childhood because I live there already for a long time (all my life) and every night when we go to sleep I listen to it. And when I grew up I took part in this nightlife. And in the morning I like the more silent sound – listening to the birds, getting up and going o the balcony, taking a breath. I like the whole atmosphere.)
I like the nightingale in the big yard of the kindergarten on the corner of Modersohnstraße/ Revalerstraße. (It is a pleasure to hear the bird singing when I go out with my dog during the night when the city is peaceful.)
The sound when the U-Bahn approaches and accelerates (glissando). (Because it sounds not unpleasant and is the sound of my daily routine, that is to say it frames the start and end of my day and because I like Berlin very much this seems very much part of Berlin’s character.)
Saturday mornings at Wintersfeldt-Markt. (Where one can buy fruit and vegetables. The stallholders always shout the price, ‘2 bananas, 2 euros’. Usually they are Turkish or from another country and I love how their German sounds. I also like that they speak very loud and always use the same sentences.)
The playground across from my building on Saturday about 12.00pm (Stephanplatz – especially in the summer). (I can hear from it what the weather is like and the sound of children playing reminds me of my old place in Cologne.)
The S-Bahn when it comes into the station. (When I return from travelling and the S-Bahn pulls into the station then I know that I’m home.)
The replies are very varied, from single focussed sounds to wide open atmospheres. They cover all seasons, times of day and many different locations, both interior and exterior. Usually the sounds mentioned are highly individual. However, despite the diversity they also have aspects in common. Many can be grouped into broad categories corresponding to the familiar structures of city life. The sounds of public transport, streets, people and communities, bells, markets, green spaces and natural sounds are all such groups. Many similar categories can be found too in other cities making comparisons fascinating. But there are also those that stand out as unique to an individual city. The sounds of the Hinterhöfe (inner courtyards) is a group particularly special to Berlin (see the Brief Guide entry for a fuller discussion). Tempelhofer Feld is also exclusive to Berlin. Since its closure as an airport in 2008 Tempelhof has become a vast open park within the city, very popular for sports, cycling, kite flying, arts events, dog walking or just relaxing. Its sense of urban sonic space and distance is unmatched in cities elsewhere (see the Two Sonic Landscapes section for a fuller discussion).
Berlin’s public transport – mostly the U- and S-Bahn (underground and overground railways) – contributes the largest group of favourite sounds. The same is true in London. However, within this group individual choices can be extremely varied; some people like the train sounds themselves, others enjoy station atmospheres with echoing footsteps and voices. Yet others prefer trains when heard at a distance or in combination with other sounds at personally significant locations. The S-Bahn is also special in that it is regularly mentioned as Berlin’s most characteristic, and unique, sound. But this may not last. Sounds and soundscapes are subject to constant change and the S-Bahn is no exception. Today the old familiar trains are being replaced by new models that look similar, but which sound, sadly, less attractive to the ear. Will this sonic change be reflected in future choices of Berlin favourite sounds?
Many of the city’s favourite sounds are associated with green spaces – bird song (springtime nightingales and blackbirds especially), children playing, wind in leaves and the quiet that is present. The social character of the city’s street life, particularly on summer evenings, heard in the sounds of people, cafes, conversation buzz, music, and rattling bicycles are also regular favourites.
People’s replies often refer to much more than sound alone. Considerable details of the non-sonic aspects of life are given – places, time, memories, emotions, and personal routines. They all emphasise how closely aural perception is integrated into daily experience as a whole and that all our senses and sensibilities are involved in interacting with the sound environment. For me the interdependence of all our senses has significant implications for soundscape, and indeed all, planning and design. Visual and other information influences how we hear, as much as hearing influences visual, and other, perceptions. The look of a street, square, park or neighbourhood affects how it is heard just as its soundscape will affect how it is seen and experienced.
The project also emphasises the importance of variety within city soundscapes. Almost nobody’s favourite sound is exactly the same as anyone else’s. Collectively we are aware of and register the sonic details of everyday experience. This strongly suggests that successful sound environments – ones generally appreciated and that feel welcoming – are those with a good sonic diversity. There is something for almost everyone despite the wide range of individual preferences. It supports the idea that enhancing sonic diversity and sonic detail should be priorities when future soundscapes are being planned.
This text is originally published in „Berlin Sonic Places: A Brief guide“, edited by: DAAD Artists-in-Berlin programm, Julia Gerlach and Peter Cusack, page 85-88. 2017.