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February 2, 2015


What Do Cities Really Sound Like?

by soundlandscapes

I SPEND A LARGE part of my time recording and archiving the sounds of Paris. I’m particularly interested in the relationship between sound and place and the extent to which sounds can define, or at least help to define, a place.

It seems to me that as our city soundscapes become increasingly amorphous and homogenous the distinctive sounds that help to define a place have become less obvious, which I suppose poses the question: do the constituent parts that make up a city sound the same, similar or different – does the centre of the city really sound that much different to its periphery for example, or indeed, does Paris really sound that much different to London, New York or Tokyo?

Of course, I’m not the first to ponder questions like this. Some time ago, Ian Rawes, founder and curator of the acclaimed London Sound Survey, embarked upon a fascinating study based on the question, “What does London really sound like?” In his introduction to the study Ian says:

“One of the goals of the London Sound Survey is to treat sound as a means to an end, that of knowing more about the past and present nature of the city and what it’s like to live here. London is now more ethnically varied than at any time in its history with high population churn and rates of income inequality not seen since the early 20th century.

So, despite the homogenising effects of modernity on how public spaces sound, more insights should arise from examining likely patterns of difference around the city than seeking commonalities.”

Although not yet completed, it will be interesting to see what Ian’s study reveals and to see if his findings might provide some empirically based answer.

In the introduction to his study Ian also quotes the pioneering field recordist Ludwig Koch who said, ‘There is an atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris’. Even though this may be a little fanciful, it’s a quotation I use at every opportunity because I understand what Koch meant by it.

The quotation comes from the introduction to a short programme Ludwig Koch made for the BBC in 1952 featuring some of the sounds of Paris that he had recorded. In 2012, I was invited by Cheryl Tipp, curator of natural sounds at the British Library Sound Archive and custodian of the Ludwig Koch archive at the British Library, to follow in the footsteps of Ludwig Koch and record the contemporary sounds of Paris from the same places that he had recorded from sixty years before. It was a fascinating experience. It revealed that over the last sixty years some sounds have disappeared altogether and new sounds have emerged, some sounds have changed and others have stayed remarkably the same.

Although I’ve amassed a huge collection of the sounds of the city, my head tells me that I haven’t yet been able to define precisely what Paris really sounds like in the way that Ian hopes to do for London, but my heart agrees with Ludwig Koch, I am sure that there is an atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris.

This was brought home to me the other day when I found myself walking along a street in the east of Paris in the rain.

Belleville - Rue du Faubourg du Temple

What does Paris really sound like?

For me, the sound of traffic rolling over rain-soaked pavé is a quintessentially Parisian sound that not only defines this part of this particular street but also goes some way towards defining the city itself.

These sounds seem to have a timeless quality to them and for me at least they provide an elegant continuity with Parisian sounds that would have been familiar to Ludwig Koch.

But are these sounds part of Ludwig Koch’s atmosphere in sound that belongs only to Paris?

Well for me they are even though I don’t have any empirical evidence to substantiate it. What I know for sure is that I find these sounds enormously powerful and evocative and always inextricably linked to Paris.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Feb 2 2015

    Your article brings back my initial sound memories from my visits to Paris starting in the late 80s. We stayed at the same hotel in the 7th for many years, overlooking the street and usually had the windows open for “fresh” air. We came from LA, but the street sounds we heard there were two blocks away from a well-traveled street. There was little foot traffic. The sound in Paris was unique to my ears, especially the motor bike sounds and the sirens were different, as were the sounds of the people talking on the street and the car horns. I would awaken during the night and listen to the sounds and then again in the morning when the sound would intensify.
    To this day when I am in Paris the sounds of the street are familiar and comfortable to me and I still open a window to enable the sounds to penetrate my dreams.

    • Feb 2 2015

      Thank you very much Richard for your fascinating comment. I’m not surprised that you find the sounds of Paris different to those of LA!

      It seems to me from reading your comment that you have a similar view to Ludwig Koch, a view shared by me and by Heather in her comment (below), that there is something ‘special’ about the Parisian soundscape. It’s a view I hear from many people although, as you will see from my reply to Heather, I haven’t, even after all this time, been able to find a way to fully explain what makes it special.

  2. hmunro
    Feb 2 2015

    I’ve begun to think of Paris not as a single city but as thousands of different versions of herself, each as unique as the individual streets in Paris can be. And yet, I also agree with Koch: There really *is* such a thing as a quintessential Parisian “sound.” I still haven’t been able to pin down whether I think it’s due to the slower pace at which traffic moves through the city’s narrow ruelles … or the rich public life that almost always adds snippets of conversation or the sound of footsteps … or the ubiquitous sirens of the SAMU and the Police Nationale. Or maybe it’s something different altogether — like a sonic equivalent of the famous Dutch Light. Whatever the case, I’m grateful you’re there to record these sounds to enrich our current experience and understanding of the city, and also to preserve them for future generations. Thanks for another superb post, Des.

    • Feb 2 2015

      Thank you Heather. I think you’ve highlighted a key point – shall we call it your ‘Dutch Light’ theory.

      I think the study that Ian is doing in London is not only intriguing but also valuable because it’s an empirical study so it’s trying to separate fact from fiction so to speak and it could well tell us something we don’t already know about the sounds of cities and their relationship with each other. I’m looking forward very much to his findings.

      But it seems to me, certainly as far as Paris is concerned, and both you and Richard in his comment (above) have referred to this, there seems to be an extra dimension – your Dutch Light theory, the emotional aspect – that makes the Parisian soundscape especially hard to define. I’ve probably listened to more sounds of Paris more attentively than most people and I can recognise the phenomenon but I can’t quite get a handle on it.

      It could be of course that we’re simply hearing what we want to hear and attaching a kind of Parisian romanticism to it from our own imagination and our love of the city. If so, that’s not a bad thing but I’m still inclined to think that there is a rational explanation even if it is proving to be elusive.

      • hmunro
        Feb 2 2015

        Perhaps we are simply hearing what we want to hear and attaching a kind of romanticism to Paris, Des — although I can tell you that the light there also has a very special quality, which I can quite easily quantify through my camera’s precise meter readings. I’ve often attributed it to the great number of limestone buildings, which seem to absorb about as much light as they reflect — and which often results in a soft, diffused light. Maybe the same thing is happening with sound? Who knows … but I sure do enjoy thinking and talking about it!

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