How do we hear the city? When speaking of a city soundscape it often seems that we are referring to a single sound: all the activity of the metropolis combined into an acoustic whole that, however complex, still, somehow, represents the city’s sonic character. It’s an attractive idea – perhaps an aural response to the stunning urban landscapes we see from aeroplanes or via satellites high above – one that encourages us to think of city sounds as an interrelated whole and that gives expression to the widespread belief that each city has a unique sonic identity distinct from other cities. But in practice, as individuals immersed in the ever-present sound and noise of urban environments, this is not what we hear. Cities are just too large and our ears cannot register the entire soundscape as one.
However, while the whole sonic panorama may elude us, what we actually experience is equally profound and significant. Environmental sounds are inseparable from the locations where they are heard. When moving around a city we pass through a continual succession of local soundscapes that merge, often unnoticed, from one to the next. Each is connected to a particular place or spot. These are the city’s innumerable sonic places – the building blocks of the urban sound environment. They are present everywhere; in public and private space, streets, parks, inside buildings, at home, at work, below ground in subway stations or cellars and above in towers or skyscrapers. At any one moment their size is limited to the range of our hearing and their soundscape a product of the acoustic activity there, in resonance with the material, architectural and social character of the place.
What are sonic places? Sonic places imply a constant interplay between the physical environment – buildings, streets, walls, spatial layout, vegetation – and the sounds, which are created by people using the place, by the infrastructures and technologies present and, even in the most urbanised of spaces, by natural elements and other living species. It’s a constantly dynamic relationship, affected from moment to moment by the normal rhythms of city life, weather and seasonal changes and over the longer term by redevelopment, changing technologies, planning decisions, cultural, social, economic and environmental trends.
A basic description of a sonic place would include its location, terrain, the main architectural features and its most notable sounds. For example, Berlin Alexanderplatz – a large, busy, city centre plaza, completely paved and surrounded by tall buildings and glass fronted shops that create substantial echoes and reverberations; a major city transport hub and tourist attraction; sounds include trams rumbling across the centre, people’s footsteps, conversations in many languages, roller cases and a constant background of mid-distant traffic. But more is involved than a simple account. The interactions between different elements and their changes over time are also central. Perception is multi-sensory, so information from all our senses is important. What is seen, the temperature, humidity, the atmosphere of the moment and many other factors, including memories from previous visits and any prior expectations all potentially affect our experience of sonic places.
All sonic places combine elements that are fixed with those that vary. The dynamic between the two is often very characteristic. Material structures, the architecture and physical layouts, plus the acoustic effects that they create, have permanence, although their impact and atmosphere will be modified by the weather, time of day and many other factors. Sounds heard range from the ever-present to the completely accidental. The urban drones of air conditioning, electrical hums or buzzes and traffic backgrounds, often seem so constant that they take on the durability of stone or concrete. But non-continuous sounds can also be fixtures through their regularity. Bells chiming the hour, or playgrounds always noisy after school, are particularly noticeable and distinctive. Others though, like ambulance sirens close to a hospital or early morning birdsong, are much less certain in their timing, but are still likely to be heard. In this case, sonic probability, rather than individual occurrence, characterises the sound. Many aural events though, including those caused by the weather or unexpected wildlife, are far less predictable, and some are just occasional accidents. The predictability of sounds is an important aspect of sonic place. Busy places, such as railways stations or main city squares, may be sonically dense with a great deal of activity, but because much is predictable there are few surprises. However, in quiet locations where little happens, like small courtyards or isolated green spaces, even small sounds can be startling when they occur.
The relationship between the seen and the heard is also vital to sonic places. In urban environments, where vision is often restricted by walls or buildings, hearing keeps us in touch with events and sound sources that are out of sight. This is particularly obvious at night. The city of the ear and that of the eye may be closely associated, but their boundaries are rarely identical. If both are mapped they show an intricate pattern of links and overlaps but never complete correspondence. In the above example, hearing has a greater range than vision, but the reverse is also common. At vantage points with a clear view or in large open spaces, it is possible to see further than to hear and the distance information received is visual. Some sonic places may be characterised by an aural/visual relationship that constantly fluctuates. Beside busy roads or under flight paths quiet and more distant sounds will be drowned out by the peaks in traffic or aircraft noise but become audible again in between the loud moments.
Sonic borders, the edges of sonic places and how they merge from one to the next are also significant. Often they are barely noticeable. We may just become aware that the sound has changed after a relatively short distance and realise that a border has been passed. But exactly where it lies is rather ambiguous. Nevertheless, we cross sonic borders frequently while moving in the city. Some are more obvious, as in the sudden change of soundscape when entering a building or the reduction of traffic noise when turning a corner into a less busy street. The acoustic variety of cities is created as much by the number of sonic borders crossed as by the range of sounds present. Borders are intimately connected to the layout and architecture of an area. Older parts of cities, where streets are narrower and connected via small plazas and passageways, usually contain a greater density of sonic places and borders compared to newer areas, which are likely to be more open with broader, straighter streets. In Berlin the interlinked courtyards of Hinterhöfe are a good example of an architecture that creates an intriguing variety of sonic places and borders.
City residents get to know particular sonic places very well. Indeed, those at home or on regular travel routes become so familiar that they virtually disappear from our awareness. This does not mean that they are unimportant. On the contrary, their very familiarity means that they are essential to personal city knowledge, key to our sense of place and vital to our
navigation through urban geography. Berlin Sonic Places: A Brief Guide is an attempt to draw attention again, not only to the number and variety of sonic places in the city, but to their intricacy, interest and continuing significance. They are the small beauties of everyday sound and, sadly, too often ignored.
This text is originally published as "Introduction" into "Berlin Sonic Places: A Brief guide", edited by: DAAD Artists-in-Berlin programm, Julia Gerlach and Peter Cusack, 2017.