Sounds / Thoughts / Zuihitsu

Listening to the Sounds of the City

Sitting on my terrace with a mug of coffee, slowly recovering from a cold that has been draining my energy for the past two or three days, I am listening to the noises of the city. The projects of philosophy I want to write about have to be waiting until I have recovered a bit. I need to rest. I have seen many interesting articles on the blogs I am following, but no strength to engage in them deeply enough to do justice to them, so people will have to wait for my “likes” a little bit. I can only write some “zuihitsu” style text at the moment, a Japanese term meaning “following the brush”. So I am just following the cursor on my computer’s screen, the modern equivalent of the writing brush, with no special plan where this is going to lead me. The senses are active, the analysis has to wait.

I am listening. Every place seems to have its unique acoustic spectrum, its typical mix of sounds. We might not normally notice this, being distracted by all kinds of thoughts and activities. We might notice it when we are in an unfamiliar place. I remember the fascinating experience of the unfamiliar “soundscape” of one place in Cameroon. Or we might notice it in moments of rest, like I am experiencing it now.

I hear cars passing on the nearby street. There are neighbors talking on the balconies above me and on the balconies of the other houses surrounding the lawn in the center of the compound. There are sounds of dishes, forks or knives hitting on plates. I can hear several languages, some of which I cannot identify. There are voices of women and children from some distance. There are birds singing. A motorbike on the street and another one, much louder than the cars. The flapping sound of a passing magpie.

In the low frequencies, there are some rumpling sounds, probably from trucks passing at some distance. There is some whooshing sound of passing cars. From time to time, the sound of the traffic almost disappears, opening an acoustic window for more of the songbird’s singing to get through. The more distant sounds are blended into a faint fizzing, a sound “carpet” from which some sounds are standing out like islands.

A helicopter is passing, its sound composed from a higher frequency motor noise and the low-frequency chopping of the rotor. The people’s voices and other noises of human activity are interspersed in an intermittent way. The sound of a passing sports plane.

On some days, I can hear the unmistakable, deep and full sound of the old Ju-52 plains that are still being used here for touristic sightseeing flights, but today they are absent. On some days, there is the noise of the torches of hot-air balloons, but today there are none of them.

The description of these sounds goes only as far as our words. You can imagine them if you have heard them before. The characteristic bubbling sound of a Harley Davidson that just passed here – if you haven’t heard one before, you will not know what I mean with “bubbling”. We can name sounds, but really describing them is difficult. A dog is barking just now. If you know how dogs sound, you can imagine it. If I knew more about songbirds, I could name the ones I can hear here, and you would probably find recordings of them on the web. But our normal language is quite poor when it comes to describing our direct sensual experience. The amount of information contained in these primary sense data is too high. We would need a very rich and sophisticated vocabulary to describe these sounds in a more appropriate way.

In the sound file formats of our recordings, we have gone other ways, sampling sounds thousands of times a second, perhaps fractionizing it into different frequencies, using the mathematical tools or Fourier transforms, perhaps compressing the data, taking advantage of regularities found in them. The resulting sound files can be replayed and we can listen to the recordings, but that way, we do not really understand the sounds. In a conceptual description, on the other hand, we might gain some understanding but we are losing the richness of the original sense data. But I am not fit for going deeper into those philosophical waters today, so let me just listen.

I wonder what the soundscape surrounding you now is like.

(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Cologne#mediaviewer/File:Koelnehrenfeld.jpg. A view of Cologne-Ehrenfeld, the part of the city I am living in. The picture does not exactly show where I am living, but the places you can see here are nearby, a few minutes away by bike from where I am staying.

I notice that there are very many open domain pictures of places but relatively few files with sounds. You can see how the people living in each place don’t notice the typical sounds of their area any more and the tourists are only taking pictures. Most sound files that are there are the special and extraordinary sounds. But what are the normal soundscapes of all those places?)

6 thoughts on “Listening to the Sounds of the City

  1. My hearing has been impaired by medications related to my recent illnesses. I paid no attention to sound before this. Now I do. Everything I can hear is special to me now and the idea of “soundscape” very meaningful. I had not realized how each experience has its own set of sounds that I associate with it. Every memory.

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